Negotiating is like chess. You try to anticipate your opponent's next move so you can counter it.
While most consumers know it's important to prepare for car shopping, they don't always know what to prepare for and in what order things will happen. In some cases, the customers see the salespeople as the enemy and direct all their energy toward them. However, the salespeople are only a part of a bigger picture. Once you understand the way the car-buying process works, you will know how to anticipate the "other side's" moves and get the best deal.
Before we go much further, we should point out that this article will outline the process used by the shopper who visits the dealership in person. If you decide to become an Internet shopper (and we strongly recommend you take this route) you will save time, reduce stress and probably get a better deal. However, some people are still connected to the dealership experience, so here's a condensed look at the car-buying process.
Phase 1: Test-Drive
Time required: At least one hour
Location: Car dealership
Salesperson's goal: To have you fall in love with the car during the drive, and jump at the chance to buy it.
Your goal: To thoroughly test-drive the car and select the right vehicle for you.
Key points: Don't hurry the test-drive. Decide if you trust your salesman and want to enter into negotiations.
More information: How To Test-Drive a Car
Phase 2: Negotiating
Time required: One to two hours and possibly longer if a trade-in is involved
Location: Sales office
Salesman's goal: To get you to purchase the car that day.
Your goal: To get the car at Edmunds.com's True Market Value (TMV®) price or below.
Key points: Make sure you take advantage of all incentives and rebates. Ask for an "out the door" price before you agree to the deal. Don't be afraid to walk away if the negotiation is stalled or headed in the wrong direction.
More information: Negotiating Car Prices
Phase 3: Closing the Deal
Time required: One hour (longer on weekends)
Location: Finance and insurance office
Finance manager's goal: Print out and complete the sales contract, offer financing and additional products.
Your goal: Ensure that all negotiated elements of the deal are correctly put into the contract.
Key points: Question the sudden appearance of extra charges and fees. Review contract carefully before signing. Understand the purpose behind each form that you are signing.
More information: "5 Questions To Ask Before You Say Yes to a New Car Deal" and "How To Review Your New Car Sales Contract"
Phase 4: Taking Delivery
Time required: 30 minutes
Location: Car lot
Salesman's goal: To wrap things up and have you take possession of the car.
Your goal: Inspect the car for possible damage and make sure all promised equipment is included (floor mats, DVD headphones, owner's manual and additional key fobs, for example).
Key points: Inspect the car in good light. Make sure the car has a full tank of gas.
More information: Consider making the delivery of the car to your home or office part of your deal.