When I realized my time with my beloved 2001 Honda Civic was nearly over, I started to think about buying or leasing a car. I walked into a dealership knowing I wasn't going to buy anything that day, but wanting to test drive a specific car and practice my negotiating skills.
Right now, it's more important than ever to understand that a sales person at a car dealership will almost always tell you you can afford a car, and likely present you with loads of appealing financing options.
According to Bloomberg, deep subprime auto loans are surging, which means that lots of folks who historically have had trouble paying off their debts are being granted access to attractive financing opportunities. Dealers are offering riskier loans, and default rates are increasing. Some have even likened the situation to the subprime mortgage crisis.
If you want to buy a car, don't want until you show up at the dealership to find out if you can actually afford to buy one. After I crunched some numbers and came up with a car budget that felt reasonable, I did some research and decided to follow one key rule: Never accept the first offer, whether it's the sticker price or whatever deal the salesman puts before you.
That guideline served me well, but, based on my own successful experience, I came away with a lesson that was just as simple, and equally useful, for getting a great price: Don't mention money.
Strange, right? But it works. If you act like money doesn't matter and instead keep the focus on your ambivalence about the car, you turn the normal situation around. The salesperson must strive to convince you of the merits of their product using every tool at their disposal, including lowering the price.
Here's how you get there.
Use your first time at the negotiation rodeo as a rehearsal, even if it means test-driving a car you're not even interested in.
That way, when it comes time for you to sign a piece of paper, you won't doubt yourself and wonder if you could have done better.
2. Act unenthusiastic, even unconvinced, about the product
I walked into the dealership and asked to test drive the 2017 Honda Fit. After I'd gone a few blocks, I made no sign that I was won over by the car. I appeared ambivalent.
When we went back inside the dealership, the salesman sat me down and handed me a piece of paper. It said they could offer me a lease of $250 a month for 36 months and the ability to put 15,000 miles on the car every year.
As I had been told to do, I asked if that was the best he could do on the price, and he immediately brought it down from $250 to $229.
It's a salesperson's job to sell you a car, and they have two ways to do it: Convince you that the price is great or convince you that the car is great. Shifting the conversation to the car itself puts you in a more powerful position.
When the salesman presented me with $229, I told him I was going to be honest and I wasn't super concerned with the price but with the car itself. "Part of me thinks I should check out comparable cars to make sure the Honda Fit is the best one," I said.
Doing that shifted the conversation away from money to why I needed to buy a Honda. With a few words, I sent the signal that I might be taking my business elsewhere. The fact that he wanted to keep me in the dealership enticed him to work harder.
That ended up being my ticket to a great price.
The salesman spent 10 minutes showing me specs of comparable cars against the specs of the Honda. He told me I could go out and test drive tons of options but I would 100 percent come back to the Fit.
Why not save the time, he asked me, and just lease this car for $190 a month?
That was $60 lower than their initial offer from 15 minutes before.
3. Maintain your poker face
For all the salesperson knows, money is not an issue for you, and you want to maintain that mystique.
I told the Honda salesman that I appreciated his generous offer but I was still uncertain and wanted to do my research. When I stood up to signal the end of the conversation, he asked me to name my price.
At this point, if I wanted to buy the car that day, I would have said my price was $125 a month to see if he'd come up to the actual price I had in my head: $140. That would have been the start of our actual negotiation. But since I was not planning on buying the car, or any car, that day, I said again that it wasn't about money, and that I really did want to test drive other options.
The next day, the salesperson called and offered me $179 a month if I came in and bought the Fit that week. I still declined, but I was interested to note that I had gotten them down from $250 to $179, and I didn't really have to talk about money — or anything at all. In fact, not talking about money seemed to be the key.
Ultimately, I decided to buy a preowned car instead of leasing a new one, but if I ever need to negotiate the terms of a lease, I'll certainly know how to do it.