6 Things to Remember When Negotiating a Car Purchase
Nathan Stretch July 30, 2015

Unless you’re buying a car from your dad or sister-in-law, you will need to do a bit of negotiating to get the best price. Don’t worry though – this can (and should) be a friendly, pain-free process. Negotiating a car price can even be quite fun, especially when you think back on the great deal you got on your new ride!

Whether you’re a seasoned haggler or a negotiating novice, just remember these six points to guarantee that you’ll get a good car at a good price.

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Tip 1: Find the Right Car — Head to the Dealership

This may seem obvious. Of course you need to find a car before you can negotiate for it! But there are two mistakes that most car shoppers make at this point: saying too much, and buying too soon.

We certainly encourage having a thorough look around dealerships before you decide what car you want (even if you’re planning on buying privately). Nothing helps narrow things down like seeing a bunch of cars in person. But it’s important not to say too much. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell the dealer that at this point you don’t even know what kind of car you want – you’re just looking around to get an idea of what you might want for your next car.

That way they know you’re not going to be buying a car today, so you’re not wasting their time and distracting them from a potential sale. It should also keep any pressure to a minimum, allowing you to browse and narrow down your options at your leisure.

Of course, it is okay to get the assistance of the salesperson; just keep things general.

You might say…

  • “What do you have as far as compact, four-door sedans?”


  • “I like the Toyota Rav4 and would like to consider similar alternatives. Do you have anything like that?” (Hint: the answer will always be “yes”. :) )

Questions to avoid would be things like…

  • I don’t want to spend more than $10,000. What do you have in that range?
  • I’m planning on trading in my 2006 F-150. How much could I get for it?
  • What are the monthly payments on this new 3-Series?

These questions will come up later in the process. For now, you don’t want to ask (or say) anything that gives away your intentions, including your budget, whether (and what) you plan to trade in, whether you will be leasing, financing, or buying outright, and exactly when you plan to buy (it’s fine to just say ‘not immediately’, or ‘within a few months’). You want to honestly show that you do plan to buy a car and aren’t wasting their time, but you won’t be buying immediately.

And you don’t want to buy immediately! If these steps guarantee you get a good deal, a sure way to guarantee you get a bad deal is to go to a dealership and buy a car (or even put down a refundable deposit) without knowing in advance exactly what car you will buy and for how much.

Finally, remember to be friendly at this stage. If you end up buying from a dealership, you will likely be interacting with the future seller of your car now. Be polite. Don’t monopolize their time if they have other customers, and get the card of the salesperson you talk to so that you can ask for them in the future (and so they can get your eventual commission if you buy there). Car dealers are generally decent people, just like you, and you’ll do far better being friendly and respectful than adversarial.

Tip 2: Determine the ‘True’ Value of the Vehicle

Once you’ve settled on a particular vehicle, you need to determine what it’s really worth. This may or may not bear resemblance to its listed price!

There are websites out there that will give you an estimate of the market value of used vehicles. The most popular of these is the Kelly Blue Book. If you’re in Canada, you can try the Canadian Black Book pricing guide. However, used cars are all unique, so this is not an exact science. It’s a decent starting point, but you need to do a bit more digging.

Fortunately, you’re likely already familiar with AutoTempest.com. Using the AutoTempest car search engine, you can cast a wide enough net to find very similar vehicles to compare to the one you’re hoping to buy.

If you can find prices that compare favorably, go ahead and print off the listings; you can use them as negotiating tools later on. Of course, pay attention to things like mileage, condition, and options installed. It’s possible for two vehicles with the same make, model, and year to be worth very different amounts. Location matters too, but there are plenty of car transportation options out there, so don’t worry about it too much – especially for negotiation purposes.

Of course, the prices you will find while doing this shopping around are all listing prices. Presumably they are all somewhat inflated, since the sellers expect people to negotiate – although not as well as you will!

With eBay Motors, you can see what people have actually paid for similar used cars recently – a very powerful negotiating tool. For this reason, we have integrated the information from eBay Motors on theAutoTempest homepage – once you choose the car you’re looking for from the drop downs, you’ll notice some information about that vehicle appears at the bottom-left. One of those links is “Actual prices paid on eBay”, where you get the link to that feature.

Tip 3: Get a Sense of the Seller

Now you’re finally ready to talk to the seller!

If you’re looking at a car on a dealership lot, try to time things so this step occurs around 8-10 days from the end of the month. Salespeople generally have monthly quotas to achieve, so will be more motivated to sell near the end of the month. However, don’t leave it too late, since you want time for some back and forth, as well as the vehicle inspection and any work you want done before buying the car. (It’s always easier to get things done before buying than after!)

So, at this point you know:

  • The objective value of the car you’re interested in from comparisons with other listings, KBB pricing, and eBay completed listings.
  • Its value to you, based on your budget and alternative vehicles you’ve looked at. And you have some idea of its value to the seller, based on their asking price. However, the asking price just represents what the seller hopes to get for the car (plus likely some room for bargaining). That amount could be verydifferent from the amount they are actually willing to sell the car for.

Now you want to try to get an idea of how much the seller is willing to sell the car for, so you know how much to offer. Obviously you want to offer less than the asking price, and generally less than you are ultimately willing to pay, but not so little that the seller is offended or writes you off as not being serious.

So, how do you figure out what the seller really wants for the car?

One technique is simply to ask them. This can work well with private sellers. Something like:

  • “How much would it take, in cash, for you to sell today?”

Private sellers are generally selling for a reason: they’re leaving the country, or they need the money for some reason, or they’ve already bought another car and it’s just costing them to keep this one insured. Regardless, your ‘offer’ may sound quite attractive, and they might come back with a number much lower than the asking price. Even if they don’t, their answer will probably tell you something.

Back in my college days I had to sell my car to move across country for school. I was asking $6500 and eventually sold for $2200 the day before I left. The buyer was smart enough to ask a question like this, and I honestly told him to make me an offer and if I didn’t get a better one by the end of the day the car was his.

Here’s another question that works well for both private sellers and dealers:

  • “Are you flexible at all on the price?”

Of course they are. Everyone selling a car is at least somewhatflexible on the price. But their answer may tell you how flexible. I was looking at a car a while back with a sticker price of $29,900. The dealer’s answer to that question was something like “Sure, I mean, nobody pays sticker price. Of course, if you offer me $25,000 I would have to say ‘Sorry.’”.

That’s a ton of valuable information! Very different than if he’d used $28,000 or $20,000 in his example. From his answer, I’m guessing he would sell the car immediately for say $28,000, would probably get down to the $26,000-27,000 range, and if I were willing to wait him out long enough, he likely would eventually sell for $25,000. Those are all guesses of course, but they help narrow things down.

If you get the sense that the seller is looking for much more than you’re willing to pay, don’t give up completely. You will probably have to move on with your car search, but there’s no harm letting the seller know where you’re at.

In the example above, say my budget was $22,000. I could say something like “Sorry. $22k is the most I can afford. I totally understand you’re looking for more, so thanks for your time. And hey, if anything changes in the future, please feel free to give me a call.” You might not hear anything. But quite possibly, especially if the seller is a car dealer, you’ll hear back in a week or so with an offer of, say, $27k. If the car hasn’t sold a month or two down the road, who knows – you might get your $22k, or close to it.

Now, if it does look like you’re close to a deal, it’s time to get the Vehicle History Report and have the car inspected. So read on…

Tip 4: Check the History and Condition of the Car

Negotiation aside, it is absolutely critical to get a vehicle history report and to check the vehicle’s condition before buying any used car. Don’t make a mistake that could cost you thousands of dollars and spoil all the fun of your new car. Check the history and condition of the car! No exceptions!

Be aware – many dealerships will offer to “save you money” by having their service department do a full inspection of the vehicle for free. Many of these are legitimate and will do just as good of a job as independent garages. Unfortunately some won’t, and you won’t know the difference until after the fact. So unless the car is still under the manufacturer’s warranty, I highly recommend getting an independent inspection. It’s worth it.

The great thing is that not only can inspecting the vehicle and checking on its history save you from making a huge mistake, they can also save you some money by helping you negotiate a better deal. No used car is perfect. Maybe this one is from out of state, or the brake pads are nearly worn out, or there are other minor mechanical issues. While these likely won’t change your mind about purchasing the car, they can affect its value, and the seller should recognize that.

Most articles I have read suggest doing something like this – negotiate the best possible price for the car first, then do the inspection and insist that any issues be resolved or the price be lowered accordingly. This method can work, and it may be the best way to squeeze out every cent. However, the problem with the negotiate-first technique is that you’re laying your cards on the table. Say you negotiate to buy a car for $12,500, subject to a clean inspection. The inspection comes back showing the car needs about $600 in minor repairs and maintenance, which you ask the seller to cover. Well, the seller now knows you have $12,500 to spend, and that you’re willing to buy the car for that much. You will probably have to really stick to your guns and wait them out to try for that extra $600.

To avoid this, my preference is to get the history report and do the inspection before making any concrete offer on a used car. That way you can either make your offer conditional on maintenance being done, or take those costs into account when you determine how high you’re willing to go.

Tip 5: Close the Deal

Now that you’ve got a great used car in your sights, there are two methods you can use for the actual bargaining process: the “pick a price and stick to it” method, and the “haggling” method. Use whichever you feel most comfortable with.

Stick to it

With this bargaining method, you will start by offering what you believe is the absolute lowest amount the seller will accept for the car. (Assuming that amount fits with the value of the car to you.)

Cheat to the low side if you’re most interested in getting the best possible price, or to the higher side if you are in love with this particular car and don’t want to risk it getting away. Let the seller know that you don’t like haggling, so you’re offering the exact amount you’re willing to pay, and it’s firm. Be sure to include any repairs or maintenance items you want done as conditions of buying.

Many sellers will test you with a counter offer. Just politely respond that you’re sorry, but you can’t go any higher than your offer. If they don’t accept, leave your phone number and ask them to call you if they change their minds. (You may have to repeat this step several times, especially with dealerships.) Eventually, if your offer was reasonable and no one else buys the car first, they will likely accept it or give you a counter-offer close enough that you can go ahead and take it.

Be aware that a good salesman will try to create the appearance of outside interest. There will be people ‘coming to look at the car later today’, or ‘interest from multiple parties’. This may be genuine interest, and it’s always possible someone else will buy the car. If that happens, there’s always another one out there. But it’s just as likely that you are the only really serious buyer, and when another one doesn’t materialize, the seller will accept your offer.

Haggle that price

With the haggling method, you will start with an offer lower than the “stick to it” method above. You want to offer as low as possible,while still being in the seller’s ballpark. From Tip 3, you should have some idea of what the seller is trying to get out of the car. It’s fine to offer less than that, but you want to be close enough to at least raise their interest. If I want $20,000 and you offer $5,000, I’m probably just going to say “Thank you, no,” and forget about you.

Even if your offer is in the right ballpark, it will still be somewhat of a lowball offer, and most sellers will probably simply tell you they can’t sell their car for that much. The smart seller is trying to get you to raise your offer without giving anything on their end. This would be a good time to ask something like “Hmm.. well, how much would you take?” If they repeat the asking price, you’ll fall back to “Well, thanks for your time. Please give me a call if something changes.” On the other hand, if they come back with a counter-offer, you’re in business.

Basically you want to try and give the impression that you’re close to your maximum, so the seller is motivated to lower the price to make a deal. One way to do that is to increase your offer by smaller amounts each time. Say the asking price is $19,900 and your initial offer is $12,000. The seller counter-offers $18,000. You could come back with $13,000. Next time just increase to $13,500, then $13,700. The seller will see you coming up on a limit, and if it’s in their range they may offer $14,000 or thereabouts, thinking it is the most they will get out of you. Specific amounts are another good tool. An offer of $12,250 suggests you’re operating in a tighter range than $12,000. The first encourages the brain to think in terms of hundreds or fifties, while the second is wide open. Incidentally, that’s the real reason why many products have prices like $9.95 instead of $10. It subliminally suggests the prices are not flexible.

Of course, most sellers won’t drop 30% or more off their prices right away, if at all. If you really want that kind of deal, you will likely have to walk away (politely, as always) and hope the seller calls you back. To get the best possible deal on a car, you have to be willing to risk letting it go.

Finally, make sure you mention with any offer that it is for the “out-the-door” price, after any fees or service charges, except for government sales taxes. That way if they try to hit you with a $225 documentation fee at signing or anything like that, you can politely refer to your previous discussion and ask (or insist if necessary) that it be removed.

