Buy Your First Car

Never bought a car before? Here’s a good guide that covers the basics, from going into the dealership with your price beforehand, the importance of doing all your researcher and resources for doing so, and the best tactic of all: always be prepared to walk away from a bad deal.

a single girl’s guide to car buying [this fish needs a bicycle]


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  1. bethshanin says:

    I HATE ads that expand that big for a few seconds, giving me enough time to scroll down to read, then suddenly shrink up so i have to scroll back up and retrace my steps. Almost as bad as those damn scrolls across the screen to cover what I’m reading. Its like a virtual cat on the desktop who wants attention.

    • bethshanin says:

      Ok, finally read the article. Covered a lot of good points but I didn’t see in there anywhere that you should always negotiate the PRICE, not the PAYMENTS.

      • bethshanin says:

        Ah, it was hidden in #4 Damn, can’t edit and delete! Its just placed in the wrong paragraph about trade-ins, not #2 where it belonged.

      • Verucalise (Est.February2008) says:

        ” The dealer will do a bunch of fuzzy math to show you a super swell, lower monthly payment. Ignore him. Negotiate a car price, not a monthly payment.”

        Read it again.

  2. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    The best advice really seems to deal with the internet department of multiple dealerships and keep playing the numbers against each one. Eventually you’ll find a price only one dealership is willing to pay.

    Walk to that dealership, ask to speak to internet sales, and get your car for the price agreed upon.

    Accept no extras in signing the lease, unless you want that extended warranty. Get financing ahead of time, and take theirs if it’s better.

    The end.

    • ARP says:

      Yep. The most difficult part will be to test drive the car somewhere first and not give in the sale-pitch. Drive it and get out. If you still want the car, you can start the internet bidding machine.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        I don’t think it hard to not give in to the pitch. But it’s the most difficult part because you have to ENDURE the sales pitch!

      • verdegrrl says:

        Remember the salesperson is usually paid 100% commission. So if you think they know their stuff and treat you with respect, then give them a chance to earn your business. Otherwise you send the message they need to ratchet up their pitch to ever more obnoxious levels.

        Unless you don’t need to ever test drive a car.

        Oh, and contacting the internet dept on a hot car usually doesn’t work. They are there to move volume, and the most desirable cars are reserved for the regular sales dept which has a better chance of making a better margin for the dealer.

      • KingPsyz says:

        There’s a few clubs/credit unions that have a process/agreement in place for just this.

        USAA is one of them, they always instruct memebers to go in for a test drive and expressly mention they’re a USAA customer and are to only test drive, not discuss numbers.

        My advice, contact the internet department and tell them you intend to test drive first, talk numbers/purchase later. If they’re like most, they’ll love you for this and make sure all parties involved know you’re just there to test drive. Just make sure to call them before each visit, they likely get paid for these visits so they’ll appreciate the heads up and make sure to look out for you.

    • bethshanin says:

      This. I just bought a new car in July and I walked into the dealership with a folder of internet offers for the car I wanted. Set the mood from the very beginning that I knew what I wanted and how much I was going to pay.

    • Geekybiker says:

      That’s what I’ve done on my last couple car purchases. I generally walk away with a much better deal than anyone else I’ve heard about.

    • KingPsyz says:

      You’re 100% right (I work in the internet dept of a Toyota dealer).

      Although keep in mind, most dealers that have a dedicated internet team should be called before coming in if just so they can set an appointment for you. And here’s why:

      1)Most of these employees are paid for “shows” if they’ve been giving you info and you just walk in, they don’t get paid but did all the work. This payment doesn’t come out of your purchase, it’s budgeted into fixed ops so won’t effect your final price either way.

      2)This creates a sort of tracking number for you. Once you’ve said you’re coming in, they know to look for you and this will prevent you from being upped by a non-internet salesperson who will try and take you for a ride. If you are given a name, take no substitute unless that person comes up to you and says they’re in the middle of another sale and you’ll get all prices honored from the second party.

      3)Finally just asking for internet off the street doesn’t work in a lot of places. Make the call, send the email, then you know ahead of time if they’re going to play ball.

