car-salesmanYou’re either a people-person, or you’re not.

People-people have this amazing ability to chatter on about anything with anybody, and they actually love to make small talk and figure out what makes other people tick.

Car salesmen are, by their very nature, people-people. Some people aren’t.

To many, the idea of striking up a conversation with a total stranger about your work and your kids fills you with a bit of dread — especially if it’s while you’re trying to concentrate on making a huge purchase like a car.

I’m also not a car person, so I’m not great at making chitchat about horsepower or torque — though I’m happy to dive into the wonders of fuel efficiency, since it directly affects my pocketbook. I’m pretty sure the guys at the car lot can smell my lack of car knowledge from a mile away, kind of like how a shark can sense blood in the water.

So if you feel like buying a new car is an exquisite form of punishment, take heart. There is a way to get a great deal on a car — without having to talk to anyone in person or sweat your way through a series of negotiations. In fact, if you do it right, you can have your price hammered out before you even arrive on the lot. Here’s how:

Research, Research, Research

Figure out what kind of car you want from the comfort of your own home — a car dealership is no place for aimless browsing if you don’t want to get into a high-pressure conversation with a car salesman. Start by listing the features you want in a car and checking out models on your laptop first to get an idea about what’s out there.

Once you’ve narrowed the field at least a little bit — say, you know you want a hatchback with great gas mileage — try tapping these sources for additional information:

  • Friends and Family: Know someone who drives the car you’re thinking about? Buy her a cup of coffee and fire away with your questions. People you know will be straight with you — they’re not trying to sell you anything. You can also put out an APB on Facebook asking for experiences about a certain make or model.
  • Consumer Reports: Consumer Reports is a completely independent source of information about cars, and they do detailed testing of new vehicles as well as reliability reports for many model years. Unlike other online reviews, you know these aren’t placed by paid reviewers — Consumer Reports doesn’t even accept advertising dollars. You’ll need to subscribe online, or you can hit up your local library for back issues for your research.
  • Your Mechanic: If anyone knows about which cars are worth the money and which are hunks of junk, it’s your auto mechanic. If you trust your guy, ask his opinion about what he drives and what he would recommend in the categories you’re thinking about. He’ll be able to give you a sense of its reliability and common complaints that come up.

Take a Test Drive Near the End of the Day

First, if you know someone who owns the make and model you’re interested in, ask to test drive her car instead of going to a dealership — you’ll get it all done much faster, and you’ll be able to solicit some honest opinions in the process.

Failing that, plan to take your test drives near closing time at the dealership.

The idea here is that you have no intention of buying a car the day that you first drive it, so there’s no need to schedule enough time to sit down and talk about pricing or financing afterwards. You can be upfront about this with the salesperson who helps you, but in my experience that may not be enough to get you out of a high-pressure situation. Take it for a spin near closing time, though, and you should be able to make a clean getaway.

Know the Real Price of the Car You Want

The sticker price is not the real price.

That piece of paper on the windshield has a whole bunch of numbers on it. One is the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), which is the price you hear on commercials and the one that everyone wants you to think is the price. It’s really just a starting point for negotiations, so ignore it.

What you actually want to know is what the dealership paid for the car. If you go to Edmunds.com, you can research make, models and trim packages to find out the Factory Invoice Price, which is — in theory — what the dealership was charged for the car. According to Edmunds, this isn’t the real price either, because dealerships get all kinds of incentives from car manufacturers to buy in bulk or whatever. Dig a little deeper on the Edmunds website, and you’ll see their research about what average people are paying for that car as well as their estimate of what the average dealership is paying for it.

No surprise here that the estimated dealership price is the lowest of all.

Read on to learn how to make an offer:

Make Your Offer — From Your Living Room

Now that you know what the dealership paid for the car, you can make an informed offer. They won’t sell it for less than they paid for it, so make an offer that’s two or three hundred dollars above that price.

Email your offer to all the dealerships within whatever radius you’re willing to travel. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, you should have several options. When you write your email, make it clear that you’ve emailed several dealerships and will visit the one who meets your price (or comes closest, but you don’t have to tell them that). The beauty is that you get to create a little competition to get your business, which creates some subtle pressure to lower the price.

Be warned: Many will email you back saying they need to see you in person or aren’t authorized to discuss pricing over email, etc.

That’s fine — someone will get back to and be willing to talk turkey.

The best part about this trick? You get the price in writing, and all you need to do is show up at the dealership to finalize the deal. I saved about $4,000 off of the sticker price on my last car, and it was actually a pleasure to walk into the dealership on a Saturday afternoon to close the deal quickly — this method also saves a ton of time.

Some Final Car-Buying Tips

Making an informed offer, creating some competition among dealers and getting your best price in writing ahead of time are a sure-fire way to get a great deal on your next car. To maximize your chances of getting a total steal, try these tips as well:

  • Shop at the end of the month, when sales staff are working to make their monthly quotas.
  • Stay flexible about trim packages and color — you want a car that’s already on the lot to speed the process and make sure your price is pre-negotiated on a vehicle that actually exists.
  • Don’t be swayed by extended warranties or service plans — you don’t need them.
  • Always have your price finalized in writing before you begin to discuss financing. Don’t be swayed by a lower monthly payment or other financing tricks that could leave you with a crazy interest rate that costs more in the long run.
  • Buying a car doesn’t have to be an exercise in interpersonal stamina if you don’t want it to be. When you take advantage of the power of the internet and make your offer in advance, you can rack up big savings on your next vehicle purchase.

How did you get the best deal when you bought your car? If you didn’t, what do you wish you had know instead?

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