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I’m a Car Salesman—Here’s How to Outsmart Me

The smell of a new car is great. The process of buying a new car? Not so great. Here are some expert tactics to give you a leg up on fast-talking wheeler-dealers, so you can leave the lot with the car of your dreams and some money in your pocket.

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Start with emails and phone calls

“Email several dealers to ask for their best ‘drive away’ price in a ‘buyer’s purchase order’ for new cars or a ‘bookout sheet’ for used cars. If they say you need to come in, tell them you will—if they give you a great price in writing. Even if you think you’ve found ‘the one,’ you can save money by comparing the price for similar vehicles offered by other dealers. If a dealership doesn’t respond, take your business elsewhere.”—Sonia Steinway, President, Outside Financial. Here’s what you need to know about buying a car online.

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Two men man and one woman stand behind a row of silver-metallic cars on a parking place on yard of dealer

Keep your trade-in to yourself

“Dealers like to move money around to confuse car buyers about how much they are really getting in the deal. If you mention you want to trade in a car up front, you are opening the door to a shell game. The salesperson will focus on what you want to get for your trade and may artificially inflate the ‘trade allowance’ to get you to say yes. This leaves no room to negotiate on the price of the new car. Furthermore, the salesperson may ask to appraise your trade, taking your keys and literally holding your car hostage until you agree to a deal.”—LeeAnn Shattuck, The Car Chick

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happy African couple and female seller sit at table and make a deal for sale of car

Don’t try to haggle

“Salespeople spend their days selling. Chances are you won’t be as good at getting them to give you a great deal as they are at getting you to buy. So focus on what you can do: Force dealers to compete against each other by sending you their best offers.” —Sonia Steinway, President, Outside Financial. Watch out for the 16 red flags you’re about to fall for a terrible car deal.

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Be wary of “fun” advertisements

“If you received a mailer with a ‘scratch off to win’ game on it—avoid it at all costs! These dealers prey on the desperate, offering lower payments but dragging the terms out. This ensures the value of the car will always be less than you know.” —Travis Johnson, author of The Comprehensive Car Buying Guide

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Young couple shaking hands after a successful car buying

Talk sale price before mentioning leasing

“If you say ‘I’m thinking about leasing,’ it is the same as telling the dealer that you are a monthly payment buyer. The salesperson will focus on the lease terms to get you to the monthly payment you want instead of negotiating the price of the car. Negotiate the price of the car first, then negotiate the lease terms.” —LeeAnn Shattuck, The Car Chick. These are the things car dealers won’t tell you about leasing.

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Time your shopping

“If possible, wait until the end of summer. Fortune calls Labor Day weekend ‘Black Friday for car shopping.‘ With the holidays coming up, dealerships need to make room for new vehicles and lower prices on older models accordingly. You can also expect more competitive financing offers like zero percent interest for qualified buyers. Such deals will trickle through the following months, so keep looking out for discounts through October to December. Just don’t get talked into buying the latest model for more.” —Andrea Woroch, consumer and money-saving expert.

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Or wait until the end of any month

“Most dealers need to meet monthly sales quotas, so they may be willing to give you a better deal if you shop at the end of the month. You’ll also get more personalized attention if you shop on weekdays when there aren’t as many other shoppers in the store. And no matter when you go, make sure you’re well-fed and well-rested to avoid making impulsive decisions.” —Sonia Steinway, President, Outside Financial. When buying a car, look for these red flags in your vehicle history report. 

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Man using calculator to count income and outcome

Know the difference between price and payments

“The most common trick dealers employ to attempt to charge a higher selling price is to negotiate based on payment rather than price. First, the payment is the primary budgetary concern for most buyers, so it is normally easy to shift the buyer’s focus to it. Raising the monthly payment by only $20 typically raises the purchase price by about $1,000. Also, inflating the assumed interest rate in calculating the payments at the beginning of negotiation allows wiggle room to either maximize the purchase price or sell warranties or accessories. None of these practices is necessarily a bad thing, but they open the door for potential abuse if the buyer is unaware.” —Rob Drury, Executive Director, Association of Christian Financial Advisors

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friendly mature car dealer showing new car to african customer

Don’t shop at only one place

“Shop around at a variety of dealerships, whether it is the same brand or a totally different one. This will allow you to look at different cars and check out their different rebates/offers. You can also have your car appraised at different dealerships to see who offers you the most for your trade-in.” —Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance expert, TopCashback.com

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Beautiful young male is talking to handsome car dealership worker while choosing a car in dealership
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Know what you can afford before you walk in the door

“The generally accepted rule is that you spend no more than 15 percent of your pre-tax income on your monthly car note.” —Valerie Coleman, National Sales Director, mobile marketplace 5miles

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woman hand cleaning leather seat with soft fabric sponge waxing polished, car wash
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Know the value of extras

“Coverage like a Vehicle Service Contract (VSC) or GAP Waiver can protect your car and your pocketbook. Buy your protection products outside the dealership for the highest quality, maximum flexibility, and lowest pricing. And don’t waste money on products like fabric protection or VIN etching—a can of stain repellent and a $30 DIY etching kit work just as well, and don’t cost hundreds of dollars.” —Sonia Steinway, President, Outside Financial. By the way, here are some ways you’re completely wasting money on your car.

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Outgoing man telling with worker in car dealership
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Beware of extended warranties

“Dealers purchase these from the manufacturer and then jack up the price when selling to you. Anything over $300 is just straight cash in their pockets. Negotiate their price or buy directly from the manufacturer.” —Travis Johnson, author of The Comprehensive Car Buying Guide

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Young black couple in car on road trip smiling at each other
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Don’t go it alone

“If you’re buying a car from an online marketplace, like Craigslist or 5miles, make sure to meet the seller in a public place and bring along a friend or family member to always be safe.” —Valerie Coleman, National Sales Director, mobile marketplace 5miles. Don’t miss these other car-buying secrets a car dealer won’t tell you.

Joe McKinley
Joe McKinley is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering cars, careers, tech and more.