[CARS] Online Car Buying Tips and Tools

Category: Auto

According to Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book (two of the the most popular auto pricing websites), December is the best month of the year to buy a car. Find out why that's true, and pick up some tips for online auto buying that will help you save money and get the car you want, at any time of the year. You may not even have to set foot in a dealer showroom. Read on...

Is There a Big Red Bow in Your Future?

According to the experts who watch these numbers, the biggest discounts offered by auto makers and dealers are found in the months of December, March and January, in that order. Here's why end of the year car buying deals can make December the most wonderful time of the year to get a new set of wheels.

One of the biggest factors is quotas. Dealerships and salespeople have both end of month and yearly quotas to meet. That's the December Double Whammy. Especially if you're paid on commission, and even more so if there's a bonus for making your quota, a salesperson will be motivated to make the best deal possible before the ball drops on December 31st.

A related point is that every manufacturer wants to earn the designation as the Top Selling car, truck or SUV of the year. For example, Ford might offer great deals on their F-150 pickup truck in December, if they think they can beat out the Chevy Silverado 1500. It's all about bragging rights and marketing for the coming year.

December car buying tips

The new year often brings new models and designs, so dealers may be anxious to clear out their inventory of the older models to make room for new stock. Buying last year's model at a discounted price can be a win-win for you and the dealer. In addition, some states charge an inventory tax on car dealers, based on the number of cars they have on their lot at the end of the year. So there's further incentive for deals and discounts to limit the dealer's tax burden.

And of course, the weather plays a role in many areas. If it's cold and snowy, customers will be less inclined to trudge through car lots in search of a deal. The laws of supply and demand, coupled with your dealer's desire to meet quotas and make room for new models, all come together to give car buyers an edge in December.

If you're not ready to buy a car now, you can still stock up on car buying tips, and use the them when you're ready.

How to Research (and maybe even buy) Your Car Online

Most people would rather go to a dentist than a car dealership. If you hate the high pressure sales people, the negotiations with the invisible but all-powerful “finance manager,” the last-minute up-sales of extended warranties, undercoatings, floor mats, etc., then you may want to get as much of your car buying done online as you can. The good news is, you actually can buy a car without setting foot in a dealership.

There are plenty of potential gotchas when purchasing a car. But arming yourself with knowledge will help you avoid getting taken for the proverbial ride. For most, the first step toward car-buying is to visit your bank or credit union. Get pre-approved for a loan so you know how much you can afford to pay in total and per month. Then stick to that budget no matter what. Tip: credit unions offer much better car loan terms than banks, and it’s easy to join one.

Next, do your research, all of which can be done online. Edmunds.com is one of the best places to start; the highly respected Edmunds has refined its proprietary method of estimating actual sales prices of thousands of new and used cars since 1966. Edmunds also published detailed reports on the reliability, maintenance needs, and insurance costs of specific car models. Consumer Reports New and Used Car Reviews & Ratings is another comprehensive, trustworthy resource.

If your car-buying goal is getting better gas mileage, MPGomatic is packed with useful tips. For over a decade, my friend Dan Gray has been posting helpful reviews of many of the latest models, along with tips for getting the most from your tank of gas. Stop here before heading off to the dealer to check out a car.

When you have the field narrowed down to two makes and models, it’s time to get a feel for market prices. Edmunds is great, as I’ve mentioned. So is Kelley Blue Book. NADA is another popular pricing tool; but be aware that NADA is the National Auto Dealers Association and represents dealers’ interests.

Getting a Price Quote

Now that you have a feel for what your potential car(s) should cost, you can get actual price quotes from a number of Web sites. CarsDirect will help you find the right car at the right price and then connect you to the Internet sales department of the dealer who has the deal. TrueCar.com will show you what others have paid for similar cars as it displays dealer offers that meet your specs.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has an Auto Buying Program that offers to help members "get a great deal on a new or pre-owned vehicle, while avoiding the stress and hassles normally associated with buying or leasing a car." AAA refers members to participating dealers that agree to provide low, pre-set, no-haggle pricing. There's no cost for AAA members. USAA - the United Services Automobile Association - has catered to military personnel and their familes with car sales, loans, and even insurance since 1922.

Car Salesman

It may surprise you to learn that Costco has a car-buying program that moves several hundred thousand vehicles per year, including motorcycles, boats, and RVs. Overstock also has a car-buying site that promises to help you research, buy, finance and protect your car purchase with an extended warranty.

At this point, you can actually close a deal at a firm price without ever setting foot on a car lot. But if you prefer to buy in-person (and many do), you can approach local dealers with the best deals you found online and see if they’ll match prices. Don't be afraid to walk out the door if the salesperson won't accept your offer, or if he tries that annoying "how much do you want to pay per month" line. If you will be financing, negotiate your best price, and then divide by the number of months in the terms of the loan. That's your monthly payment, and it should be the LAST thing you agree on, not the starting point.

Avoid Car Buying Scams

Buying a used car from a private seller can save money; Edmunds reports actual sales prices for dealers and private sellers; the latter are often significantly lower for the same car specs (make, model, year, condition, mileage, etc.). But scams are common in private auto sales, so stay on your toes.

I have a friend who has bought several used cars on eBay or Craigslist, sight unseen. He does tons of research, asks lots of questions, and has even traveled over 1500 miles to close the deal. Amazingly, it's worked out well for him, but I can't recommend doing it that way.

My advice is always, ALWAYS take a private seller’s car to a mechanic of your choosing, not his, for a pre-purchase inspection. If the seller won’t agree to that, keep looking. And never take cash to a stranger’s home - or worse, a remote “storage lot” - to pay for a car. Likewise, don’t wire money to anyone. Meet in a well-lit public place, preferably where video cameras are rolling. Some police stations actually encourage people to meet in a designated part of their parking lots for transactions like this.

Ask the seller for the VIN number and get your own car history report from CARFAX or AutoCheck. Don’t try to save a few bucks by accepting the seller’s report - it may belong to a different vehicle, with the VIN number altered.

Beware of stolen vehicles. The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN check to see if a vehicle has been reported stolen and not recovered. Also demand to see the owner’s driver’s license and registration; make sure the owner’s name is on both and that he looks like who he says he is.

Buying a car may never be fun; it’s a confusing, stressful, high-stakes game. But with online resources, much of the pain and a lot of travel time can be eliminated. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[CARS] Online Car Buying Tips and Tools"

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

Something else to be on the lookout now when buying a used car in the US is a flood damaged vehicle.

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

About Carfax--I think it is overrated. Remember it contains only what is reported. It is only a tool. My Hyundai had definitely been in an accident and looked like it had been rebuilt. Its supposed original title came from Virginia, but from all I've read that is a good state to "launder" titles. No indication of an accident on Carfax.

Why did I buy it? Because husband fell in love with it and insisted on the purchase. Heck, it was equipped with a cassette player instead of a CD one. Really.

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

The link to the AAA Auto Buying Program reports browser can't find the server hosting the site.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Try this link: http://automotive.aaa.com/auto-buying.htm

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

Last year I used several sites to search for a used car. Auto Trader was the best site by far. In the end they listed exactly the car I wanted, at a reseller just 10 miles from home. I visited the store the next day and drove away in my new (to me) dream car!

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

As usual, very informative.

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

Another idea for a used car purchase is rental car companies. Several years ago I bought a Chevy HHR from Enterprise for a fair, no-haggle price, with limited attempts to up-sell. I would absolutely do that again.

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

Also check Consumer Reports, they have good reviews and articles about car buying and general auto tips.

Posted by:

Wayne W.
28 Nov 2017

I was a salesman for a dealership for a short time a while back. Mostly used cars. But when I was pulled in to work a new car one thing I found out is that there is only one exactly of what you are looking for (unlike pre-owned) and salespeople like to low-ball the customer as he knows there are other dealers with the same to offer. So be aware of a quote that sounds to good to be true because when you return you can expect to get bumped up noticeably.

And, I never trade in for a newer model as you come out ahead in the transaction and the prospective buyer also does when buying privately as there is not as much markup.

Posted by:

28 Nov 2017

I have purchased three used vehicles on-line. Two were through ebay, and I trust the feedback if there are enough entries. I trust the feedback much more than a corner used-car salesman. A seller who has a lot of good feedback should be trustworthy or will lose their good feedback score. Both of those were 100+ miles from where I lived. The third car happened to be in a town 1500 miles away, but my daughter lived there and she had a knowledgeable person check it out.

The two ebay vehicles lasted to 200,000 miles before one died and the other sold. The third vehicle now has 110,000 miles on it after 12 years and it is going strong.

Posted by:

Wild Bill
29 Nov 2017

Flood-damaged cars are usually referred to as "floaters". Look for mud or other debris under
mats and down in crevices in the trunk. Especially after the hurricanes this past season. Just because
the hurricane was in Texas or Florida doesn't mean the car in question stays there. In fact, it makes sense to ship them somewhere else in hopes of sliding them through undetected. Auto wholesalers ship vehicles all over the country regularly.

Posted by:

29 Nov 2017

I don't know the situation in the USA regarding selling used vehicles but in my country, and I think most others, when advertising you put the year the vehicle was first registered as the year. ie. if you buy it on the 30th of December 2017 it will be a 2017 car. If you buy and register it on the 3rd of January it will be a 2018 car. It may save you $$ now but could cost you more when you want to sell.
I know this because I saved $1500 on a new Suzuki by buying in late December 2014. It is now worth $3000 less than if it were bought and registered in 2015.

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