Buying a car from a dealership: 20 car buying secrets that dealers don't want you to know
Our top tips and tricks for buying a car to save you money, hassle and time
Thinking about buying a new or used car? Cars are often one of the most expensive items we buy – second only to our homes. This is likely to mean you don’t do it very often and it can be daunting if you are unprepared. It pays to do your research and there is a skill to knowing how to buy a car before you step into a dealership.
Here we’ve put together a list of 20 tips for buying a new or used car from a dealership. Dealers want to extract as much money from you as possible, and they’ve got a long list of tactics to help them do so. Some are obvious – everyone’s run into an overzealous salesperson at some point in their lives – but others aren’t as clear if you’re not in the know.
1. Know what car you want
While you don’t need to know exactly what car you want to buy, it helps to have a few ideas on what to look for before you start the process or even visit a dealership - especially if you’re buying a used car. Think about your lifestyle: are you in need of something practical and family friendly, like a hatchback or SUV, or would you prefer a sporty saloon or coupe instead?
The easiest way to find out what car will suit your needs and keep your wallet relatively happy is to set a budget and then look at what’s available in one of our Best Cars lists. Knowing how much you want to spend on your next car will help you narrow down your options.
Once you’ve made a shortlist of the cars that match your criteria, you can start to research those models in more detail by reading our in-depth reviews, which cover everything you need to know. Once you know which cars are most appealing to you, then you can start thinking about heading to a dealer to see one in the metal.
2. Know what engine, gearbox and powertrain you want
It’s not necessarily enough to know which brand or model of car you want. All models have a variety of specifications and engines to choose from, so you’ll want to know which of those will work best for you too.
Petrol models tend to suit buyers who do a broad range of driving - a combination of short and long trips, both around town and on the motorway. Diesels, on the other hand, can be the more suitable option for those who do lots of motorway miles as they’re more economical at high speed and long distances.
Electric cars are ideal for drivers who only do short trips around town, while hybrid models are good for those wanting to benefit from low-cost travel in and around town with the assurance they can still do longer trips without running out of power.
Manual gearboxes are usually cheaper than automatics, and some people prefer them. Automatics can often be more relaxing to drive because the car changes gear for you; this is especially the case if you regularly drive in heavy traffic, when you would constantly be using the clutch pedal in a car with a manual gearbox.
The car’s powertrain, or which of the wheels get power from the engine and/or electric motor, is also worth bearing in mind. Some drivers may be better off going for a car with one type of drivetrain over another. For instance, all-wheel drive cars tend to be more suitable for towing than front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive ones, as having more driven wheels means the car’s power can be put to the ground more effectively.
3. Know which options to choose
Once you’ve picked your car, your engine and your choice of gearbox, you can start to think about the specification of the car and which options you want. If you’re buying new then you will more than likely have plenty of choice, but if you’re buying used, then you will have to look harder for examples with the options you want.
Though it may sound bizarre, adding lots of options is a good way of making a great-value car into a poor-value one - so it pays to only add the kit you really want. Look online to find what equipment comes with each specification, then check it against the prices to see if it looks like a good deal.
Choosing certain options can help or hinder the car’s resale value. Adding a sunroof or air conditioning, for example, are options that will likely make a car easier to sell in the future. Bold choices such as bright colours, on the other hand, can make a car much less desirable, so it’s worth keeping that in mind.
4. Know what to pay
All of the above tips feed into this one. Once you know precisely the car (or cars) you want, you’re in a great position to buy because you can work out what it should cost you; if it’s a used car you can look at classified ads, auction sites, buying guides and used car marketplaces to get an idea of what to pay.
For a new car, you can look at car brokers online to see the kinds of discounts dealers are offering. You can use these prices to negotiate with dealers, or walk away if they won’t match it. Being aware of what to pay is one of the most important tools you can have as a buyer – there’s often lots of choice so you can afford to be picky.
5. Be aware of other running costs
When you’re considering your options, it’s a good idea to check all the other running costs to make sure it’s the right car for you. You’ll most likely have looked up the miles per gallon (MPG) figures, so you can compare that to your current car and see if it will cost more or less to fuel each week.
You should also check how much a car costs to tax. Some used cars can cost hundreds of pounds to tax, and others cost nothing at all – so be sure to look that up using an online tool. It’s worth considering other costs that you may incur, depending on where you live and where you’ll be driving the car – you’ll be charged if you drive a non-compliant car in London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, for instance.
You should also investigate prices for servicing on the manufacturer websites. Considering the prices of consumables such as tyres is also a good idea if you plan to do a lot of miles.
