Things I Wish I'd Known Before Shopping for a New Car

I recently bought a new car, and while I'm happy with my purchase, there are some things that could have gone more smoothly. I learned a lot along the way, and hopefully I'll be a little better prepared the next time I need a new set of wheels.

Research at Home

Do all your research at home. I talked to car salesmen in person at a total of five dealerships. Their knowledge of the cars they were selling ranged from comprehensive to almost non-existent to downright incorrect. This is a problem because they're all trying to sell you a car, and if they can get you to buy a more expensive car with a couple lies, then they will.

Know Your Trims

Most car models in America are customized on two different levels: trim and packages. For example, the trim levels for the 2018 Hyundai Elantra are SE, SEL, Value Edition, Eco, Sport, and Limited. The trim you select determines some features of the car, and it also determines which packages are available.

The trim level sets the base level of features for your car, and the packages add on extra things that are generally nothing more than "nice-to-haves". By "nice-to-have", I mean that it's nice if you have those features, but you probably won't notice if they're missing.

However, that's not always the case. Some trim levels come with cloth seats and leather seats are offered as a package upgrade. For people like me, that's a significant feature that I'd prefer to see included as a base feature in a particular trim.

Pick Your Packages

Once you know which trim level you want, pick the packages that you'd like. Generally, most dealerships will have cars with a lot of extra packages already installed. If you ask for a particular trim, they will show you a car in that trim level (or higher) with probably a lot more packages than you really planned to get.

When the dealer does this, you should be prepared. Learn what is included in each package, print out a list of the items in each package, and refer to it often to figure out exactly what your car would look like without those extra packages. Chances are, it'll still be a great car without those packages, but the salesmen will say so many good things about those tiny extra features that you'll quickly feel like you have to have them.

Search Dealer Inventory

Get familiar with each manufacturer's website. They all have "Build & Price" pages that let you "customize" your car, but that's a bit of a lie. It's hard to buy a customized car in America because you have to buy your car from a dealer, not directly from the manufacturer. What you end up doing is buying the car most similar to the car you want that is currently in a local dealer's inventory.

So, if you have to buy a car from inventory, then you should learn how to find out what's in inventory. Most manufacturers have a way for you to search the dealer inventory near you. Use it. It'll show you what's really available for you to buy,

Test Drive Without Pressure

You should try to find two cars: one that is identical to the car you want to buy and one that is identical except for the color. Hopefully these cars are at two different dealers. Why? You can test drive the off-color car without the pressure of feeling like you have to buy it right away. The salesman will try to push you to buy it, but you won't feel any pressure because you know the real car you want is somewhere else.

Negotiate from Home

Once you've test-driven the off-color car, just go home. There's no need to do any negotiations in person at dealerships. You can do it over the phone, over email, over text. It doesn't matter. If you try to negotiate in person, you're going to get a bad deal. Salesmen will try to waste your time, play tricks, and wear you out until you cave and just take whatever they offer.

Negotiate Over Email

Although you can only buy cars in a dealer's inventory, that doesn't mean you have to buy your car from the dealer that currently has that car in inventory. Dealers buy cars from other dealers all the time. Contact as many dealers as you can in your area and see which one will give you the best offer.

For example, the email I sent to Hyundai dealers when I was care shopping is below. (I changed around the name of the car depending on the makes sold by the dealership I was emailing.


I'm looking to buy a new compact sedan with leather/leatherette seats, heated front seats, a white exterior, and a black interior. I like the Hyundai Elantra, but I'm also considering similar models from other brands (Volkswagen Jetta, Chevy Cruze, etc.) I'm looking to spend $20,000 all-in. What can you offer me?


When I bought my car, I was open to buying any of a number of cars, so I was able to flip the tables on the dealers and make them compete for my business instead of me feeling pressured to take the car they were offering.

Walk Out Quickly

When you visit a dealer, ask for a test drive of the exact make, model, trim, and package that you're looking to buy. They should have it because you already took my advice about searching dealer inventories. Most dealers will let you test drive a car fairly quickly.

(However, I had one dealer make me wait probably 30 minutes before I could test drive a car. That dealer very clearly was trying to make the car buying process as slow and painful as possible so that customers in a pinch would feel like they had to buy a car there because they didn't have any time left to shop anywhere else.)

Once you've gone on your test drive, you can stick around and ask for a price, but in my experience that's a waste of time. They will try to negotiate with you back and forth for as long as possible. When you're at the dealership, you're in their control. They think you're tied to the car and you'll pay any price they ask if they can wear you down enough.

What I recommend instead is to tell them how much you expect to pay and then ask them to email you a quote. That way if the quote is too high, you can simply respond at your convenience to ask for a better price. The only time you spend is time considering their quote and writing your response. If you stay at the dealership, then they will put on a bit of theater of asking their manager for a better price and calling their headquarters and all kinds of other things to try to waste your time.

Finance Before You Shop

Get your financing in order before you go shopping. Dealerships make a lot of profit off their financing terms. Using their financing is a good way to get a loan with a terrible rate. Banks and credit unions will almost always give you a better rate.

Additionally, if you finance through the dealer, then that gives the dealer one more way to mangle the price and confuse you. The price of a car is complicated. It includes the base price of the car plus dealer fees (if any) plus dealer-added options (like window tint) minus manufacturer rebates minus any additional discounts the dealer decides to give you plus TT&L plus financing.

Dealers love to quote the price of a car as just the base price minus any rebates. Then when you go to pay, they suddenly add on dealer fees, TT&L, and anything else they think they can get away with. (I actually had one dealer make me an offer and then refuse to let me take it with me out of the dealership because it was so fishy. Their excuse was that it had my personal information on it. The real reason was because they were advertising a car for $19,000 and trying to sell it to me for $24,000.)

To get around all of this, tell the dealer you're paying cash and you want a quote with the "out the door" price including TT&L and everything else. If the dealer isn't willing to do that, just move on. There are plenty of other dealers that will.

New World Means New Techniques

The internet has greatly changed the car buying process. Some dealers are trying their best to ignore it. They are hard to work with and will make the car-buying process miserable for you. Other dealers realize you're price shopping them against each other and against other cars that are similar. They'll work to earn your business and give you a good experience.

The difference between these two kinds of dealers is easy to see once you contact some and ask them for a straight price. (The bad ones will insist you come in person to test drive or hash out a deal when you only asked for a quote.) By taking your time and being aware of their techniques, you can find a good deal on a car you'll love without getting a lot of stress.

Photo by Ryan Searle