Sneaky Car Dealership Tricks to Avoid at All Costs

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Buying a new car can be exciting, but it can also be a total pain in the neck. You may be tempted to try and get the experience over with as fast as possible, but you should resist that urge. Take some time to research the process and learn the common ways dealerships trick their customers into paying more so that they can’t take advantage of you.

Always remember that salesmen work on commission, and many care more about the sale than your needs. You are the one responsible for watching out for you. Start by learning about the most common sneaky car dealership tricks so you can smoothly avoid them.

False Advertising

False advertising is nothing new for car dealerships. For decades, some of the less scrupulous dealerships have strategically designed ads to make customers think they're offering more than they really are. The car you see in a photo, for example, might be a scaled-up version of what they actually have on the lot.

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Once you get to the dealership and see the car in person, you may find that it's a lower-quality, less attractive or slightly different model than you originally anticipated. For this reason, you should always approach dealership ads and commercials with a healthy amount of suspicion.

The Sneaky "Money Factor"

If you're thinking about leasing a car, be on the lookout for the "money factor." Also known as the "lease factor" or "lease fee," this number is presented as a tiny little decimal that most customers don't even know exists. If you're not careful, however, it can cost you big.

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You need to ask about the money factor and multiply it by 2,400 to determine the annual percentage rate (APR). Compare this number next to the typical APR to make sure you're not getting the wool pulled over your eyes about the rate you’re paying.

Tossing Out Some Bait

You might spot a car ad or offer online that seems too good to be true. It probably is. If you end up pursuing that offer at the car dealership, you might arrive to find that the specific car or offer from the ad is (sadly) no longer available.

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But wait! The salesman can assist you with a different car and a deal that's almost the same as the ad you saw — the keyword being "almost." Unfortunately, the new deal will inevitably be more expensive. In many cases, there was no special price to begin with, and they used the "deal" as bait to get you in the door.

Adding Bogus Fees

Purchasing a car is a long, exhausting process. Often, you simply want the whole thing to be over long before you get to the end of it. Resist the urge to give up and just sign! The closing is the most important part.

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You need to look at the numbers to see exactly what they're charging you and negotiate some fees, if necessary. Some costs are bogus, like a market adjustment fee or a loan payment fee. It's not wrong to contest some of them, and you should walk away from the deal altogether if certain fees don’t make sense and they won’t budge.

Sweet (Misleading) Words

Half of the battle for dealerships is getting customers into the lobby in the first place. They have a million ways to lure you inside, and one is by advertising outrageously good deals like free oil changes and tire adjustments. These deals are generally accompanied by the words "See dealer for details."

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The details are where the whole thing could fall apart. They might present you with tons of paperwork or certain conditions that render the deal useless. It could also be a ploy to get you into the building.

Unnecessary Extended Warranties

If you have ever had a car with a seemingly endless array of problems, you might think an extended warranty sounds like a great deal. It covers repairs on your car after the regular warranty has expired, and as you know, repairs can get pretty expensive.

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Consumer Reports reveals, however, that those warranties aren't actually worth the money. You usually end up paying more in fees than you ever would on repairs, which is a high price to pay for some peace of mind.

Special Rules for Leasing

Leasing a car isn't usually the best option for most buyers, but if it's a road you decide to go down, don't ever get an extended warranty on top of your car deal. A lease is essentially an extended warranty in and of itself: you often pay as part of the lease price for car repairs to be covered by the dealership.

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In this situation, an extended warranty is simply be extra money out of your pocket. The dealership shouldn't even put this on the table as an option. If they do, you know they're just trying to up their profit.

Hidden Details in the Small Print

Any time you make a deal that requires signing a contract, you need to make sure you fully read the paperwork. It might feel awkward to sit there for 20 minutes as you work your way through page after page of small print, but the dealers may be hoping you’ll rush.

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Instead, take control of your decision-making and finances and read every last word. The paperwork is the only place where all the information you need is laid out for you, allowing you to catch any unexpected conditions or price hikes.

Suspicious VIN Etch Fee

If you haven't heard of VIN etching, that's probably because it's useless. Basically, your car's VIN number is etched into the glass of the windshield. Supposedly, this deters car thieves from going after your vehicle because they can't easily get rid of the VIN number.

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Of course, many car thieves don't even know what a VIN number is, so the effectiveness of this method is questionable. It's also a way for dealerships to charge you an extra fee that is higher than a regular car shop would for the same work.

Pushing Extra Protections

When vehicles are made, they’re generally designed for the long haul to keep consumers happy. That means using the best paints, resilient fabrics and rust-resistant materials. Why, then, do dealerships so often try to sell you added protections for your car?