      • Me - now with more humidity says:

        Internet is the best way to go. I was looking for a specific color of a certain year low-mileage Civic EX for my wife last summer. Emailed the internet guy at a non-Honda dealership that had one. Price was $16,995 on the windshield (which was within a few hundred of retail), the internet price was $12,995. We ended up at $12,500 before we walked onto the lot. We were happy. Did the same with my car a couple of weeks later, although not as big a discount.

        It was so nice to walk past the lot lizards and ask for the specific internet guy.

    • ahleeeshah says:

      Most definitely. I bought my first car this year, and did just this. I decided on a few makes/models (Yaris, Mazda2, Rio5, Fiesta) and then sent out requests for quotes through the internet departments. Rio never even got a test drive as despite 4 emailed requests, the only response I received was from their national customer service to ask if I had been contacted. Maxda2 and Fiesta were a bit on the pricey side and were too new for dealerships to make deals on. Ended up with my Yaris, which I love dearly, for much less than I would’ve paid if I went on the lot.

  3. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    Looks like a reasonable guide.

    My advice has always been to do the research on, find out what the dealer incentives are, and subtract them from the invoice cost to figure out what the dealer’s actual cost is for the vehicle. Then offer to pay someplace between $1000 and $1500 over that price…depending on how much you want the dealer to like you.

    And if you don’t get the deal you offer…WALK. Period. Don’t let them haggle you into something else. Your one and only power as a consumer is to not buy anything from them…if they let you walk out that door without your new vehicle, go to the next dealer.

    • bethshanin says:

      Ebay Motors has a nice feature that tracks how much people in your area have paid. Using their graph, I timed buying to when the trend was down significantly (turns out the week after a big sales is the best time to buy because they are trying to dump their leftovers.

  4. Supes says:

    Gotta pay off the student loans first….

  5. graytotoro says:

    Psh. I buy my own cars from home. All I need is a sharpened screwdriver and some other common tools.


  6. Bativac says:

    My number one piece of advice is absolutely never trust anybody at a car dealership, from salesman to finance manager to secretary. They speak only lies and exist only to part as much of your money from you as they possibly can.

    …MAYBE you can trust the janitor.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      I’m the janitor, and I’m here to help you.

    • verdegrrl says:

      Meh. Some of the people who work at dealers used to be car enthusiasts who just wanted to help other enthusiasts. But then they met the customers and they realized the customers were just as scummy and shark-like in some instances as the slimy lot lizards who work at the dealer.

    • Me - now with more humidity says:

      Sorry your experience has been so bad. I expect good people and an honest deal so I get that. Expect to be screwed and you will be.

  7. phil says:

    One item that’s notably absent from this article: Yes, there’s savings to be had haggling over a new car price. Far more savings are available by simply buying a used car.

    • Buckus says:

      Not necessarily in this market. More people are keeping used cars. More people are buying used cars. That means more demand for used cars with less supply, and less demand for new cars. If you’re looking for a 2-3 year old vehicle, you might be able to get a new one for nearly the same price.

    • ARP says:

      I think this would apply to any car. However, used cars are somewhat unique, so you’ll need to have a few kinds of cars you can live with as you won’t always be able to have an apples to apples bidding war among the dealers. However, I think you can (with slightly less effect) state, “I can get get a used Corrolla with 1/2 as many miles and the same features for $X less. You need to do better than that for the Civic.”

    • falnfenix says:

      Far more savings are available by simply buying a used car.

      that really depends on your needs and how much you’re willing to beat on the salesperson. we managed to get a truck for $10k under MSRP and literally $200 more than the price of a similarly-equipped 2-year-old model…and that was AFTER the addition of a warranty.

    • Geekybiker says:

      Depends. If you get a good bargin on a new car it can be not much more than a low mile, year or two old used car. There is value in having a car that has never been owned. Full warranty, no worries about the person selling it dumping it because it is a “monday” car. I know my car was only about $1k more than similar used cars on a 30k car. That’s not that much, plus financing rates are lower on new cars as well.

  8. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    If the salesperson disrespects you in any way, walk away. It doesn’t matter how low the price is – anyone who is going to disrespect you won’t treat you fairly anyway. They don’t deserve your money.

