Car Buying Basics

10 Steps to Buying a New Car

Step 1: Starting out.
These steps will help you to locate the specific car you want, and at a price that is fair to both you and the dealer. By now, you should have done plenty of research to determine which is the best car to suit your needs. And, you should have a good idea of what to pay for the car you want. Now you need to narrow the research even more. You will soon be finding the exact car you want to buy — with the options you have chosen — and then you will be determining a target price to pay. If you have done your homework, this will be a fairly easy process with no unexpected surprises.

Buying a car is a big investment, but it can be exciting and rewarding, especially if you feel like you got the right car at a fair price.

Step 2: Using incentives and rebates.
Today's new car market is crowded and competitive. Many new cars are offered for sale with attractive incentives to make you choose a particular model. In some cases, the cars with the best incentives are those that aren't selling very well on their own.

An incentive is anything that gives you an added reason to buy a particular car. Often, however, it comes in the form of a cash rebate or low-interest financing. A car might be selling for $25,000 but the manufacturer is offering $4,000 in customer cash for a final price of $21,000. In another example, a $25,000 car financed for five years at 6 percent would have a monthly payment of about $535. But with zero-percent financing, the payment is roughly $461. That's a huge savings to you.

Check the Web site for the latest incentives and rebates available for the car you want to buy. You can also watch for TV and newspaper promotions but, remember, the incentives don't apply to all models and are not offered in all regions of the country. Furthermore, your credit must be very good to get the low-interest financing. And finally, keep in mind that there are some hidden incentives paid directly to dealers to push certain cars. tracks this so-called "dealer cash" as well, and posts the information in the incentives and rebates section of our Web site as "Marketing Support."

Research what incentives, if any, are offered for the car you want to buy. Print out this information and keep it in your car-buying folder as you move to the next step.

Step 3: Pricing the car.
Car salesmen will usually point to a car's "sticker price" as the amount you have to pay. However, the price the dealership is willing to sell a car for is often well below the sticker price. How do you know what to pay? has created a valuable tool for car buyers called True Market Value (TMV®) pricing. Based on actual sales figures, TMV is the average price buyers are paying (also known as the "transaction price") for a certain type of car in your area. The TMV figures, found on, are adjusted for many factors including options, geographic region and color.

To calculate TMV, begin by looking up the car you want to buy on Follow the prompts to arrive at a final TMV price with options for the exact car you are buying. Keep in mind that this price includes the destination charge, which is levied by all manufacturers. (However, the invoice price might vary in certain regions where advertising costs and other fees are included. Edmunds recommends paying the fees listed on the invoice, but questioning any advertising fees that appear on the purchase contract.)

Now it's time to factor in the incentives and rebates you researched and printed in the previous step. Take the final TMV price and deduct the amount of the cash rebate. In other words, you create your best deal based on TMV, and then lower it by whatever the rebate is. If you are going to use low-interest financing, calculate your final buying price, then use our payment calculator to find your monthly payment.

Print these figures — the TMV, the incentives and the monthly payment — and carry them with you for reference as you continue the car-buying process.

Step 4: Finding the exact car you want to buy.
You should now have a very specific idea of the car you want to buy. This means you know the make, model, trim level, options and color. The more flexible you can be about these specifics, the wider the range of the cars you'll find available for sale. Ultimately, the ability to consider several versions of the same model can give you additional bargaining power. For example, a shopper might be very firm about the make, model and trim level, but could accept a variety of options and colors. If you're a shopper who definitely wants hard-to-find options and a specific color, it will be more difficult to make a great deal. Why? You have no leverage as a negotiator. You have to pay the dealer's price or try to locate another identical vehicle. Obviously, if you do find the exact car you're looking for, there's no need to volunteer this information to the dealership.

In any case, locate the exact car you want by sending e-mails to the Internet managers of dealers in your area. On, you can simultaneously solicit quotes from multiple dealers. In many cases, you will have to follow up with a phone call. Say something like: "I'm looking for a 2003 Matsura Accell. I'm not too fussy about the color but I don't want black or white. I want ABS and side airbags. What do you have on your lot?" Often the salesperson will have to check his inventory and call you back. After a few phone calls you will have a good idea of how widely available the car is. If there are several dealerships offering the same car, you will be in a better position to make a good deal.

As you make phone calls and exchange e-mails, take careful notes. You should record information about each car you locate, including the color, options, and the dealership name. This will save time as you continue through the shopping process.

Step 5: Test driving the car salesman.
As you call dealerships to locate the exact car you want to buy, you can also test drive the car salesman. In other words, you can determine if this is a person you want to do business with. It's a good idea to consider this issue ahead of time, before you get to the deal-making phase of the process.

The first way to evaluate a good salesperson is to ask yourself if you feel comfortable dealing with them. Are they impatient and pushy? Or are they relaxed and open? If you asked them about a specific car's availability, did they respond to your needs? Or did they try to steer you toward another car simply because they have too many of that model in stock? Do they return your phone calls? Do they answer your questions in a straightforward manner? Or are they evasive and confusing?

By considering these issues you should have a sense of whether or not you want to buy from this salesperson. If you feel comfortable with the individual when researching by phone, and if the dealership does indeed have the car you're interested in, set up a time to test drive the car, preferably when the dealership will not be very busy, such as a weekday morning. Before heading to the car lot, review all your notes and make sure you bring your car-buying folder. This might include your checkbook, registration and proof of insurance. Keep in mind that you're bringing these items so you'll be ready to buy a car if you get a fair deal. Don't feel obligated to purchase a car simply because you have all the necessary paperwork with you or because you test drove the car.