Additionally, you may want to be mindful of the car’s depreciation, or the rate it will lose value over time. When you decide to sell or trade the car in, it will almost certainly be worth less than what you paid for it. For expensive cars with very steep depreciation, it could be worth only a small fraction of what it was originally. Handily, there are some companies and online tools out there you can use to calculate how much a car’s value will change over time.
6. Buy at the right time
Buying a car at the right time can make a surprising difference to the amount that you’ll pay. For example, convertibles tend to sell at higher prices in the spring than in winter, when buyers are put off by dreary weather.
In fact, all car prices are affected by when you buy, even new ones. Dealers have targets that they will be pushing to meet, and they usually have a cut-off before key months like March, April and September - especially when the new registrations arrive.
If you show interest in buying just before the end of a term, dealers will be very keen to get the sale done. This means they may offer an excellent price or discount to seal the deal.
7. Know your car finance
Don’t show up to buy a car without knowing what the different types of car finance are. Dealers will explain them to you, but it’s never a good idea to make a big decision when you only know the basics.
You can read all about PCP, HP and PCH in our explainer articles. If you know what the differences are, you will be in a much better place to decide which works for you, and which is going to bring the best deal.
Pay attention to things like APR, too. Remember that dealers may offer a finance deal that’s even cheaper than paying cash, so keep your options open.
If this sounds a bit daunting, our new free online car finance calculator gives you an accurate quote from several trusted credit brokers - all without affecting your credit score. Simply enter the value of the car you want to finance, how much you want to pay per month and details of your deposit, and you can get a personalised quote in just a few minutes.
8. Know who you’re buying from
There are many different types of car sellers, especially if you’re buying a used car. Know who you’re buying from and you can adjust your strategy accordingly.
If you’re buying new, you can buy from a manufacturer-approved or dealer in person, online or via a broker. The latter is a service that finds you a deal by comparing different dealers for you. It’s free so you can use this service as part of your research.
If you’re buying used, you could be buying from a main dealer, an independent dealer or a private seller. Sometimes dealers pretend that they’re private sellers, which is a sign you shouldn’t buy from them. Buying from a dealer gives you more rights, so it’s safer.
9. If buying a used car, know what to look for
This doesn’t apply when buying a new car, but if you’re looking for a used model then do some research online about common faults so you know what to look for when you’re inspecting the car in person. You can find details on a used car’s common issues and other problems that may affect it in our used car reviews.
If you don’t feel comfortable checking a car over yourself there are plenty of services where you can pay an expert to do it for you. However, you should still be aware of any potential problems and ask for these to be checked.
Have a list of everything you want to check, and don’t be afraid to ask about all of them. The more questions you ask, the better, as this affects your rights (see below) when buying from a dealer.
10. Do your research beforehand - know more than the salesperson
Don’t rely on a salesperson to tell you about a potential new car. Independent reviews such as those here on Carbuyer will point out any problems with a particular model, but a salesperson won’t – after all, they’re trying to get you to buy it.
You should aim to find out as much about your preferred model as possible. This means even if the salesperson misrepresents the car in any way, you’ll still be able to make an informed choice.
You’re less likely to be taken advantage of if you know what you’re talking about. If the salesperson tells you something that sounds wrong, you should look it up afterwards - there’s no need to feel rushed into making a deal there and then, and everything you need to know is an online search away.
11. Be prepared for a sales pitch
Sales staff have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves to get you to buy. This isn’t exclusive to buying a car – everyone’s experienced this at some point.
Some like this process and some don’t, but if you fall into the latter category, you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. If you’ve done your research you can ignore anything the salesperson says, and rely on your own knowledge to make a more informed decision.
You don’t have to know all the tricks of the trade – just be aware that salespeople often work on commission and it is their job to make money in this way. Don’t buy things like extended warranties or paint protection without making sure that the price is right.
12. Don’t be fooled by marketing tricks
It’s not just salespeople who you need to be aware of. Marketing tricks by manufacturers and dealerships should be kept in mind as well.
A good example would be a limited-time offer. You might see a TV ad or a poster with a time-limited discount on it – but this is designed to get you to buy quickly, so you don’t miss out. The reality is that you’ll save more money by being a canny buyer, rather than rushing to a decision.
Another trick manufacturers use is special edition cars. They might build a version of a car in limited numbers to make it seem rare, or to make buyers hurry to get one. Some special edition models are indeed special – but others aren’t. Sometimes you’ll get a special set of alloys, or maybe an exclusive colour combination, but the car is really no different. Again, it pays to know what you’re looking at.
13. Know how to take a test drive
Always take a test drive before buying a car. If you’re buying new then it’s the only way to see if a car is comfortable and suitable for you. As much as we can help with reviews, only you can tell if a car’s seats are too high or you don’t like the way it rides over lumps and bumps.
For a used car, it’s also a chance to see if there are any issues with the engine or mechanical parts. Any funny noises or smells can be picked out here, and you can walk away if the car isn’t right.
Learn about what to look for before you head to a dealership, or ask someone with more experience to test drive the car with you if you’re not comfortable doing it alone.
14. Always negotiate, and know how to do it
Take some time to research negotiation techniques before you head out to buy a car. Many people dislike haggling, but if there’s one time to do it, it’s with a car as you could save thousands of pounds.
There’s plenty of advice online about how to haggle over a car, whether it’s new or used. Generally with a new car you may also have things like paint protection or fuel thrown in as part of a deal, but remember to think about the actual value of these items in the wider scheme of things.
It might sound like a great deal to get a full tank of fuel, but you may be buying a car with a small fuel tank – saving you, in some cases, less than £50. Remember at all times that you are free to walk away – there’s no shame in coming back days later even if you can’t find a better deal elsewhere.
Do also be aware that, if you do want to haggle over the price of a car (especially a new one), this may not be possible in some cases. A number of car makers have adopted a so-called agency selling model, where the prices offered at the dealers have been set by the manufacturers themselves – meaning there’s little if any wiggle room regarding the car’s price.
15. Know the value of your part-exchange
Many buyers will already own a car and will want to trade it in against the cost of a new one. Don’t lose out when you do this; know how much your car is worth before you arrive.
Dealers will often low-ball you with a ‘part-ex’ offer, so knowing your car’s value will help you haggle upwards. Be aware that you’ll never get market value for your car, as the dealer needs to make a profit – but don’t take a silly low offer just because you’re excited to get into a new car.
You can find out your car’s value by looking at online classified and auction sites or even by using one of the popular ‘we will buy your car’ type websites.
16. Know your rights
When buying from a dealer you have a strong set of consumer rights. You can research them online but it’s worth knowing that you have the right to reject the car or switch it for a replacement if the car isn’t as described by the dealer.
This is why it pays to ask a lot of questions about the car before you buy. The more you ask, the more that will be covered by your rights. Even if you forget to ask something, you’re more than likely still able to return or get a replacement car in the event something goes wrong. Or, if applicable, have something fixed under warranty.
New cars can go wrong too and you have rights under the Consumer Rights Act. There are other things to look up too, such as the Motor Ombudsman rules for car dealers. If something goes wrong, you’ll be prepared.
17. Read the small print
Reading the small print is good life advice in general, but it’s particularly relevant for things like car finance. You need to be fully aware of what you’re signing up for, especially as your credit rating is at risk if you’re not fully informed and things don’t go according to plan.
Whether you’re paying upfront or on a monthly basis, make sure you’re aware exactly how much you’re committing to and what you are getting for that sum. Ensure anything you’ve negotiated is included in writing, in case it’s forgotten or missed later on in the process.
18. Get an insurance quote before you buy
Imagine walking out of the showroom with the keys to a new car, then looking up insurance quotes only to find that it’s going to cost hundreds or thousands more than you expected.
It’s so easy to look up insurance quotes online using the big comparison sites that there’s not really an excuse for getting into this situation any more.
Be aware as well that some insurers aren’t open on a Sunday – so if you want a quote on the phone, do so during the working week.
19. Don’t decide straight away
Remember that you can always walk away and come back another time. In fact, giving yourself a cooling-off period is a very good idea. Stepping away from the shiny showroom can give you time to reflect on whether or not a car is right for you.
You can even step away after negotiating a price with the salesperson. Don’t worry about losing out – they’ll gladly accept you back the next day if you decide it’s the right car for you. Always take time to think about your purchase as it’ll give you room to make an informed decision.
Leaving the dealership will also give you a chance to look up anything you missed before you went inside, to make sure you’re getting the right price on the right car at the right time.
20. Double-check everything when you come back to collect your new car
If you do end up buying a car, you’ll probably come back sometime later to collect it. Either that or it will be delivered to you.
Check the car over again and make sure that everything is as it was when you first saw it. In the case of a new car, check that it has any extras you agreed on such as a full tank of fuel or paint protection.
You should also check to see if the paintwork or wheels are scratched, or if there was any damage in transit. For a used car, make sure that any damage is the same as when you last saw it – any scratches that have appeared in the meantime will have to be fixed by the dealer, so don’t drive away until you are sure it’s right.
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