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It’s often easier to find a car you like than a dealer you trust. Before you buy a vehicle, check out this guide to research and find the best car dealership for you. We compared auto dealers by locations, inventories, financing options and servicing departments.

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Car buyer’s guide

Although a large purchase, buying a new car should start with two simple questions: What are you looking for and what can you afford? Then, do your research — starting with our car buying tips.

Study the dealer inventory

Are you looking for a new or used car? A truck? Or are you thinking about a crossover? Vehicle inventory is the main reason consumers choose a particular dealership when looking to purchase a vehicle, so pay attention to what kind of stock a dealership has for its customers

  • New vehicles: Most dealerships have an inventory of hundreds of new vehicle models to choose. Dealerships are the best option for consumers looking for variety, both in model and vehicle features.
  • Used vehicles: Unless the dealership specifically sells used vehicles, most new vehicle dealerships sell pre-owned and certified pre-owned vehicles in addition to their new-car stock. Certified pre-owned vehicles are vehicles that have gone through the manufacturer’s testing to ensure they still meet original standards.
  • Online inventory: Almost all dealership websites include an online list of their stock. Inventory lists are typically categorized into new and used sections and have multiple filters that can be applied; such as price range, make, model and features.

Dealer financing

Most of us will need some form of financing when purchasing a vehicle, which is not an issue with most auto dealerships. Car lots generally have on-site financing departments available with multiple options from which to choose. Even if you have a better financing option elsewhere, dealerships can usually work with off-site financing to make a deal.  Used car dealerships are more likely to offer financing to buyers with poor credit.

  • Pre-approval: Interested buyers can visit a dealership’s website and fill out an online application to get pre-approved for a loan. This is a quick way to get a quote for consumers who are comparing the dealership’s financing options with their bank or other financial institutions.
  • Financing options: Auto dealerships offer multiple financing options to try to stay competitive with banks and other financial institutions. Interested buyers can check online for available financing options or call the number provided for the dealership's finance department. It is a good idea to compare a dealership’s interest rates with those of a bank or other institution.
  • Financing specials: Many dealerships offer financing specials, incentives or rebates on their website. Interested buyers should ask about competitive interest rates, cash-back rebates, loyalty programs and bonus cash programs.
  • Read the fine print: It’s important to remember that dealers may want to drag out the life of the loan as long as possible, making you pay far more in the end. Another thing to remember is that dealerships are not required to tell you your best loan rate and can pad the APR if they like, so make sure to discuss your auto loan options with your bank.

Dealership service centers

When the time comes to get their car serviced or repaired, vehicle owners usually have two choices: A local repair shop or an auto dealership. Most large dealerships have an on-site service center for regular maintenance and repair needs. Some dealerships even have a collision center that does body work on vehicles that involved in an accident.

  • Manufacturer qualified mechanics: Auto dealerships employ mechanics that have received specialized manufacturer training for working on the make of vehicle sold at the dealership. Manufacturer training is also offered to the service department’s support staff, including service managers and advisors.
  • Service relationship: Consumers who get their vehicles regularly serviced with their dealership can build a relationship with the service department, allowing them to better track a vehicle's service history. People can get specific service time frames and accurate diagnostic information from a dealership’s service center.
  • Warranties: Another advantage of an on-site dealership service center is the fact that they honor manufacturer and extended warranty coverage free of charge, as opposed to a local repair shop who could charge a deductible.
  • Shop around: Dealer service centers are usually spotless, filled with master mechanics and have state of the art equipment. This all equates to a high expense for the dealership that is then passed down to you, the consumer. Sometimes you can get the same service at smaller locations for a lower price, so if you are forced to pay for repairs out-of-pocket, make sure to get quotes for the same repairs elsewhere.

Dealership online features

An auto dealership’s website is great to look over before visiting the dealership in person. Interested buyers can find information on inventory, pricing, vehicle features, financing options, daily specials and more. Vehicle owners can even schedule service appointments or order parts online.

  • Schedule service: Vehicle owners can visit a dealership’s website and schedule a time for their vehicle's servicing. The online scheduling process typically involves filling out the vehicle's make, model and year; the type of service needed; and, picking an available time slot on the dealership’s calendar.
  • Loan applications: Many dealerships offer interested buyers the opportunity to apply for a loan online. They can fill out an application that includes their contact information, vehicle request information and social security number. Consumers should make sure the website is secured by looking for an encryption lock icon.
  • Online shopping: Auto dealerships typically have their new and used inventory online. Customers can search by make, model, body style, year and price range then look at multiple photos of each vehicle along with a list of features for each one. Interested buyers can chat live with a representative from the dealership and ask them any questions that come up while they are browsing.

The upsell

Most people expect to be taken advantage of at an auto dealership, but this does not need to happen. If you understand which options dealers are offering on top of the vehicle, you can decide whether they are trying to upsell, cross-sell, or give you a handy addition to your purchase.

Upsell

An upsell is when a salesperson tries to sell you a “better version” of what you’d like to purchase. This could be the newest model or a different, more expensive model.

  • Upgraded model: If you enter a dealership looking for a specific car but the dealer continues to push you into purchasing something more expensive but maybe a little faster or have a little more leather, the dealer is trying to get you to buy an upgraded model that isn't necessary. Remember, if you don’t want a “GT” or “Limited Edition” version of what you’re looking for, you don’t need to buy it.
  • Add-ons: Other than all the standard safety features found on every car sold in the US, most cars today have the essentials you need — like AC and a Radio — so anything beyond that will be an upsell. If you would like that upgraded sound system, go ahead and ask the dealer for more information; otherwise, you can go without the extra cost.

Cross-sell

A cross-sell is when a salesperson is trying to sell something that adds on to your current purchase, like a nozzle for a new garden hose.

  • Undercoating: Unless you live near the ocean or in an area where the ground is salted during winter, undercoating is clearly a cross-sell. Basically, this is a treatment to protect your car from rust that really only happens in those two locations, so do your research before signing off on the undercoat.
  • Tire and wheel protection: As it states, this is a limited warranty for your tires and wheels. Before looking into this, see if your existing car warranty covers wheels and if the tires themselves come with a maintenance plan.
  • Key protection: This is designed to cover the cost of a replacement key if yours is lost or stolen. Sometimes this can come in handy as some keys can be pretty expensive, but double-check the price of a key replacement versus purchasing a new key as the plan could be a waste of money.
  • Dent protection: This covers the cost of fixing dents that don’t need comprehensive bodywork or new paint. It is a handy feature if you drive in an area with loose asphalt, gravel, or older roads.

Additions

In our opinion, the additions listed below may not be necessary but should be researched in your auto buying experience.

  • Guaranteed Asset Protection (GAP): This is an attractive protection plan for anyone interested. Basically, GAP insurance will cover what’s left on your auto loan if you are involved in an accident and you owe more than what your car is worth.
  • Maintenance Plans (pre-paid): Some dealerships offer maintenance plans for an extra fee. These plans can be great for some, but take a look at what they offer versus how much general maintenance will be as well as what you already have covered in the warranty.
  • Credit insurance: Credit insurance pays off the remainder of your loan under certain circumstances, such as death or unemployment. This insurance is voluntary but may be worth it after investigating the coverage and the cost.

Car dealers FAQ

Can you sue a dealership?
Yes, you can sue a car dealership. Common reasons to sue include:
  • Overcharging
  • Not disclosing elements of the vehicle’s history
  • Faulty warranty service or breach of contract
  • Adding accessories and features to your bill without your consent
If you’re interested in filing a lawsuit against a car dealership, first find a lawyer who’s willing to take your case.
How long do dealers keep used cars on the lot?
Most dealerships keep used cars on the lot for at least 90 days before sending them off to auction, but some dealers may hold out as long as 150 days.

Waiting to purchase a car might earn you a lower price, but the longer you leave the car on the lot, the higher the risk of it disappearing.

What happens to cars that don't get sold?
Cars that don’t sell on dealership lots either get sold at auction, put to use as loaners or shipped to other dealerships where they’re more in demand.
What is the best month to buy a car?
The best month to buy a car is December because dealerships want to buff up their sales numbers for the year. If you can’t wait for the end of the year to buy a new car, shopping at the following times can help you get the best deal:
  • Late in the month
  • Early in the week
  • Holiday weekends
  • At the end of the model year
  • Once a new design comes out
  • When the manufacturer discontinues the model
Why do car rental companies sell their cars?
Car rental companies sell their vehicles to keep their fleet updated and make room for newer models. A former rental car has likely had regular maintenance and few modifications, but the wear and tear might be excessive for its age.

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    The ConsumerAffairs Research Team believes everyone deserves to make smart decisions. We aim to provide readers with the most up-to-date information available about today's consumer products and services.

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