Car dealerships are notoriously stressful places. Why? Because, while everyone inside wears a smile, there’s a subtle psychological tug-of-war going between buyers and sellers. It can be very difficult to resist pressure from a skilled vehicle salesperson—and you’d better believe they have tons of tactics designed to make drivers say yes, often with their hearts rather than their heads.
The best way to ensure your trip to the dealership goes in your favor is to prepare ahead of time. Know what you want and what you can afford. Be prepared to encounter some pressure from salespeople hoping to earn commission, but don’t let it sway you from your goal.
Here are five things to know when at a car dealership.
Know Your Budget Before You Arrive
You want to walk into an auto dealership knowing exactly what you can afford to pay each month. If you walk in with a general idea of “about” X dollars per month, you can bet the sales staff will treat that figure like a soft suggestion rather than a firm limit. The looser your budget, the more likely you are to agree to a deal that’s at or above the limit—especially once you factor in fees, taxes, add-ons, etc.
Sit down beforehand and take a hard look at your income. What percentage of your take-home pay can you afford to allot to car payments each month? Crunch the numbers on your own time, away from all the stressors of the dealership.
Don’t Budge on What Matters to You
Just like you should put a budget down on paper, write down what features really matter to you. Differentiate between what you want and what you need in a vehicle. This will help you avoid being swayed on the essentials or tempted to pay more for nonessentials you don’t really need.
Here’s a common scenario car shoppers will encounter at the dealership: They agree to test-drive a car that’s either at the top end of their price range or just a bit above it. The salesperson then reminds them about all the great features they’ll get—heated seats, a multimedia entertainment system, push-button start, etc.—by spending just a touch more. The buyer suddenly feels like they need these things and agrees to a payment plan that’s a strain for them, destined to feel the pinch for months and months to come.
With your list of non-negotiable characteristics, on the other hand, you can easily identify vehicles that work for you before you even start test-driving, and you can give yourself a reality check whenever you’re tempted to splurge on “wants.”
Don’t Bump Up Loan Duration to Lower Payments
Auto financing is a give-and-take proposition. A longer loan duration means lower monthly payments—but you’ll pay more in interest over time, plus you’ll be on the hook for additional months or years. A shorter duration means you’ll pay more each month, but you’ll pay off what you owe faster and without accruing as much interest.
Most auto loans vary from 24 to 72 months—but longer loans of 84 months are becoming more prevalent. It’s generally unwise to bump up your loan duration above 60 months because it can launch you into a cycle in which you owe more on the car than it’s worth by the time you want to trade it in. While car refinancing is possible through some lenders like RoadLoans, it’s not always possible to make changes once you sign on the dotted line. So, consider the terms of your loan carefully before agreeing to anything.
Avoid Credit Checks Until You’re Sure
Hard inquiries on your credit that occur when financial institutions run a credit check can cause your score to drop. As Car and Driver notes, “There is no point okaying a credit check and risking a ding to your credit if you’re a long way from buying.”
Take Your Time—and Take a Step Back
It’s easy to get caught up in the persuasion of the car dealership environment. The salesperson wants to say yes. You want to say yes. But you need to take a step back. After all, you’ll be living with the financial choice you make for years to come. If you need to, come back the next day after thinking it over more.
Knowing these five things before you visit an auto dealership will help you keep your cool and make the smartest decision for your life.