Step 6: If you are trading in your old car...
If you are trading in your old car to a dealer, you will probably not get as much money toward the price of a new car as you would have if you'd sold it yourself to a private party. However, trading in offers some advantages. You can solve all of your car-buying problems in one visit to the dealer. You can unload a hard-to-sell car with no newspaper ads, DMV lines or tire-kicking buyers involved. In some states, you will even pay less sales tax on a deal that involves a trade-in.

Begin the process by looking up your car's trade-in value on The True Market Value® (TMV®) Used Vehicle Appraiser will also give you trade-in values. After you plug in all of the vehicle's information (mileage, options, condition and colors) you will get a specific trade-in price. This will often be slightly different from the offers you get once you are on the car lot. At a dealership the value assigned to your trade-in varies based on the time of the month, the dealer's specific inventory and the used car manager's mood, but at least TMV will give you a rough idea of what your trade-in is worth.

If it's important to you to get the maximum value for your trade-in, you should visit several dealerships and solicit bids. Tell the salesperson that the sale of a new car will be contingent on the amount he or she will give you for your trade-in. Also, tell them you are visiting several dealerships. With a little legwork, you may be able to boost the price you get for your old car by several hundred dollars or more. Remember, the extra effort you spend in getting competitive bids is far less than what it would take to advertise, show and sell the car yourself.

Step 7: Negotiating for your lowest price.
Many buyers like to handle the question of price before they even go to the dealer. Internet salespeople are willing to discuss price over the phone — even by e-mail. This wasn't the case a few years ago when the salesperson wanted you in his office before he would get down to brass tacks and talk price.

It's quite possible that, in your calls to various Internet departments, the selling price of the car has already come up. Often Internet salespeople will volunteer the selling price of their car since they know this is the make-or-break factor in most buyers' decision making process. If the price they've quoted is at or below's TMV, then you are already in the right range to buy the car. If you want to try to improve the deal, you have a few options.

Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good deal, but most people just want to know they got a fair price. Here, TMV will be your best guide. If you want to try for a rock-bottom price, start by getting bids from three local dealers. Follow this up by taking the lowest price, calling the two other dealerships and saying, "I've been offered this car at this price. If you beat it I'll buy it from you." They almost certainly will. However, keep in mind that you can't play this game forever. Eventually, they will give you a take-it-or-leave-it price. For more on getting the best price, read Negotiating 101.

Also, be warned that if you ask the dealer to cut his profit, he might try to take it back somewhere else. Remember, a good deal isn't just the lowest selling price. It's the lowest total out-the-door cost on a car that meets your needs. This means that to ensure you get a fair deal you have to be vigilant throughout the entire purchase process, even after you and the salesman agree on a price.

Step 8: Closing the deal.
If you feel good about the price you have been quoted, it's time to take a look at the big picture. Many buyers focus on the cost of the car and ignore the related expenses. Besides the cost, you will have to pay sales tax and various fees which vary from state to state. These expenses can be estimated and totaled with the calculators.

The simplest way to estimate total cost is to ask the salesperson to fax you a worksheet and invoice before you go to the dealership. This way, you'll be able to review the figures in a relaxed environment. Compare the numbers from the dealership to those you have calculated and the TMV prices on

In some areas of the country, dealers have costs that don't show up on invoice prices. This means the invoice price of the car you are researching might not exactly match the dealer's invoice. Don't panic — and don't begin making accusations. can't track all regional fees, such as advertising costs. So, as a rule of thumb, consider the charges on the dealer's invoice to be nonnegotiable. However, if extra fees are written into the contract (such as "D&H" or "Administrative Costs") which seem bogus or redundant, ask to have them removed, or say you will take your business to another dealership. For more information about this crucial point in the process read Invoice Scams and Sudden Extras.

Step 9: Reviewing and signing the paperwork.
At the dealership, you will be presented with the contract for your new car and a dizzying array of forms to sign. This might be done by the Internet salesperson you have been dealing with, or it could be done in a separate office by the finance and insurance (F&I) manager. If this happens, the F&I manager might try to sell you additional items such as extended service contracts, fabric protection, alarms or a LoJack vehicle locator. In most cases, we recommend turning down these extras — with the possible exception of the extended warranty, which provides peace of mind to some buyers. Additionally, it is worth noting that some states allow up to 60 days after purchase to cancel an extended warranty, but you should check local laws to confirm your options in your area.

To prepare yourself for the kinds of products that might be pushed on you, or inserted into the price without your knowledge, read High-Priced Dealer Add-ons.

If you have already seen a worksheet for the deal you've made, the contract should be a formality. Make sure the numbers match the worksheet and no additional charges or fees have been inserted. You will also be asked to sign various forms that register your new car and transfer ownership of your trade-in. Understand what you are signing and what it means. Ask questions if you don't understand, and don't ever feel like you have to hurry. Buying a car is a serious commitment and it's the F&I manager's job to ensure you are comfortable with every document involved. Remember, once you have signed there is no going back.

Step 10: Inspecting and taking possession of your new car.
Most dealerships detail the car and provide a full tank of gas. You will have one more chance to inspect the car before you take possession of it. Make sure you walk around the car and look for scratches in the paint and wheels or dents and dings on the body. If you are paying for floor mats make sure they are included. If anything is missing, or if any work needs to be done, ask for a "Due Bill" that puts it in writing. You will then be able to come back and get the work done later.

As you drive away inhaling that new-car smell, there is only one more thing to be done: enjoy your new car.