Drawn by offers of screaming deals and with free time on their hands, many people shop for cars on long holiday weekends such as those for Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Car dealers are motivated to sell and the discounts are plentiful — if you're willing to put up with the crowds.
Many busy people will use the three-day weekend to find and buy a car, not realizing just how intensely busy dealerships will be. Expect to see roughly double the number of people, which means that everything from the test drive to the contract signing could take twice as long.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Although the holiday advertisements usually focus on three-day time frames, some manufacturer- and dealer-sponsored incentives are often in effect at the beginning of the month, before the weekend and will continue for a few days after it. This is where our plan comes in.
You should try to do most of the work earlier in the week. Then, by the time the weekend rolls around, you should already know what car you can afford, whether you are leasing or buying, and have narrowed your car list to about three models at most. Here's how the plan works.
Get a Head Start at Home
Before you even set foot in the dealership, you'll want to know how you'll be paying for the car and what you can afford. You also should create a short list of cars you're interested in. Tackle financing questions first and the rest of the process will be much easier. Do this at home and, if possible, well ahead of the weekend.
Choose your purchase method: Ask yourself if you want to lease or buy a new car. Or would you prefer to buy a used car? In either case, it is a good idea to get a copy of your credit report and, if you plan on financing, get preapproved for a car loan.
Set your budget: A good rule of thumb is that your monthly payment (whether buying or leasing) should not be more than 10 to 15 percent of your monthly take-home pay. Keep in mind that you also need to pay for fuel and insurance.
Read reviews: If you already have a car in mind, read Edmunds' expert reviews of the vehicle. Also check consumer reviews of the car you are considering. Then take a moment to see what other cars compete with the one you have selected. If you don't yet know what you want to buy, build a list of three "target cars" to test drive.
Locate your car and set up a test drive: You'll want to test-drive a car that's configured the way you want it and ideally in the color you like. That means you'll need to locate that car near you. Use the Edmunds site or app to search for inventory near you. Alternatively, you can check dealership websites to see what cars they have on hand.
Once you've found the car you want to test-drive, either call the Internet manager or enter your information on the Edmunds site to receive a special offer. This will not only get you an upfront price on the car, but it will also get you in touch with a dealer representative to schedule a test-drive appointment.
Verify that the car you want is still available. Then try to schedule a test drive before the weekend, if at all possible. Here's why you should jump-start the test drive: Because there are so many shoppers on the holiday, you cannot expect to get the same level of assistance from a salesperson, who might be juggling multiple customers at once. Do your drive ahead of time and you'll avoid the crowds. Your salesperson will be able to dedicate more time to showing you the car.
If the weekend is your only option for the test drive, just know that the dealership may be swamped with shoppers by the middle of the day. Beat the rush and set your test-drive appointment for the early morning. Arrange to drive your chosen models back-to-back so differences will become apparent and you can make an informed decision.
Explain that you'll be making a purchase decision later in the weekend. It sets the expectations and should reduce a bit of the pressure.
If you are absolutely sure you've found the right car, you can proceed to the deal-making process on the spot. But many people will want to sleep on a big decision. If you like the way you've been treated, tell the salesperson you'll be back if you decide to buy the car.
Getting a Price
By this point — which may be the first or second day of the holiday weekend — you should already know the car you want and it is time to settle on a price. Here are a few things that will help:
Check for incentives: Check to see if manufacturer financing or customer rebates are available for the cars you are considering. Keep in mind that some holiday-related manufacturer incentives might actually be in place before the weekend and may extend past it. You can find these offers in dealer advertisements and on manufacturers' websites.
Get additional offers: Try to get two or three price quotes. You can find numerous dealers and dealer inventory on Edmunds. When you find a special offer on the car of your choice, print out the certificate and you are ready to go to the dealership to conclude the deal — a real time-saver. It's a good idea to call ahead and make sure the car is still available.
If there's no special offer on a car you want, shopping through a dealership's Internet department will save you time and money. You can easily communicate with the Internet manager by phone or email. However, on the actual holiday weekend, it may take longer due to the high volume of inquiries.
If you want to get an even lower price, call competing dealers and ask them to beat the deal you have in hand. But you might only cut the price by $200 to $400, or even less. If you're already at the dealership, it may not be worth the trouble of shopping around more to save a few dollars.
Pick the offer that feels right: Make sure you look at all aspects of the deal, including the interest rate, finance terms, any added feeds and the "out-the-door price." Pay attention to how you are treated and what feels best. Better treatment can sometimes trump the lowest price.
Close the Deal and Take Delivery
To save time and beat the crowds, call ahead and ask the dealer to prepare the purchase or lease paperwork ahead of your arrival. Be sure to bring the essential documents you'll need to conclude the sale. That will make the process go more smoothly.
Review the contract: In the finance and insurance office, make sure the dealer includes all your agreed-upon prices and terms in the contract. Be ready for the sales pitch on aftermarket items and the extended warranty.
Inspect the car: Make sure there are no scratches or dents from the shipping process.
Consider a post-weekend pickup: You are probably dying to get your new car home. But if you don't absolutely need the car, arrange for pickup the day after the weekend sale. Here's why: When business is booming, car dealership detail departments often have less time to spend making cars perfect, especially if there is a long line of cars to be delivered. That could mean getting a new car that is clean but doesn't sparkle. You'll also get a more relaxed walk-through of the vehicle's key features if you take delivery after the weekend. A little patience can really pay off.
A Holiday From Stress
If you plan things right, holiday-weekend car shopping can be a pleasure, not a slog. You might be able to actually enjoy your extra day off.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.