    • Azzizzi says:

      I’ve done that. I kept asking for a cash price and the guy kept saying things like, “You don’t want to pay cash. You want to lease.” I told him, “No, really, what I want is what I’m saying, not what you’re saying.” He got fed up with me and sent in a manager. The manager did the same thing.

      • Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ã‚œ-゜ノ) says:

        Jedi mind tricks down work on you.

      • KingPsyz says:

        sounds like a crappy dealer

      • Me - now with more humidity says:

        I once had a salesman spend an entire test drive texting his wife and complaining to me about what a b#tch she was. I walked when we got back and the manager called me at home to ask what happened. I told him, and he asked me to come back in and ask for him. He saved the deal. The salesman was “pursuing other opportunities” when I went in the next day

    • alaron says:

      When shopping for my current car, I had agreed on a price and shook hands with the salesman. As I was shaking hands, he asked me if I would give him all 5s on his survey. I said I could not, and explained why. He said then I can’t sell you the car, and walked me out. Later that evening, his manager called, asking me to come back.

  9. phil says:

    One item that’s notably absent from this article: Yes, there’s savings to be had haggling over a new car price. Far more savings are available by simply buying a used car.

  10. backbroken says:

    1. Focus on the model you want until it becomes an obsession.
    2. Let the dealer know that you are only interested in that particular car and repeat over and over much you love it. That way they know you are a serious buyer.
    3. If you can’t afford the payments, make the loan for a longer term. You’d be surprised how easy it is to afford the monthly payments on a 72 month loan.

    Er something.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Adding a /sarcasm tag to this, because sadly someone might believe you and that would be a real shame.

    • Buckus says:

      4. Put the down-payment on a credit card so you can get the rewards points.
      5. You put a lot of time into negotiating. Don’t leave without buying something

      • backbroken says:

        6. If you absolutely must leave without completing the sale, leave a cash deposit to hold the car. The larger the deposit, the more likely it is they will hold the car.

        • Blueskylaw says:

          Never, ever leave a deposit. If they say that other people are looking at it and that it’s a hot model, just say I have complete faith that you will have the car I want when it comes time to buy.

  11. crazedhare says:

    I bought my current car by determining the make, model, year and key features we wanted, and emailing every dealer in a reasonable distance advising we would purchase from the first one to accept in writing our offer of $x. One dealer came back within two or so hundred dollars of our number, we sent a second follow up email to other dealers asking if anyone wanted to match the first dealer. They didn’t (one in fact sent a nastygram telling me there was no way I would drive off any lot at less than his quoted price – which was more than two thousand dollars higher). We showed up with the email in hand, bought the car at the quoted price (qualifying for 0% financing for three years), and have now paid it off in full while it still has 75% or so of its value. This was my first time buying a car, and I couldn’t be happier with how it went. We’re now deciding whether to trade in for a slightly higher end model or become a 2-car family (or do neither and just drive the car into the ground over the next many years).

    • crazedhare says:

      (Obviously, we very carefully researched what our offer should be in the initial email. Our intention was to make an offer that was good for us, but could be accepted by the dealer. Rather than starting unreasonably low and working up, we wanted to make an offer that reflected a good discount for us, but would be hard for a dealer to refuse. Our goal was to use this method to neutralize the attempts at games-playing over payment amounts, financing terms, etc.)

      • Azzizzi says:

        I really like it that the dealers are in competition with one another. And buying a car doesn’t have to be a win-win situation.

        • crazedhare says:

          Well, unless I am misunderstanding you, yes it does have to be win-win. I can’t force a dealer to agree to a sale he doesn’t see as a ‘win’ for himself. The dealer will simply turn down the offer and we won’t make a deal in that event.

    • Supes says:

      I’d advocate the “driving it into the ground” approach. You’d be amazed how much money can be saved when you don’t have monthly car payments to deal with.

      When maintenance costs start becoming an issue, that’s when you sell. The additional depreciation on the car during this time won’t be close to the amount you saved by not creating new monthly payments for yourself.

      • crazedhare says:

        Agreed. The additional advantages are that we manage to keep our insurance rates very low (between my bar association discount and neither my husband nor I having even a single speeding ticket in the last 10 years, we pay almost nothing for significant coverage), our fuel and maintenance needs low, etc. Sure, it takes some cooperation and communication to get both of us where we need to be when we need to be there, but I work from home so the car doesn’t need to sit unused in a parking lot all day. We even managed okay when we had a child in our home. Car stuff is just not something that is a priority for me – I’d rather have a horse, lol.

