Top 10 Tricks for a Quality Car-Shopping Experience

Sylvia Dana, sales consultant at Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Sylvia Dana, sales consultant at Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Mich.

It’s amazing to me how many people come to a dealership with nothing but incorrect and preconceived notions — usually negative. As a car sales person, I would like to personally apologize for all the wrongs you have encountered at a car dealership in times past. But it’s a new day, so when it comes to a quality car-buying experience, I recommend you relax and listen.

1. Eat first: Yes, that’s what I said. Eat! Have a good breakfast or some lunch before you go to the dealership. In addition, bring some snacks or vending machine money. You can’t think straight or make big life decisions when you’re stomach starts growling. Don’t expect to stop in the dealership “really quick.” That’s not happening. Don’t waste the sales person’s time or your own time if you’re not willing to put in the effort it takes to shop for a car — no matter what stage of the process you think you’re in. If you end up with a good sales person who guides you through their sales process, it really helps things go more smoothly (and happily) for all involved — especially you — if you’re not “hangry.”

2. Get a baby sitter: This is not a judgment on parents with young children. If you have to bring your kids with you to car shop, then so be it. But, to help take the pressure off of you, worrying about how your child is coping with what can be a painstaking experience, try to arrange for child care, all day and unlimited. This will allow you to relax. P.S. Your 5-year-old cannot be held responsible for your financial decisions. They don’t need to be involved.

3. Make an appointment: If you have been referred to a sales person or you have worked with a sales person at a dealership previously, it’s better if you make an appointment with that person directly and ahead of time. That way, they will more likely be ready for you when you come. If you’ve bought a car from one sales person, and you choose to go to a different sales person at the same dealership and purchase, you are forcing that second sales person to split their commission with the original sales person, even though the second sales person completes the whole job. On the other hand, if you’ve never been to a dealership, don’t have a sales person and haven’t been referred to a sales person, simply show up. That’s just fine. However, if you make an appointment with a specific sales person ahead of time and talk things over on the phone first, your sales person will have time to prepare before you come and hopefully shorten your time at the dealership.

4. Bring your driver’s license (and other important documents): Duh! I’ve actually had people come in the dealership with the specific intent of test driving a car, but who failed to bring their Driver’s License. Whaaaa??!! The salesperson is going to need to make a copy of your license to, legally, let you test drive their car. They will also need your license to, legally, take your credit application. Also, bring your trade title. If you don’t have your title or can’t find it, expect to pay a “Lost Title” fee of around $50 and sign some paperwork to authorize the dealership to apply for a duplicate title on your behalf. Note: You can get a Instant Title at a Secretary of State Super Center location for around $20. Also, be sure to have your current plate registration (or at least plate number) and current proof of insurance ID card. Are you worried about your credit? Bring your most recent paystub. Learn more about credit challenges.

5. Know your trade-in value: Have an idea of what you want for your trade. Simply go to, enter true information about your vehicle and look at the the low-to-high-range “Fair Condition” value when you trade into a dealership. Second, know who your lender and your loan or lease account number. Also, know your 10-day payoff and your per diem. P.S. If you owe more money than your trade is worth on trade, it’s possible you can roll over that negative equity into a new loan or lease. Or, you can have some money down. Don’t worry about it yet…let your dealer show you options to deal with this issue.

6. Enjoy the ride: Guess what? Your sales person knows how to do their job. Don’t expect to walk in and run the show. You don’t work there. Let your sales person guide you through car buying process. It will save you time and frustration. Just go with it…

7. Know what discounts you might qualify for: Do you get a manufacturer discount through a family member? Know what that discount is and get the information you need from the family member, preferably before you go to the dealership. See more.

8. Have a goal: Know what you want to accomplish in regards to features of your new car, trade value, out-the-door price and monthly payment. Decide what is most important to you. And please, share that information with your sales person. Don’t play games. Be clear about your most important goal.

9. Do math: You’re not going to be able to buy a $30,000 car for $250 a month. Lease — mabye — but not buy. So, if you’re budget is $250, understand that you’re allowing your budget to dictate the model and features of your vehicle; it might also be dictating year and miles if you’re going pre-owned. For example, I had a young woman who turned down a $275 a month payment on a 2014 preowned Chevrolet Cruze LT with 43K miles on it — a 2 year-old car that came with the remaining 5-year, 100K mile powertrain warranty and roadside assistance. She said she wasn’t willing to go over $250. So, she chose to take a 2010 Malibu LT with 59K miles, out of warranty and a bit more…used. It didn’t make much sense to me, but she was happy, and that’s what matters.

10. Be open to different financing options: Perhaps you heard leasing a new car was a bad decision. Or maybe you heard Of course, you have no idea what your best car-buying options are for your unique situation, but someone told you something once and you think you know. Well, you don’t. So, be sure to share your goals, along with information about your credit and your driving habits, with your sales person. Then, let the dealership educate you on all the different options in regards to length of the loan, leasing options, money down, interest rates, etc. If you’re credit challenged, read this…