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It's generally advisable not to opt for any sealants, rustproofing or other "extra protections," as these are often merely ways for the dealership to add an extra line to your final receipt. You are there to buy a car, not to remake one, and that should be your first priority.

Models With Too Many Options

If you have ever shown up to a dealership, only to find the car you were interested in suddenly costs thousands of dollars more, it might be because of "dealer-added options." This refers to flashy extras like a sunroof or fancy add-ons, and they send the price right through the roof.

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Dealers may choose to do this because it's a way to make customers think they're getting an upgrade when they're really just getting up-sold. You shouldn’t accept expensive dealer-added options that you didn’t want in the first place.

Guaranteed Asset Protection

Guaranteed Asset Protection (GAP for short) is essentially insurance that covers you in case the worst happens. If the car gets totaled, for example, and your insurance company doesn't award you a payout that matches your loan amount, GAP covers the difference between the two amounts so that you’re not left with debt on a ruined vehicle. Sounds awesome, right?

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Here’s the problem: Dealerships don't usually have the best deals on GAP insurance. Instead, look into buying it through your insurance company. It might be a lifesaver — and a money saver — but it’s not worth the high fees you would pay at a dealership.

Illegal Yo-Yo Scams

This particular dealership trick isn't just shady — it's downright illegal. Plenty of unsuspecting clients have been victims, however, so you need to be aware of it. A yo-yo scam begins with a customer taking a car home after supposedly closing a financing deal like normal. A few days later, the dealer calls to break the bad news: Your financing didn’t go through at the stated terms, and you need to return to pay a higher down payment or sign a new contract with much less appealing financing terms.

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To avoid this scam, look for anything in the paperwork that says the deal is conditional and make sure all blanks on forms are filled in. If you’re already hooked, return the car and walk away — the deal they’ll try and force on you isn’t worth it. And if they threaten you, contact an attorney.

Talking in Terms of Monthly Payments

Salesmen will always try to sell you more than what you need or even want. They may offer you a grocery list of extra perks that you didn't know existed, each one costing quite a bit extra. The rising overall price tag often scares customers, so salesmen try to frame it in terms of monthly payments.

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Instead of telling you that the sunroof costs an extra $2,000, they will tell you it only adds $20 to your monthly payment. That makes it sound a lot more reasonable for something you don’t really need, doesn't it? At the end of the day, it still costs $2,000 — plus additional interest if you don’t pay cash.

On-the-Spot Delivery

On-the-spot delivery isn't always a bad thing, but it's something you should avoid accepting. This term refers to when a dealership allows a customer to take the car before their loan has been approved. Essentially, you're going home with a car before the deal is sealed.

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Sometimes, it's simply an act of good faith for customers with high credit scores whose applications won't go through before the end of the day, but there's a risk it could lead to the dreaded yo-yo scenario. Even if you love the car, wait until tomorrow to take it home.

Unfair Trade-In Practices

When you're done with one car and want to trade it in at a dealership, make sure you do your research on its value as well. Many people are eager to get their old vehicle off their hands and move on with a new one, so they don’t fight for the trade-in value they deserve — and dealerships know it.

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Dealers may start out with an incredibly low trade-in offer. Some initial values are so low that even if you think you're negotiating for a higher price, it still ends up being below the mark. Make sure you look into the true value of your car before completing a trade-in.

Focusing on Your Monthly Budget

Instead of asking how much you want to spend on a car in total, dealers often ask how much you want to pay monthly. The problem with this is that just about any car can fit into your monthly budget if you extend the duration of your payments.

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If a dealer hears you say $300 is your monthly goal, they will simply look for a more expensive car that requires a six-year commitment instead of four. Don't fall into this trap, because the longer you make payments, the higher your interest will be.

Trade-In Plus Purchase?

It may seem like a good idea to trade in an old vehicle and purchase a new one in the same sitting. After all, you're saving time, right? Well, you might be losing money at the same time. Doing both at once allows the dealership to skimp on one offer while appearing to do well on the other.

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They might offer an abysmally low amount for your trade-in but give you a good offer on the new vehicle, or vice versa. Keeping the two transactions separate helps protect you from this dealership trick.

The Dreaded Four Squares

There are some strategies in the world of car dealerships that everyone except the customer knows are a load of — well, you get the idea. One of them is the "four square method," and you will never see a decent dealership do it in front of a client.

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It involves drawing four squares for vehicle price, monthly payment, down payment and trade-in value. They do some bogus moving around of the numbers, but it's essentially meant to confuse the customer. This is a tell-tale sign that the dealership isn't a reputable one. Get in your car — not a new one! — and leave.

Lease Down Payments

One of the ways leasing a car is beneficial is that it's not immediately expensive. You shouldn't have to shell out huge sums of money when you first lease a car, but sometimes, dealerships can't resist looking for more money.