        • Me - now with more humidity says:

          Depends on where he/she lives and other factors. In many areas, there’s no way to make do with one car. Here, my wife’s work is 45 mins away. And I shuttle our kids to activities. No way one car works — so we bought two used ones.

  12. heart.shaped.rock says:

    The dealer invoice is NOT how much the dealer paid for the car. The dealer doesn’t even really pay for the car. They are basically loaned the car and make what are called ‘floor payments’ to the factory as long as the car is on their lot.

    • verdegrrl says:

      Errrr, the dealer does have to pay the factory for the car when they sell it. And depending on the flooring plan and incentives, the invoice may be what they pay for the car. It all depends on how hot the factory thinks the car will be.

      Most times flooring starts kicking in around 30 to 90 days. Then it starts costing the dealer money to keep the car there. So they generally make the best deals on inventory that has sat there the longest. Purple car with pea green upholstery and loaded with every option in the book and then some which has been sitting there for 6 months? You’ll likely get the largest discount.

  13. Blueskylaw says:

    Ignore the four square scam, don’t buy a car based on monthly payments, negotiate up from the dealers car cost not down from their asking price, when the salesman says I have to run this by my manager, don’t talk next to the phone on his desk because it’s probably set on speakerphone, no dealership advertising stickers on my car, don’t put a deposit down on any car, walk away if you don’t feel comfortable.

  14. mcs328 says:

    I use through American Express and you can find local dealerships willing to sell it for you $1000 below invoice. She settles for $100 over invoice. I’ve looked at several makes and models using the site and sell price is always below invoice.

  15. zweifel says:

    Best car buying advice: Don’t buy new. Get a friend who knows something about cars to help and start shopping on CL/autotrader. While it’s true used cars cost more than they did 2-4 years ago, they’re still MUCH cheaper than new cars. I know – I just bought 2 used cars this year.

    • crazedhare says:

      Are manufacturers extending 0% financing to certified used cars now? My access to 0% financing from the dealer for a new car was the biggest reason I decided against buying used. And lest you trot out the “Don’t finance, save up and pay cash” canard, in a 0% financing it would be by far better to keep the wad of cash in savings, earn even the paltry 1-2% a year, but have an emergency fund, than to part with the large sum. I’ve even seen some dealers even advertising 0% financing for 60 months, rather than the mere 36 months as when I bought.

      • zweifel says:

        Well, you’re not going to find “certified used” on CL. Not against financing per se – but I do know that my credit union (Penfed) offers 2.99% loans on used cars. 3% on a $10K loan is still a much smaller obligation than 0% on $20K.

    • Buckus says:

      If you’re looking at 2-4 year old cars, the savings over new may not be worth it.

      Real example:
      I bought a 2010 Honda Odyssey new for $800 more than what the dealer wanted on a 2 year-old Odyssey with exactly the same equipment (same trim, etc. Only diff was exterior color).

      For $800 more I got:
      – 30,000 less miles used (or 6,000 miles from being out of warranty)
      – Lower financing rates because of new
      – Opportunity to be the first (or one of the first) to fart into the seat cushions

      Obviously this is only one experience, but the point is that with increased used-car demand, new cars aren’t necessarily a bad deal.

      • zweifel says:

        Well I’m too cheap to do 2-4 year-old cars . I was thinking more like 4-6 years old (which is what I’ve always bought, and then driven for 4-5 years). I concede It’s hard to place a monetary value on your third bullet.

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          Car shopping isn’t a fun thing for me, so there’s no reason for me to want to do it every five years. I plan to drive my car for at least 10 years, and at that point we’ll revisit buying a car.

        • Buckus says:


      • veronykah says:

        You are also talking about buying a used car from a dealer, which I would never do.
        Save your money and buy used from a 3rd party is how I buy cars. Regular people selling cars aren’t experienced in haggling and as a general rule, don’t like it. They have an idea how much they want for their car and if you show up, negotiate a little and have cash/payment ready you can get a great deal on a used car.
        Bring a friend that knows about cars, know what you want/are willing to pay and bring it to a dealer for the final once over. Simple.

