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The Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation examined twenty car dealership websites across the Commonwealth to determine how consumers could best use these websites to shop around when purchasing a car. As a consumer looking to purchase a car, you should go to the website of the dealerships you intend to visit to gather some preliminary information, but you will likely not find everything you need to know online.

Using Information on Car Dealership Websites

On the dealerships’ websites, you can find general costs associated with a specific car, what kinds of deals are being offered on a regular or changing basis, whether financing is offered and possibly some of those terms, and whether trade-in offers are available. You can look online and compare one dealership to another and their offers. There may be a discount for being in the military or a recent college graduate, there may be dealer incentives on specific models, or there may be specials on service, accessories, or parts. If you are looking to purchase a used car, you can usually see on the website what “certified pre-owned” means (it might be different for each dealership) or if the used car has a vehicle history report.

What is not readily available online is the list of fees that can be associated with the purchase such as sales tax, preparation for new certificate of title, registration and license plates, documentation fees, state or federal fees, finance charges, bank or dealer fees, and more. These fees are listed as “not included” in the price and usually are not listed online, so the consumer will need to go to the dealership and speak with a salesperson directly to find out about other costs. Consumers should ask the specific amount of each fee, whether the fee is negotiable and whether each customer is charged the same fee. For example, pre-printed documentation fees on blank purchase contracts may be a good indicator that those particular fees are standard for every sale.

Prepare and Ask Questions

Before heading to the car dealership, you should develop a list of questions that would factor in the decision about whether to purchase a particular car. You could print out or write the questions down and bring them to the dealership—it can be easy to get flustered and forget something, so having the list with you can be helpful. Although the list of questions below is not a definitive list, the questions should serve as a useful starting point to develop your own list of questions of things that are important to you:

  • What are any fees associated with this car, including a documentation fee? Which ones are negotiable?
  • Do you offer any discounts for students/recent graduates/veterans/etc.?
  • Are there any aftermarket parts, alarms, or other add-ons?
  • How many miles are on the car? Is the car I want actually on this lot or can you deliver it?
  • What are the types of warranties or protection plans you offer for a price or that come with the car at no extra charge?
  • How do you determine value on a trade-in and when will that factor into lowering the price on the car I want to buy?
  • What types of financing arrangements do you offer?

Shop Around for Financing

When considering the financing of the car, you should shop around. Look for better interest rates and favorable terms. You do not have to obtain financing through the dealership and may instead look at a number of auto financers or your own bank before actually shopping for the car itself. One consumer we spoke with said she found an extra fee when looking at the financing arrangement, a “one-time VSI fee charged by the credit union that financed the sale [through the car dealership].” The sales person may not be aware of financing fees, so it is important to stay alert after you select the car if you do obtain financing through a dealership agreement.

Other Tips

No matter how much research you do, there is no way to predict everything ahead of time. Allow yourself enough time to ask questions. Do not back down if you are not getting an answer or do not understand the salesperson’s response. Ask for clarification and be aggressive about speaking up for yourself if you need more information from the salesperson.

More tips to make your car shopping experience more manageable.

  • Do your research first. Do not arrive at the dealership without first researching the car or type of car you want to buy. You can review Auto Trader, Consumer Reports, Kelly Blue Book, or other sources. Although you cannot always find everything you want to know on the dealership website, it is a good place to start to become familiar with the car, the dealership, the features you desire, and how much it will cost.
  • Bring print-outs from the dealer’s website. There may be an offer or deal in which you are interested.
  • Know what features you want. You may be offered additional parts, accessories, or services for your new vehicle. Consider whether you truly want any of these, and be aware that you will pay more when these are rolled into your financing.
  • Test Drive. You should test-drive the car you are thinking of purchasing. This can help you determine if you would feel comfortable in the car and whether you envision owning this car in the long term.
  • Plan for comfort. Expect to be at the dealership for several hours. Plan for your own physical comfort for this time. You want to be sharp, alert, and informed so that you can negotiate the best price for yourself and your wallet.
  • Itemized final cost: Ask to see a final breakdown of the cost printed out before you sign anything and check it line by line. Sometimes dealers may include an aftermarket part of other add-ons you did not discuss or request. If there is something included in the cost breakdown that you do not understand, ask about it and do not sign any document until you understand all the terms of the purchase.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you feel pressured or uncomfortable at any time, leave. Listen to your instincts. There will always be another car another day.

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