Car shoppers may find good deals with President's Day weekend sales push

  • With dealer lots now full of 2018 models, many of the best deals will be on older cars that remain. Incentives also tend be larger on sedans and large pickup trucks than on SUVs.
  • The average incentive in January was $3,657 and has probably ticked a bit higher since then. In December, the average incentive was more than $4,300.
  • The average transaction price on new cars in January was $32,169, up from $31,422 a year ago.

If you're in the market for a new car, there are more than a few dealerships that would be happy to help you over the next few days.

The three-day weekend, capped by President's Day on Monday, is the first big sales weekend of the year. With auto sales coming off their January lull, manufacturers and dealerships are offering holiday-related discounts on some of their inventory.

"This is the first real sale of the year, when people get their sales hats on and start promotions," said Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. "It's a warmup for bigger sales you'll see later in the year."

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Auto sales were off to slow start in January, which was anticipated. For the second consecutive year, new-vehicle retail sales are expected to come in 2.7 percent lower than a year ago, according to a recent forecast from J.D. Power and LMC Automotive.

At the same time, the average transaction price in January was $32,169, up from $31,422 a year ago.

With dealer lots now full of 2018 models, most of the best deals will be on older vehicles that remain. There also tend to be larger incentives on sedans and large pickup trucks than on SUVs, Jones said.

However, don't expect incentive offers to be as large as they were a couple of months ago.

In January, the average incentive was $3,657, according to Edmunds research. While that amount has likely ticked a bit higher in February, the average incentive in December was more than $4,300.

"At the end of the calendar year, those big discounts are there to make room for next year's models," Jones said. "They don't need to do that yet for 2019 models."

While you might be tempted to wait and see if incentives climb higher as the year passes, make sure the cost of doing so is worth it.

"Sometimes trying to delay your purchase to wait for better deals could cost more if you have repairs or pay [another driver] to get you everywhere," Jones said.

Even if you think your heart is set on a particular make and model, it's wise to do some legwork before you head to the dealership. Here are some tips for making smart financial decisions about your next car and to make the purchase process go more smoothly.

Assess the market

Before you even set foot in a showroom, it's worthwhile doing some research online first. If you have some flexibility, you might discover a great deal on a car similar to the one you were thinking about.

You also might find a difference in price among local dealerships on the same car. Or, you might find a dealership that has a special deal going — say, picking up the tab for the sales tax on your purchase — that could reduce your overall cost.

Get preapproved financing

Unless you plan to pay cash, you should get preapproved for a loan from a bank or credit union.

While there's no obligation to use the preapproval, you'll at least be armed with a comparison when the dealership offers its best loan terms. The better your credit score, the better terms you'll be able to secure.

Collect key documents

Make sure you're armed with all the documents you'll need to complete a sale: Your driver's license, the title and registration for your existing car (if you're trading it in) and proof of insurance.

If you are making a down payment, call the dealership ahead of time to find out what forms of payment are accepted.

Beware the add-ons

Once you get to the nitty-gritty of a deal, you might be offered an optional feature or service contract, such as an extended warranty.

Make sure you do the math before you sign on the dotted line — not only to understand the extra monthly cost, but also to know what you would pay over the life of the loan for the add-on.

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