        • zweifel says:

          Agree 100%. And don’t forget the Car Fox.

          • KingPsyz says:

            good luck getting a car fox without a dealer, unless you want to pay for one for each car you research (not free!)

            I may be biased, but buying off the street is a crap shoot. You get a lemon, enjoy your lemonade.

    • dolemite says:

      I usually follow that advice, but I couldn’t resist cash for clunkers. I ended up getting a brand new 20k car for 11,900 after rebate, haggling and cash for clunkers.

    • colorisnteverything says:

      This doesn’t work for everyone. I needed a reliable car that I could drive for a long time and not need to replace until I am done with my PhD. I got a car that was perfect and got a great warranty. I certainly looked at used cars, but financing was ridiculous and there was no warranty on a used car. In the end a 4 year old used car would have cost more. So, I decided against it. Not everyone can buy a 10 year old car because some people do have to drive 8 hours to get home for the holidays and need to have something more reliable.

  16. dolemite says:

    My best advice:

    Research everything online. Target a car you want, then find comparable cars in the area (online). Talk ONLY to the internet sales manager. Start off with something like “I see you have a Black Honda Civic in stock. I’d love to come down this week and purchase it…what’s your best price?”

    They’ll usually knock $500 or something off the price. Then call up a few competitors. See what their prices are, and say you’d love to buy from them, but Johnson Honda is knocking $500 off the price, can you beat that?” Do this until basically everyone except the last person you talked to goes “Well, good luck with that.”

    I did that for my current car and got the price from 20k list down to $15,900.

  17. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    I like that it’s an article about buying a car. On a blog whose title refers to needing a bicycle.

  18. TheGreySpectre says:

    The price you pay should not always be above invoice. If you keep track of dealer incentives then the dealer may be paying a decent amount under invoice.

  19. nosense22 says:

    2 step process:
    1) go to, enter your information, and print the pages.
    2) hand pages to autodealer and say you want the lowest price, or you will move on to the next guy, no hassle, no fuss.

  20. PSUSkier says:

    Tip #1: see if your company has an agreement with any manufacturers. I was eligible for the Ford X plan which knocks down the price to (if I remember) 1% below invoice, plus all incentives and discounted fees. No haggling necessary.

  21. Buckus says:

    Tip #1: Buy a bicycle…

  22. Press1forDialTone says:

    Shame on you Consumerist for not talking about
    Consumer Reports’ service that let’s you design
    your own new car and then they tell you *really*
    what the dealer paid. I’ve used it several times
    and they are *right on* every time.

  23. mischlep says:

    I like It was pretty straightforward.

  24. trixare4kids says:

    Single female here and I just got a new-used car for a GREAT PRICE — just a couple weeks ago.

    I’ve been driving the same 1997 car since 1998 which I purchased it used. It still drove ok and actually only had 124,000 miles on it, but it was breaking down every few months. $500 here, $300 there. I added up what it was costing me in maintenance and You know what? The credit union is having a special. Time to get a new car.

    Well, I’m single and female and figured I’d get screwed at the dealership so I did my own research. I ended up with a 2007 Honda Accord EX-L, 4 Cylinder, with 61,000 miles, Leather, Sun Roof, 6-CD changer, heated seats, heated side mirrors, etc. It had one previous owner. I got it for $14,000! Well, it was more like $15.7 with all the taxes, fees, etc. I only drive about 7600 per year so this car is going to last me forever.

    It’s a BUYERS market out there, but here’s what I did:

    a) Got pre-approved for an amount I can afford with my credit union. I got a 48 month loan at 3%. Also since I have zero debt, I had already saved up $5,000 of my own cash to use. (Yes, I have 3 months worth of living expenses already saved and I have NO other debt, since I got myself out of debt a few years ago using the snowball method.

    b) I only talked the PRICE of the car! The salesmen kept wanting to talk about payments, I told him if you start in about payments one more time, I’m going to go to another dealership. I want to talk the price of the car.

