My condolences. Seriously, car shopping sucks. Here are a few lessons we picked up to make it less sucky, mostly focused on buying from a dealership (for Craigslist shopping, LifeHacker has you covered).
[This is a continuation of our previous article, Why Did We Just Spend $1150 Repairing Our $500 Car?, which you should totally check out if you haven’t already read it.]
Get a Burner Phone & Spammy Email
We love to shop around for the best rates, and dealers love to spam with calls and emails. I initially inquired about new car prices just for the hell of it on TrueCar (meaning I had to give an email and phone number), and I instantly got six different emails from four different dealerships. Months later, and some of them still haunt my voicemail. Take a note from drug dealers and get yourself a burner phone.
In fact, I’d suggest a new Gmail account that you can use with a new, free Google Voice (GV) number. This way you won’t have to take a single call asking “when you can come in, since the quote is only valid for the next four days,” plus you can also use this as a throwaway account for annual birthday freebie promotions. You might have to initially connect the GV number to a regular phone number, depending on how you sign up for it, but you can always disconnect it using the full desktop page for GV.
YouTube is great for this, as there are tons of great videos. You can even watch salesmen training others in psychological/borderline-deceptive tactics. This Edmunds article on car dealerships “behind the scenes” is also fantastic.
Narrow Down Options Online
I’ve seen a lot of advice saying “choose the make/model you want before setting foot on a lot,” but how in the world are you supposed to know if the car interior actually works for you without sitting in it? Fergus and I are not small people. He can’t even fit into the backseat of some cars unless we find out a way to temporarily detach his legs from his pelvis.
However, since test driving every single available option is incredibly time-consuming (and frankly sounds like torture), it helps to narrow down your options to a handful of seemingly acceptable models online first.
Narrow down your options by looking at Consumer Reports (monthly digital subscription is $7 at the time of writing #worthit), IIHS Safety Ratings, Car Problem Zoo, Kelley Blue Book, and Edmunds (especially their True Cost to Own tool). If you’re not a fan of exhaustive research, my top two recommended sites would be Consumer Reports and the True Cost to Own Edmunds calculator, hands down.
Schedule Test Drives
Ideally, there are one or two dealerships nearby that have all the models you’re considering (most seem to have pretty comprehensive inventory lists online, and often a number of trade-in cars of different makes). Schedule a test drive to make sure those car models will be ready to drive. We had no appointments when we looked around, and it definitely affected how long it took to get our hands on some keys.
Also, apparently sometimes dealers will have cars listed online in their inventory that have already sold. Calling ahead can help prevent a wasted trip. Unless the dealership is even shadier.
We had grand plans of just going to half a dozen dealerships and used car lots, getting a sense of the look and feel of all the models, and test driving one at each place. Yeah, that so did not happen. We went to two dealerships over the course of about four hours, and only test drove two cars. Worse than that, we only got the chance to look at four different models.
If we could do it over, we would have narrowed down to ~4 different models, sought out a place with matching inventory, and scheduled a visit to test drive each said car.
Do not skip this step unless you’re a car-buying pro, in which case, hey, can we be friends? And by “friends,” I mean, “can I exploit your knowledge every chance I get, which, given my history, is probably once every ten to fifteen years, so really that’s not bad at all, especially considering I’d totally make you pumpkin custard bao in the shape of your favorite animal?”
Don’t Play Yourself
By this point, you know what car you want, and you know what a decent price is. Now you want the best price. Especially considering hidden biases can affect you if you’re not a white man, I’d highly suggest doing the final negotiation by email. Use your new, “burner” email and send out requests to all the local dealers for their best “out the door” prices. An “out the door” price includes all fees and extras on top of the sale price of the car.
Make sure you do a little bit of research on the reputation of each dealer first, as some can be mega shady. Just walk out the door if they do not honor their previous, “out the door” offer. For this to work well, you’ve got to already have the money upfront or the financing in place.
Inspect, Inspect, Inspect
If you’re looking to buy a used car, always get it inspected before buying. Some surprising facts can be discovered, even on a fairly new car, and yes, even from a reputable dealer. Carfax reports and the like? Not very useful if a crash or incident was never reported. Most mechanics should offer inspections, and Popular Mechanics has a comprehensive checklist if you’re more the DIY type.
Travel Hacking Opportunity?
Most dealerships allow you to put at least some of the payment on a credit card (typically there’s a limit of anywhere between 1-5k). Why not get a new rewards credit card and use this as an opportunity to easily reach the minimum spend? In fact, going with a dealership that has a higher maximum credit card purchase limit could mean the difference of several hundred dollars when travel hacking. Obviously, only do this if you can pay the card in full once the bill comes.
Random Bonus Link
This is kind-of, sort-of (but not really at all) related to the article, as it talks about cars & critical thinking:
Car Insurance ‘Black Boxes’ Only Encourage Bad Driving by Lorraine Sommerfeld, who I’m newly obsessed with because she says things like “as smoothly as a fart on a sailboat,” while talking about the ridiculousness of arbitrary measures of good driving. <3
What about You?
Just bought a car? Buying a car? Dreading the possibility of one day, in the distant future, buying a car (hey, me too!)? Let us know in the comments any tips or tricks you’ve picked up. Y’all know we need all the help we can get when it comes to cars. We are so glad our teenage car is still up and running!