Also, make sure you get any extras in writing. If the car comes with two keys, make sure that’s mentioned, unless you have them in your hands at signing. If any work is to be done prior to purchase, get it in writing. Even when dealing with honest, reputable sellers, things can get forgotten – it is totally reasonable and smart to request everything in writing. Or even better, have the work done before signing anything.

My last car had a couple of windshield chips that were to be fixed before I came to pick it up. I got it in writing, but when I went to get the car the chips were still there. It turned out that they had already been filled; they looked terrible, but were perfectly safe. Had I dealt with them before signing, I could have asked for a replacement windshield or a lower price.

Tip 6: Financing and Trade-ins

Notice that this entire time we’ve been talking in terms of the price of the car only. What if you’re planning on financing? What about the value of your trade-in? There’s a good reason for that. If you bring up either of those too early – ie. before you’ve settled on a sale price – they will just get rolled into that price by the seller.

For example, say you’re looking at a car listed at $22,500 at a local dealership. Right off the bat, you ask for an appraisal of your trade-in. “Good news,” he tells you, “we can give you 4 grand for your old car!” You know the car’s a junker and would only get about $2000 in a private sale, so you think, “Great! This guy’s so eager to sell me this car, he’s giving me an awesome deal on my trade-in.” You then apply all the strategies you learned above, and manage to get the price down to $20,000 – so with your trade you pay $16,000.

Sounds alright. But what really happened? The dealer knows your junker isn’t worth much to him, but he wants to give you a good deal to get you interested. Fortunately (for him), he can just mentally raise the price of the car you’re buying! Without the trade he might have been willing to go down to $16,500 (with no trade), but now the money he’s losing on your trade has to be factored in.

If you wait until after a price is settled to talk about the trade, you have a better chance of finding their true best price for the car they’re selling, and then you can find out what the trade is really worth to them. If it’s too low for you, you can always sell privately. (Do remember that there is usually some savings of sales tax when you trade in though, so factor this into your decision.)

If asked about your trade before you’re ready, you can always just say you’re thinking you’ll probably sell privately. If they offer an appraisal “just in case”, politely let them know you’re not really interested until you’re sure what car you’re buying.

Read more tips for getting the best price for your old car.

Financing is similar. Most dealerships make some money when you take their financing, so if they think you might finance, they may be willing to give you a better price. However, if they know for sure that you’ll finance, they will want to discuss in terms of monthly payments, and it will be more difficult to feel out the lowest price they will accept for the car.

That’s why it’s better to wait until the price for the car is settled before discussing financing. Just say you haven’t decided yet to avoid making a mistake that will cost you on dealership financing. And if you are considering financing, don’t just settle for whatever the dealership offers. We recommend also getting quotes from banks and other vehicle financing companies such as AutoCreditExpressup2drive, CarsDirect and MyAutoLoan.com.

When you’re ready to talk financing with a dealership, it’s best to come pre-armed with competing quotes. First ask the dealer’s rate, then if one of yours is better, you can see if they will beat it.

Car Negotiation Recap

So, now you have all the tools you need to get a fantastic deal on your next car!

  1. Find the right car, without discussing budget, trade-in, or financing.
  2. Determine the true value of the vehicle, using the AutoTempest car search engine and the tools it links to.
  3. Get a sense of the value of the car to the seller. Try to determine how much they really want.
  4. Buy a Vehicle History Report and get the car inspected.
  5. Come to an agreement, either by haggling or picking a price and sticking to it.
  6. Now, and only now, talk financing and trade-ins. If you’re financing, be sure to get competing quotes first.

If you’re interested in other ways to get great deals, check out our article on car auctions too. And, be sure to get competing quotes on your car insurance as well. No sense getting a great deal on your car then paying too much every month for your car insurance!

Header image courtesy of TexasEagle on Flickr.

Nathan Stretch Founder & CEO

Founder of the AutoTempest used car search engine, as well as SearchTempest.com. I do a bit of everything around here now, and may even get a chance to write some blog posts! Oh, and I drive a 2003 Z4 3.0i, but working from home I don't get to drive it much; 12 years old and it's got under 70k miles on it. I'll have to get working on that too...