Q: I'm shopping around for a new car but am really confused by all the ads, sales, "best deals," and the like. Can you give me a few easy tips that will save me money in the long run?
- Annie Auto
Dear Ms. Auto: While I consider myself to be a reasonably good vehicular shopper, I went straight to the top to answer your question: Consumer Reports' 2014 Cars. Just remember that, overall, using your Internet, phone and email to research in the luxury of your own home may be the best tip of all.
• Decide on the exact auto you wish to purchase. You can use the manufacturers' and local merchants' sites to determine the options and inventory accessible. Be certain you can drive the vehicle for which you've narrowed your choice. Do not listen to your friend or to the salesman. For example, I'm only 5 feet tall, so the seat comfort may be vastly different for me than for someone who's 5-foot-10. Other areas include visibility and dash controls, and who doesn't need that steering wheel BlueTooth on the road?
• Know your financing options in advance. Okay, you've got the car price set in your mind. Now shop around for the lowest interest rate. (Check current rates at Bankrate.com.) First, ask the lender for pre-approval, which won't be a problem unless your credit score sucks. Get him or her to issue you a bank check that you later fill out at the dealership. Wave this check just like green money in front of the salesman's face. If the latter offers more desirable terms, you've still been pre-approved and can move forward with the loan.
• Make dealers compete for your business. Before signing on the dotted line, call or email several local dealers and ask for their lowest price on the exact car you want. Also, tell them you're still shopping around and that you'll buy from the dealer with the lowest, rock bottom price - NO NEGOTIATION. Moreover, you can get quotes from AutoTrader.com, Cars.com, CarsDirect and TrueCar, where you aren't obligated to buy and you remain anonymous until you choose your dealer. Obviously, the more quotes you have, the better, as you'll use lower quotes as leverage to negotiate with other companies.
So what about that trade-in? Before you even walk into the dealership, be sure you know your car's value by checking it out at Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com), the National Automobile Dealers Association (nada.org) or by buying a Consumer Reports Used Car Price Report. Once you've nailed down the amount, be sure you get it by putting in a bit of effort. For instance, wash and wax the exterior and clean the interior. You can also negotiate the trade-in value if you feel like you're being screwed.
Even though the price may be locked down when you walk through the front doors, hold firm and just say no. Undercoating, paint sealants, VIN etching - a few of the "what you needs" (but what your new auto either already has or can be accomplished for far less cash than what Sammy Salesman is offering).
Forget the extended warranty, unless you're a klutz behind the wheel. And carefully eyeball all the paperwork. Consumer Reports tells us that most dealers include a documentation fee and even a regional advertising fee. Really?
Unfortunately, it's usually difficult to get out of these, but you often can bargain for an extra set of floor mats or another accessory. Always check fine print: many dealers include a clause that requires you to agree to binding arbitration and give up claims under fraud or Lemon Law. Fight it.
If you can, wait until the end of the year and buy, for example, a 2014 model, not a 2015. On the other hand, if the purchase is an immediate one, then preferably search out a 2013 car that you like, and follow all the steps again. Whew!
Taxpayers who watch the calendar improve their chances of getting a larger refund. If you can, pay January's mortgage payment before December 31 and get the added interest for your mortgage interest deduction. Also, schedule health-related treatments and exams in the last quarter of the year to boost your medical expense deduction potential.
Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer books. Email her at consumer email@example.com.