An automaker's Web site left you dreaming of a red sedan with a tan leather interior and a great cold-weather package. But when you called around to schedule a test-drive, there weren't any such cars in stock.
We feel your pain: One of the harshest realities of the car buying process is the disappointment you feel when you realize that the car you had your heart set on cannot be found on any dealer's lot. It doesn't have to be like this. If you have the patience, you can order a vehicle from a dealer and get it exactly how you want it.
One of our editors was interested in purchasing a Volkswagen Golf TDI and ran into just this situation. He wanted a fully loaded model in one specific color and couldn't find it anywhere.
Situations like this happen because the vehicles that are available on the dealers' lots come with popular options that dealerships think have the best chance of selling. If their research shows that a highly optioned model or particular package doesn't sell, you're less likely to see it on the lot. Sometimes, however, the cars found on dealer lots are not necessarily those that shoppers most want, according to one former car salesman.
"Our sales manager spent a great deal of time and effort ordering cars that would maximize profit and then [relied] on the sales staff to 'sell what's on hand,'" says "Firstwagon," a former car salesman and frequent commenter on Edmunds.com's long-term road tests. "Since most people want their new car right away (part of the thrill of buying a new car), they will more often than not take what you have rather than wait for what they want."
Why Special Order?
A special-order car is ideal for people who aren't willing to compromise on their color or options. For example: If you intend to use your car for a business and you need it in a specific color to match your company's logo, ordering is the way to go. And if you maintain a fleet of vehicles for construction, a delivery service or a taxi company, you'll probably want to order your cars in bulk and in similar configurations.
Not every automaker will let you order your vehicle when you want to do it, however. Honda and Acura dealers, for example, order their vehicles on a quarterly basis. The only way you can place an order for a specific vehicle is to speak to the fleet manager shortly before she places her quarterly order.
Sometimes, if a car is a redesigned model, the dealership may not have a say in what cars it receives. The manufacturers will look at the sales records for the previous model year and allocate the vehicles accordingly for the initial shipment. If the dealer near you underperformed on the sales of a particular vehicle, it won't likely be allocated as many of the newer models.
How Long Does It Take?
The amount of time it takes to order a car and get it delivered to you varies, based on where the car is made and how many people ordered vehicles ahead of you. The Edmunds editor who had ordered a Volkswagen was told it would take up to three months to get his car, since it was manufactured in Germany. If you are purchasing a domestic vehicle, however, dealers we spoke to say the average is closer to eight weeks.
In our I-want-it-now world, it's difficult for many car shoppers to conceive of waiting eight to 12 weeks once they're ready to buy a new car. But consider this: Your car is likely the second-most expensive purchase you'll ever make, and most people keep a car for at least four years. In this situation, doesn't it sound like a good idea to custom-order your new car, even if it means waiting for the exact make, model, color and options you want?
An alternate route to getting the car sooner is to consider a dealer trade. The dealer has a powerful search tool that can zero in on specific options. The dealer may be able to locate a car even when your search comes up short. This approach has its pros and cons, so take a look at this article on dealer trades for more information.
Car Ordering Checklist:
Follow these simple guidelines if you decide to custom-order your next new car:
- Decide what you really want: The whole point of custom-ordering a new car is to revel in a sense of personalization, so you need to figure out not only what your next vehicle will be but how you want it equipped. If you're shopping for a Honda or Acura, the option choices are very limited. If you're talking Ford F-150 or Porsche 911, there is a laundry list of options and trim levels to consider.
- Don't get too carried away with the options: While it may be tempting to just check off every item on the options list, don't do it. This will cost you more now, and when you go to sell the car, you probably won't recover the extra cost. If you care more about getting exactly the vehicle you want than you do about its future resale value, there's no problem. You just have to realize that your specific tastes might not be shared by the car-buying public a few years from now. Less popular options on a vehicle don't necessarily add to the resale value, and in most cases, actually decrease it. When people are looking to buy your car used, they are more interested in saving money than paying for your chrome wheels or technology package. Finally, once you've equipped your vehicle, use our affordability calculator to see if it is really within your means.
- Plan ahead: If you plan carefully, your custom-ordered vehicle will arrive just as your old car is picked up by the leasing company or is being sold to its new owner. Few of us purchase a car on a whim or are forced to replace our current vehicle in a matter of days or weeks. Don't let a two-month wait for a custom-ordered car be your excuse. A little planning makes this aspect of custom-ordering your new car a non-issue.
- Find the right dealer: When you custom-order a vehicle, your relationship with the dealer becomes critically important. This is the organization you'll be talking to throughout the process, which means it will take your initial order and if it is a good dealership, happily keep you updated on your car's progress as you wait for it to be built. Choose your dealership for a custom order just the way you would if you were simply buying a car off a lot: Read reviews and talk to friends who have bought there to ensure you're going to have a smooth experience.
- Negotiate as if the car were on the lot: Just because you're ordering a vehicle doesn't mean that your ability to negotiate goes out the window. Check Edmunds.com's TMV® price, then call other dealers to see what they quote you. Keep this in mind: If the vehicle is in high demand, you may sometimes end up paying sticker price.
- Make sure the deposit is refundable: Most dealers will require a deposit when ordering a vehicle. Make sure this deposit is refundable in case you change your mind or find the car somewhere else. Also note: Some dealers may elect to hold the deposit until the car is sold.
- Get it in writing: Once you've talked numbers and decided on the options you want, be sure to get the details in writing. Make sure this document has the correct information and the price you agreed upon.
The aforementioned Edmunds editor ended up getting his Golf sooner than he expected. A few weeks after he placed his order, the dealership called with interesting news. A deal had fallen through with a customer who had ordered a vehicle with the very options that our editor wanted. The editor was next in the special-order line, so he was able to purchase the vehicle for himself.
If you are patient with the process, custom ordering your next vehicle can be a rewarding experience. Just make sure you understand the options, order carefully with a trustworthy dealer and negotiate as if the vehicle were on the lot. Then you can enjoy the purchase of a car that was built just for you from the ground up.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.