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If they ask for a down payment on a lease, you should definitely refuse. It will cost you a lot in taxes, too, and it isn't necessary. Tell them you want to pay it along with your monthly payments. This will be easier on your bank account and wiser in the long run.

Discussing How You Plan to Pay

If you think the dealer is your friend, then you are sadly mistaken. Their interest lies in selling you a car at the highest possible price and asking how you plan to pay helps them do this. If you admit that you want to pay cash, they are sure to offer higher "deals" to compensate for not making money from financing.

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Technically, financing is the primary way dealerships make money. If you say you plan to finance, they might offer a better up-front deal as long as it requires a long payment period. To be on the safe side, don't reveal how you plan to pay. Tell them you want to focus on price only.

Selling You a Lease

If you walk into a car dealership with the intention to buy a vehicle, don't ever entertain the notion that you should lease instead. If you're already planning to buy, chances are good that leasing will not be a better option. Upfront costs may be lower, but it's not as beneficial as owning a car except under very specific circumstances.

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However, a salesman might try to talk you into leasing if they think it’s more beneficial to them. If they seem really eager about a leasing deal, it's probably because it will end up costing you more.

Educating You on Everything

If a dealer sees that a customer doesn't know anything about the process of buying a car, they will use that to their advantage. If you find the dealer is telling you a lot about things you've never heard before, it's a sign you should go home and do more research.

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Trusting a dealer to tell you exactly how things work is not a good idea. They will simply bend information to their benefit and withhold anything that might deter you from spending as much money as possible. Read up before visiting.

Too Many Promises

When it comes to car dealerships, if a promise seems too good to be true, that's probably because it is. Beware of seemingly generous offers, such as paying off your previous car loan in full despite your trade-in value. They often add that amount to price somewhere else.

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They might keep your monthly payment the same, for example, but sign you up to pay an extra year or even two more than you anticipated. Stay sharp, and don't let shiny promises blind you from the truth of the transaction taking place. They dupe plenty of people this way.

Cheating You on the Interest Rate

Dealerships seek to take your money in many subtle ways. One of them is by charging you a high interest rate on financing deals. If you trust the dealer to arrange a third-party loan for you, they have the discretion to charge a higher interest rate than the loan institution.

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The extra interest goes directly to the dealership. This is why it's important for you to research loan rates on your own, with your own bank or credit union. It might be a headache, but it can save you a lot of money.

Time Is Running Out

Dealers — and salesmen in general — will always tell you that time is running out on whatever deal you're interested in on a particular product. They try to intentionally create a sense of urgency, hoping you’ll rush through the process while overlooking red flags and agreeing to things you wouldn't consider if you had taken your time.

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This is simply selling 101, and you shouldn't fall for it. Sometimes, certain deals do expire at the end of the month, but these opportunities typically come from the manufacturer and have well-advertised deadlines. Make sure you visit various places and explore your options before committing.

"You Need to Come In"

It shouldn't be difficult to call or email dealerships and ask about their prices. However, they will try to tell you that you need to come into the dealership to get the real offers. Hold firm and push them to give you some numbers over the phone or via email.

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This is a good way to compare prices among dealerships, so you can go to the best one — assuming they don’t change the numbers on you after you arrive. (Leave if they do.) Doing these sorts of comparisons often gives you the best chance at getting a good deal, as dealers always want to out-sell their competition.

Tricking You Into a Different Deal

If you've researched car loans on your own and have been preapproved at a certain interest rate, good for you! If you're curious whether the dealership can offer a better deal, that's a great idea, but don’t give too much info to the dealer.

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They will probably ask what your outside lender offered, but you should keep your lips sealed. They could use that information to give you a deal that looks better in comparison but still isn't the best they could possibly offer. It may seem strange, but withholding information can be beneficial.

Timing Is Everything

Dealerships are constantly working with quotas and preparing for new models to arrive. These cycles often affect the deals they offer customers and could work to your advantage. In late summer, for example, they are already thinking about new cars that will arrive in the fall months and around the holidays.

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They need to make room for those shipments and get older cars out of there fast. That means better deals for shoppers like yourself. Shopping at the end of the month is also a prime time for better deals, as that’s when many salesmen are trying to top off their monthly quotas. Work with these schedules if you want the best prices.

Keeping Your Guard Up

While salesmen are still people worthy of respect, and some of them may even genuinely help, you should probably treat them with a healthy dose of skepticism if you want to get the best deal. They are trying to make a living, and the drive to succeed generally prompts them to put their own interests above yours. They fib about the pros and cons, availability and one-time offers for a living.

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You should be wary about the information you share with them and try to keep your poker face on at all times. Negotiate the total price above anything else and don't be afraid to contest fees that look bogus to you. If you take your time, you could end up with a deal that is truly beneficial.