That’s the primary piece of advice we offer to anyone shopping for a new car.
The Control Your Cash book devotes an entire chapter to how to buy a new car. Here’s an extremely brief summary, starting with a critical point: every year, 18 million new cars are sold in the United States.When you fall in love with one on the dealer’s lot, regardless of whom else looked at that same car this morning and is at this very moment racing home to grab a checkbook, 17,999,999 other cars are available.
You see a car you like, or even one you’re lukewarm about. The dealer wants to get the car off the lot. That is not your problem. Most car buyers get suckered in by the personality of the salesperson. Don’t. Keep it cold. There’s no more blatant example of why it’s important to look at every transaction from the other party’s perspective.
You occupy several roles in your life. In which ones is it important to you that you succeed?
Profit center for a car dealer?
Your financial obligation is to yourself, your dependents, and no one else, regardless of how radiant the salesman’s smile is. Some dealerships are so gauche that they actually keep each salesman’s monthly figures on a whiteboard where clients can see them. Think about that.
Occasionally, it makes sense to overpay for something – like a rising stock whose fundamentals make it likely to rise even more, or a house in a great location that can’t help but eventually appreciate. But there is never an excuse to overpay for a vehicle. Ever. Why?
Buy assets, sell liabilities. Unless you own Michael Jackson’s 2006 Bugatti Veyron, your car will never appreciate. Therefore it’s not an asset. You can add the swankest sound system and the snazziest white sidewalls, it won’t make a difference. As far as Control Your Cash is concerned, a car is a liability. A necessity most likely, and something you have to spend money on (which might make you think it’s an asset), but it isn’t.
Think of a car the same way you think of your mobile service plan. Determine what features you want, which ones you can live without, comparison shop, then get your outlay as low as possible. Only a moron would brag about how big and powerful his monthly phone bill is.
You’re only at the mercy of the dealership if you want to be. The dealer should be at yours. Most buyers have no idea how much power they wield in this relationship. Once you agree on price, you can refuse to buy. But the dealer has to sell. Advantage, you. Your livelihood doesn’t rest on the exchange of cars for money; his does. This should be obvious, but you might be naïve: the salesman is not your friend. Stop laughing at his jokes, even if doing so makes you feel more comfortable. Is filling an awkward silence really so important to you that it’s worth thousands of dollars?
Once you’ve decided on a model, take one step back and expand your horizons. Look at that model’s competitors. You have to have a Honda Civic? Fine, but at least see how much the reasonably similar Volkswagen GTI is going for.
Do that at KBB.com. That’s Kelley Blue Book, the standardbearer for pricing cars. KBB gives its information away, for some reason. Sure, the company’s numbers aren’t exact, but they’re somewhat internally consistent. If KBB says a 2010 Tacoma Tacoma double cab 4-door 4WD Pickup costs the dealer $24,344 and a Ford F150 Regular Cab 2-door XL Pickup costs the dealer $24,916, it’s reasonable for you to assume that the latter should cost you ~$600 more than the former.
Car dealers usually make their lots available during non-business hours. If you want, you can look at their cars’ window stickers on a Sunday or late at night and figure out how closely the numbers affixed jive with KBB’s numbers.
Oh, that sounds like too much trouble? Fine, then find something else to do for that hour or two that’ll net you hundreds of dollars. Heck, many dealers even post the stickers online, making your job that much easier. The dealers’ rationale for this is that they’d rather get two sophisticated buyers out the door quickly than spend that same time negotiating a few more dollars out of a single, less-sophisticated buyer.
This is the perfect time of year to buy a new car, too. Think about that prominently displayed sales board and use it to your advantage. Car salesmen have monthly and annual quotas. We know of one dealership owner who would fire his lowest-producing salesman every month. (Which has two benefits: it tells struggling tyro salesmen that they should find a new line of work, and it really motivates them. Not every dealer uses this tool – most bad salesmen rapidly flame out on their own without ownership’s help – but the ethics of it are not your concern. Your concern is to save as much money as possible when buying a liability like a car, then use those savings to buy assets with.)
The most motivated man on Earth is a car salesman at 7 p.m. on the 31st who still hasn’t made his monthly quota. If you threaten to walk, it’s almost funny how much more “wiggle room” a desperate salesman can find. And remember, even then you can still walk. Getting emotionally attached to a car is like getting emotionally attached to a pencil or a carton of milk.
Next week: financing!
**This article is featured at this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance**