Car-Buying Advice from a Three-Timer

Tips include researching ahead of time, setting a maximum price, and walking away.

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One of my colleagues at U.S. News, Susan Vavrick, offers some additional car-buying advice based on her own experiences:

The key is homework, homework, homework. Do not go near a dealer until you have done this. First, go to the manufacturer website and build what you want, adding and subtracting options until you're satisfied and have a general idea of the total cost.

Next, use Edmunds.com and the Kelley Blue Book to find out the true market value. It will allow you to come up with the average price in your location. Scan the dealers' ads in the newspaper to see what's being offered.

Using the ads and the true market value as your guide, decide how much you want to pay — the absolute, drop-dead maximum (including taxes and fees). This final number is very important, because this is where you get smart: Once you have decided what it is, you have to be willing to walk away if the dealer won't meet it. I don't care if you are dying for that particular car, you do not let the dealer see that, and you have to make it clear that you don't have to buy anything and are happy to walk if your price is not met. The dealer is entitled to make a profit but not to gouge you.

Once you've done all that, it's time to go shopping. Have fun, but always be guided by two things: First, you do not have to buy a car that day. And second, absolutely refuse to budge above your max, not even one dollar. Let the dealer make the first offer. It is bound to be higher than you want. Come back with a pipe dream low offer. They will counter again. You must make clear with each number you offer that it includes all those fees and if you hit your max, that is it. If he won't take it, thank him for his time and get up and go. He will either come down or you will walk, having lost nothing.

I've bought three cars that way, and it works every single time.

I also received an E-mail from John Sternal of LeaseTrader.com, a site that connects those who want to get out of their car leases early with consumers interested in taking them over. That could be a great solution for a driver with a leased car who suddenly experiences a financial shock, such as job loss, and needs to quickly cut costs.