Personal Finance

Here's how to snag the best car deals during end-of-year sales push

Key Points
  • The cost of a new car averages nearly $34,300.
  • The best deals are available on current-year models, although some 2019 versions come with discounts or even zero-percent financing.
  • Experts recommend comparing offers among dealerships, because there can be a big difference in pricing or incentives among local dealers.

This is the time of year when car shoppers can find themselves in the driver's seat in more ways than one.

With dealerships eager to clear out current-year inventory and meet year-end sales goals, consumers may have a bit more leverage while wheeling and dealing than they do at other times.

"Car manufacturers are still doing some big pushes, but individual dealerships can be really motivated to have aggressive pricing," said Matt Jones, senior consumer advice editor for auto research firm Edmunds.

Source: Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For 2018, the end-of-the-year sales push comes amid rising interest rates, which continue to push up the cost of financing a car. And with consumers paying an average $34,292 for a new auto, getting in on a deal can be a key way to keep the cost of ownership down.

Many of the best deals will be on 2018 models. Some come with manufacturer discounts of 17 percent or more, according to Consumer Reports. Those include the Hyundai Elantra, Santa Fe Sport, Ram 1500 and Jaguar XF.

Even some of next year's models have decent discounts off the manufacturer's price. For example, the 2019 Kia Soul comes with an incentive of up to $3,076 off its sticker price of $21,430. That 14 percent discount would reduce the price to $18,354.

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Some manufacturers are still offering zero percent financing for qualified buyers. However, you often have to choose between a cash incentive or a sweet financing deal.

And, most  manufacturer deals will expire Jan. 2.

"I don't expect to see them extended," Jones said. "My expectation is that when it's done, that's going to be it for a while."

Here are some tips for preparing your trip to the dealer.

Assess the local 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. For instance, Jones is familiar with a transaction in the Los Angeles area that involved an $8,000 discount on a 2018 car that comes with a typical sticker price of about $24,000. That's 30 percent off.

"You can look on third-party websites to get an idea of where a car's price should be, but then dig into the local market to see what deals are available," Jones said.

Secure 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.

Sometimes, Jones said, people are surprised that they don't qualify for an advertised special rate. Generally speaking, the higher your credit score, the more likely you are to snag those best deals. Credit scores of 719 or higher help you qualify for the lowest rates, according to Bankrate.

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"Get preapproved ahead of time, even if just to see what kind of rate you can expect," Jones said.

The current average interest rate on a five-year (60 months) loan for a new car is just under 5 percent, according to Bankrate. However, consumers with good or excellent credit could qualify for a lower rate while those with lower  scores could pay a much higher rate.

Collect key documents

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

Also, if you are making a down payment, call the dealer ahead of time to find out what forms of payment are accepted.

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