    c) When I found the car I wanted, I didn’t let him take me into the showroom and into one of those little booths. I stayed out on the lot in the sunshine and made him run back and forth. I did this for two reasons: Psychological Power! I knew I would feel intimidated, pressured or not clear headed if I was inside the little room. Those little booths or rooms are like interrogation rooms — once you are there, they have the psychological power. Also, it served to tire the salesmen out further. I wanted to turn the tables. While he was inside talking to his boss or doing whatever they do, I wandered the lot, going out further and further, making him run back and forth. I wanted HIM to be the one to work for it instead of the other way around.

    d) I low-balled right off the bat. The sticker on the car was for $17,800. I offered, $13K as an opener. He said no way.. I can’t take that to my boss. I said, “Take it!” We worked up and down from there. After about 15 minutes, I stuck at $14k and wouldn’t go any higher. I was a broken record. “$14,00, $14,000, $14,000, $14,00 no matter what he said – and believe me, he tried everything: How I was taking food from family (can you believe that, trying the guilt card because I’m a woman – I guarantee you he wouldn’t try that with a male!).. and on and on. He kept coming and going and only bringing the price down by $100. They didn’t want to go below $15,500.

    So finally said, “Okay, I’m tired and I’m ready to leave. There’s another car I liked at XYZ Dealership so I’m heading to my car, if you can get me the car for $14,000 before I leave, then we have a deal, otherwise, have a nice day.”

    He hurried inside and sure enough came back with the price I wanted before I was able to get into my car! Yay! Even though the car was pre-certified, I had my own mechanics check it out before I signed on the dotted line. I’m glad I did because it turns out it needed a minor alignment.

    e) I turned down the hard sell for gap insurance and warranty. The finance guy put on the super extra super hard sell for those two things. I think maybe they gave me the price on the car assuming I’d go for the warranty. He actually seemed pissed off and exasperated with me that I wouldn’t go for it.

    He kept saying how it would only cost me X dollars per month; instead of saying what the actual cost was which was $1,500. $1,500 for a warranty that didn’t actually add that much to the current warranty and plus pretty much unnecessary for a Honda. He basically told me I was stupid, how EVERYONE gets the warranty, how all these things could go wrong, how i wasn’t thinking clearly, etc. etc. I didn’t offer him reasons why I didn’t want it, I was just a broken record “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.” Even when he asked why I didn’t want it, I just repeated, “No thank you.”

    I was on the phone with my insurance agent to get the car insured before I drove off the lot and she is awesome and told me I totally didn’t need the gap insurance so that was easy to turn down as well.

    WHEW! I’m positively tickled to finally have a newer car after all these years!

    It was nerve-wracking but I’m very proud of myself. I hope that I can drive this car for at least as long as my other one. I really hate being in debt so I will pay off the loan over 2 years instead of 4, and maybe even sooner than that.

    YAY CAR.

    • Me - now with more humidity says:

      You’re my new hero! You and my credit union branch manager. Got approval in less than 5 mins. He took care of it all, and ooo’ed and ahhh’ed over my car when I went into the CU next time. I love my CU, Jax Federal.

    • Tom62441 says:

      You may want to re-think your decision to not buy GAP insurance.
      If your car is totaled, do you think your insurance is going to pay off your loan?


      GAP pays what your insurance company will not.

      If you think about it, this may be why your insurance agent may have felt uncomfortable talking about GAP insurance.

      I’ve been selling cars for 16 years. Whan a customer buys GAP insurance I am paid $10.

  25. knyghtryda says:

    My way of buying my first car was simple. Do the research online, get a quote online from the dealership, walk in, pay for car, finished. The quote online was far lower than anything else around, and from the people I’ve talked to, most online quotes are pretty much best deals that you can get without hours of haggling for only a few more bucks saved. I took the quote I got to a another dealership close by and they just laughed at it.

  26. FunnyAboutMoney says:

    I refuse to deal with car salesmen (or saleswomen). Always go through a broker. You get the fleet rate and you get out of a phenomenal amount of BS.

  27. beappleby says:

    A good source for a gently-used car is to buy it from a rental company. My family has now bought four cars over the years from Enterprise. All were only a year or two old, and still felt new. They only sell the cars that are still in top condition – something like the top 10%, I don’t know for sure. It was a really good deal for a lot less than it would have been new, and much more reliable than the average (stereotypical) used-car lot. I would highly recommend it.