Walking onto the lot at a car dealership can be intimidating.
A salesperson usually greets you — sometimes pretty aggressively — as soon as you park, eager to claim you ahead of their co-workers and turn you into their next commission.
You’re getting a hard sell for every car you test drive. Then you’re forced to enter into what can be a stressful negotiating process that the salesperson and the finance manager practice all day, every day.
Sometimes you’re forced to walk away from a car you want or pit dealerships against each other to get the best price. It can take time and emotional energy, especially if you’re in need of a new vehicle pronto.
It makes sense that some people want to avoid that hassle altogether.
You can buy everything online these days. So if you want to avoid negotiating when buying a car, you can thank technology for a slew of new options.
Here are the steps that Team Clark recommends if you consider that route, and we have some recommendations on where you should do your shopping.
1. Secure Financing
Whether you buy a car from a traditional dealership or through an online car vendor, it’s always a good idea to pre-qualify for a car loan.
Securing the money for your car ahead of time will save you money, help you set your budget and direct your search.
Money expert Clark Howard recommends that you never take a loan of longer than 42 months to pay for a car.
2. Do Your Homework
This is the second of three steps that applies no matter where you’re purchasing your vehicle.
It’s also multifaceted. You’ll need to research the value of the car you want, the reliability of the car and how much it costs to insure it.
Some of the best resources to figure out the value of a car are Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. But my personal favorites are Carfax (if you know the VIN or license plate number) and Edmunds. I used both of those sites every day when I worked as a car salesman at a dealership.
Most major insurance companies provide coverage calculators on their websites. So you can account for that monthly expense prior to purchasing a vehicle.
Clark also advises that you rent a car for a weekend in order to make sure it’s actually what you want.
3. Find a Trusted Mechanic
Team Clark has advice for you on how to go about finding a good mechanic. It’s a vital, underrated part of the car-buying and car-owning process.
You’ll thank yourself later if you find this person before anything goes wrong with your vehicle. And if you’re purchasing a used car, you need a trusted mechanic to look at it before you commit to buy and are unable to return it.
I personally have never bought (and would never buy) a used vehicle without having a good mechanic look at it first.
This is the point in the process where buying a vehicle on a lot and deciding to avoid negotiating start to diverge.
Traditionally, the car-buying process is what Clark calls “hostile and anti-consumer.” Typically, used car purchases are “as is.” In other words, once you leave the lot, there are no takebacks.
If you go through one of the online car-buying services, you get a period of time to return the car with no questions asked (usually seven days and, in some cases, up to one month!). If you’re buying from a traditional lot, you’ll need to request permission to take the vehicle to your mechanic during the test-drive process.
4. Avoid Negotating When Buying a Car: Carvana vs. CarMax vs. Vroom
Three of the biggest options if you want to avoid negotiating when buying a car are Carvana, CarMax and Vroom.
Clark talks about these services often on his podcast, including this episode from earlier in 2021.
He particularly likes CarMax because of the 30-day return policy and the 24-hour test drives. But all three are viable, thriving options. Carvana and Vroom allow customers to return cars within seven days.
“People hate the [traditional] car-buying process,” Clark says. “[You can] pull out a cell phone, shop for a car and click to purchase sight unseen right online. And people have loved the buying process.”
Team Clark also reviewed Carvana vs. CarMax earlier this year.
It’s also possible to buy a vehicle from a car rental agency. But Clark says those vehicles tend to have unusually high mileage, and he notes that they probably didn’t get regular maintenance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a case where you don’t want to ignore Clark’s advice even if it requires more diligence on your part. If you’re considering buying a former rental car, it’s crucial to get it reviewed by a mechanic.
Word of Caution About Carvana
Carvana, along with many of its competitors, has grown rapidly in recent years. However, that has apparently caused problems as the company scales up.
Several states have sanctioned Carvana or put it under review for failing to handle title transfers and vehicle registrations on time.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported on some of these issues at Carvana, which caught Clark’s attention.
“In many states, the police will pull you over for that expired temporary tag or plate. You get hit with a ticket for something you didn’t do wrong. They did. And there are people that are afraid to drive their vehicles they’ve gotten from Carvana because they can’t get the paperwork done, can’t get the tag or plate,” Clark says.
“And so then a car they’re paying for is sitting in a garage. This is something they’ve got to get fixed. Because this is supposed to be a relatively painless way to buy a vehicle. I think it clearly is the future. And right now, Carvana does not have its administrative act together.”
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Explore Traditional Car Lots
If you’re trying to get the very best deal when purchasing a vehicle, don’t totally rule out the option of buying in person and going through negotiations.
You can always ask a friend or family member for help if you genuinely despise that process.
Often the best way to get maximum value is to sell your vehicle privately. But if you’re going to do a trade-in when you buy a vehicle, the online-only companies don’t necessarily give you a better price the dealerships.
The traditional car-buying process is adversarial. But if you know the game and how to play it, you can often end up with better deals than you get with the no-haggle sites.
If you visit a dealership on the last weekend of the month, particularly late in the year, you can often catch salespeople trying to meet quotas for bonuses. During those times, you can sometimes get someone to sell you a car at cost or just above cost in order to hit numbers.
Vehicles are often the second-largest purchase any of us will make during our lives. Shopping for the best price online and in person can ensure you get the best possible deal on your vehicle.