Say This, Not That at a Car Dealership

How to talk the talk, and walk out with a good deal

Article QuickTakes

Knowing what to say, and what not to say, at an auto dealership can be the key to driving home happy. We talked to two industry experts–-a former salesman and a finance director--to zero in on some car-buying buzzwords and phrases that will show you’ve done your homework and you’re ready to talk business.

Say this: “I’ve pre-qualified for a loan with my bank and/or credit union.”

Not that: “I haven’t checked my credit score, but I think it’s good enough to get a loan.”

By leading with a pre-qualified financing rate, the salesperson knows a) you can get a loan, b) you’ve set budget parameters and c) you’re a serious buyer. Getting pre-qualified also gives you a rate and term to compare against dealership financing offers.

Customers are commonly asked to fill out a credit application before seeing many cars.  Salespeople who work on commission don’t want to spend hours test-driving with someone who may not qualify for a loan. Depending on the outcome of your application, the salesperson may steer you away from the vehicles you wanted to see and only toward the ones you can get financed. Knowing your credit score and pre-qualifying can help you avoid that situation and potentially save you time at the dealership.

Say this: “I’ve researched the car I want online -– make, model, options and average price in this market.”

Not that: “I’m not sure which car I want, but I need one soon.”

More than 75 percent of all buyers shop cars on the Internet before ever setting foot in a dealership, according to research by Google. Take advantage of the expert advice, reviews and local comparison pricing online. If you know which car you want and about how much you want to pay – some customers bring a folder full of research -- it will save you and the salesperson valuable time.

If you wander into a dealership and say you need a vehicle soon, the salesperson will be eager to help. “Now” is a magic word in the car biz. But knowledge is power for the consumer – and if you haven’t done any research on makes, models, options and things like a car’s invoice price, you won’t have the information you need to negotiate.

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Say this: “I’ve test-driven the cars I’m considering at another dealership.”

Not that: “I’ve seen this car on the road and love the way it looks.”

Don’t be afraid to let a salesperson know you’ve been to another dealership. It indicates you are a patient buyer who hasn’t found the right car or price yet — and you’re willing to walk if the deal isn’t right for you.

But professing your love for a vehicle-–one you haven’t driven yet–-pegs you as an emotional buyer, more concerned about the color of the car than the cost. Play things a bit cooler. Just ask to drive the car and several others like it so you can evaluate multiple options and make an informed choice.

Say this: “I’m willing to pay a fair price for the car I want.”

Not that: “I know how much I can afford to pay per month.”

If you’ve researched average prices in your market, and you understand dealers and salespeople need to make some profit, you should be able to negotiate quickly. It’s a volume business and dealerships need to “move metal.”

But it’s essential to structure any negotiation around the total sales price of a vehicle. Dealers can almost always deliver the monthly payment you want -– but it could come at the cost of lengthening your loan at a higher interest rate. That means the car will cost you a lot more in the end.

Say this: “I’m considering my financing options, including dealer financing.”

Not that: “I am planning to pay cash for the car.”

Even if you’ve pre-qualified with a bank or credit union, you should remain open to the dealer’s attempts to find you a better interest rate. If a dealer thinks there is a possibility of making money on financing, they are more likely to be flexible on purchase price.

Conversely, if they know up front you are paying cash they may not be as willing to budge in negotiations. So, continue to stick to your plan of negotiating the purchase price of the car first, and then discussing how you’re going to pay.

Say this: “I haven’t decided on a down payment or trade-in yet.”

Not that: “How much do you think I can get for my trade-in?”

As we mentioned above, it’s always best to negotiate the price of the vehicle first. Once the trade-in and down payment are in play, numbers can be moved around, creating confusion about what you’re really paying for the car.

Settle on a price for the car, then talk trade-in. Research your trade-in’s fair market value before heading to the dealership, because if their offer is low and they won’t budge, you can always try selling the car privately.

The last word: Purchasing a vehicle is one of the biggest financial commitments most people make, so even after doing all your prep work, it’s easy to get flustered or tongue-tied at the dealership. Practice the conversation with a friend or family member. Make notes. Bring your folder of research. You can never be too prepared to get a good deal.

This site is for educational purposes only. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Rick Press
After a long career as an editor for a major metropolitan newspaper and website, in 2017 I joined Capital One as its Managing Editor for Auto Content. I’ve been fortunate to cover everything from breaking news and Super Bowls to CEOs and celebrities, and now I am excited to explore the connection we all have to our cars and help consumers navigate the car-buying journey. Let’s ride!