Your Car Shopping Game Plan

NOTE: "Shopping" for a vehicle is not the same as "buying." "Shopping" means checking out the various brands and models, test driving the vehicles that interest you and getting the info you need so that you can decide which vehicle you want to buy. Buying that vehicle will be discussed later in "Step 5: Buying Like An Expert."

Here is your step-by-step game plan for achieving your goals on your initial shopping expeditions:

1. Greet the car salesman warmly.
Smile and shake his hand. Be friendly. You want him to like you so that he'll work harder for you.

2. Get his attention by telling him what he wants to hear.
Tell him: "I'll be buying a car soon." If after this introduction, you find the salesman rude or unwilling to help you, ask to speak to his Sales Manager. Tell the manager that you'd like a more helpful salesman.

3. Tell the car salesman exactly what you want to see.
Be specific as possible. For example: "I'd like to see what you have in a compact car with automatic transmission and a window sticker price of around $18,000." If you're not sure what you want or you're confused by all the choices, then tell him those things that you know are important to you, such as: "I need a four-door car with lots of cargo space and a window sticker price of around $18,000."

Under the guise of trying to help you, the salesman is going to ask you lots of questions. Do not discuss your monthly payments with him.

Then turn the tables on him. Ask him questions about the cars, the dealership and his business. Play dumb and try to learn as much as you can.

4. Check out the vehicles that he shows you.
When he shows you a car that you like - and that fits your needs and budget - look it over. Do you like the styling of the car? Can you see yourself driving it?

5. If it is a new vehicle, look at the factory window sticker.
The factory window sticker tells you all about the car. Read it carefully because it contains a lot of important information.

The window sticker will give you the predicted gas mileage for both highway and city driving. It will also list all of the equipment that comes standard with the vehicle and then, in a separate column, the options that have been built into the car at the factory with the price of each listed. Look for an "equipment package," a group of discounted options.

At the bottom of the sticker will be the asking price for the vehicle called the "M.S.R.P." which stands for "Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price". Be sure that this price fits your budget.

Some dealerships add a second window sticker called a "Dealer Addendum" in an effort to widen their profit margin. If you see one of these stickers, ignore it for now. (Some of the items listed on the "Dealer Addendum" sticker may include: paint or fabric protection, dealer prep charges and perhaps even "market value." The items on a "Dealer Addendum" sticker are often overpriced and, in some cases, near-scams.)

6. Ask about other versions of the same car.
Most vehicles come in several different equipment levels. You might be able to get the same car with the equipment you want on a less expensive version.

7. If you like the car, sit inside.
Is the interior comfortable? How does the interior "feel"?

8. Ask the salesman if you can test drive the car.
He'll be happy to take you for a test drive.

Notice what's happening here: you're allowing the car salesman to breeze right through the steps of his game plan. He wants you to test drive that car. He thinks he's doing great and that he's in total control. What he doesn't know is that you know exactly what you are doing. In fact, you are in complete control here.

9. Drive the vehicle as you normally would.
Don't "baby" the car. If you normally accelerate hard, then drive it that way. If you normally brake hard or corner fast, then do so. Try to drive on the types of roads you normally drive. Be sure to turn the air conditioning on and off to see how it affects the performance of the engine. And don't forget to ask lots of questions.

10. After the drive, ask the salesman for a brochure.
He'll probably ask you something like: "Is there anything we can do to earn your business today?" or "If I could sell you this $18,000 car for only $12,000, would you buy it today?"

You must be firm and clear. Tell him: "I really appreciate all of your help but, as I told you at the beginning, I'll be buying soon but not today. I simply want a brochure and some information. If I decide to buy this particular car, then I will certainly come back to see you."

If the car salesman is a good guy, he'll get you the brochure. If not, he may disappear and then return with the "Sales Manager" who may or may not be the real Sales Manager. In any case, this new guy may try to "reason" with you, persuade you, perhaps even pressure you to buy today. Again, you must be firm. Repeat to him what you told the salesman.

11. Ask about the details.
Ask about factory rebates, the factory warranty, dealership service, local sales taxes, license fees and so on. When you're satisfied that you have the information you need, ask the salesman for his business card.

12. Thank the salesman politely, then leave.
Whatever happens, don't buy a car - yet.

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