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Buying a Car: When to Walk Away

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Buying a car can be a stressful experience for anyone. For some of us, the anxiety begins before we start negotiating financing or even step foot onto a car lot. But no matter how eager you are to get the experience over with, or how persistent a salesperson is, you should never buy a car without being certain it’s right for you.Ron Montoya, consumer advice editor for Edmunds, says that dealerships are good at applying pressure. “There’s always a sense of urgency that ‘today is the best day to buy the car,’” he says. “While that may be true for the seller, it’s not always the case for the buyer.”

According to a 2018 Cox Automotive study, you may be tempted to give in to the pressure after spending a whopping three hours at a lot, which is the average amount of time buyers spend. But no matter the circumstance, you should always be prepared to walk away in the presence of red flags.

How do you negotiate in “good faith?”

Like most things in life, a bit of preparation can go a long way. Here are some of the ways you can reduce your risk before approaching a dealership or private seller when buying a car:

Review your budget and credit

Doing your financial homework can help you determine what price range is truly affordable for you, instead of letting a salesperson decide. Loan payment calculators can also help you get a realistic view of affordability by taking interest rates and fees into account.

Get loan preapproval

Another factor in determining affordability is the amount of financing you get approved for. Having a loan preapproval from your bank or credit union, before visiting a dealer, has several benefits: it sets realistic expectations about the maximum sales price you can shop for and helps you avoid more expensive or even potentially predatory dealer financing. If the dealer can beat your preappoved loan offer either through one of its lender partners or through the manufacturer, you’ll know you’re getting the best deal possible.

Research market prices

Montoya, who purchases fleet vehicles for Edmunds, an auto industry research firm which tests cars, says the best way to prepare for a purchase is to understand the market price of the car you want. You can do this by looking up values through sites like Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds, checking out a variety of ads and car-buying websites, and even by getting a few price quotes, so you can compare them to the offers you get from a dealership.

Research promotions

Having a sense of manufacturer and dealer promotions can not only help you narrow down which models to buy and which lots to visit in your area, but it can also help you understand if the dealer is truly offering a “one day only” sale, or if it’s just a tactic to pressure you into buying.

What are the warning signs that you should walk away from a car deal?

Interacting with a salesperson who’s been trained to haggle and close the deal might leave you feeling outwitted. Some level of stress is normal, but these are the real red flags to look out for:

Prices change after your initial negotiations.

For example, your trade-in value is lower than what you discussed or your monthly payments are higher. You should also look out for add-ons you didn’t agree to, like an extended warranty or a “service contract” that increases the overall price tag. Montoya says it should be a deal-breaker when written terms don’t match what you discussed.

The contract isn’t final.

It’s easy to assume that signing a contract means your deal is final, but some dealers include contingencies, including “spot deliveries” that might be “yo-yo transactions” meant to intentionally deceive buyers.

If your contract states, for example, that your financing isn’t final, you may be asked to come back later and get a different loan with worse terms, for the car you’ve already taken home. If the dealer won’t state in writing that your financing is final, they may be breaking the law. This is a definite sign that you should walk away.

You’re being pressured.

Brent Miller, executive director of a community center where musicians work, practice and perform in San Francisco, recently shopped for a new car. Miller says despite visiting a reputable dealership for his purchase, the salesperson repeatedly pushed him to make unwanted decisions. “It was amazing how much pressure there was to sign the contract without reading everything, even before I had a loan offer,” Miller says.

If you’re encouraged to buy a different car than the one you’re shopping for, or to close the deal without looking over the numbers, Montoya says you should walk away.

The seller is withholding information.

It’s a red flag if your salesperson gives unclear information about pricing and loan terms. If you can’t get a straight answer on what your monthly payment will be, the length of your repayment term or your interest rate, you shouldn’t sign a contract. A good tip is to keep your focus on the out-the-door price of the car — if you get the lowest price possible, a good monthly payment should follow.

Discriminatory practices

If you feel a dealer is attempting to take advantage of you based on your citizenship status, income or other factors, you should go elsewhere. One way dealers do this is by marketing to you and conducting negotiations in your first language and then offering you a contract in a different language, with higher fees. Regardless of the circumstances, never sign a contract if you’re unsure what it says.

How to walk away from a car deal

So you’ve attempted to negotiate a deal with no luck, or you’re simply uncomfortable with the transaction. It’s completely within your rights to walk away at any point before, and in some cases even after you sign your contract.

During negotiations

At this point, walking away is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Montoya advises that even if the dealer already pulled your credit information, you’re still under no obligation to stay. While you may be concerned about the hit to your credit, know that making multiple auto loan applications within a short period of time will have a small impact on your scores.

If you’re having trouble ending the negotiations, Montoya suggests shutting down persistent salespeople by shifting the blame to someone else, like your spouse…even if you’re not married.

Whatever your explanation, walking away or telling the dealer you’re going to shop around is perfectly acceptable. If you really are interested in buying the car, walking away may also be a useful negotiation tactic.

Once you’ve seen the contract

Regardless of the time and effort invested by both parties, you are under no obligation to sign any contract you’ve been presented. At this point in the process you can still simply say “no” to the dealer.

After signing contract

If you sign a contract and drive away with a car, but then get called back based on a contingency, you may be able to walk away from the deal.

If you’re called back because financing fell through, you can demand to get your down payment back and unwind the entire transaction. To complete the process you’ll need to make sure that the application and contract are cancelled and that you get copies of all the documents.

If, on the other hand, you simply wish to return the car because you’ve changed your mind, your options may be limited. Some state laws may allow you to return your car if you discover it’s a lemon, but contrary to popular belief the “cooling off period” unfortunately doesn’t apply to cars.

In some circumstances you may have a special option to cancel, particularly when it comes to buying used cars. New York state law, for example, gives you a set amount of time to file paperwork and cancel your contract. Your dealer may also have a special clause that gives you time to reconsider and return your vehicle. But if neither your state nor your contract stipulates that you can cancel, your best shot is to ask the dealer to give special consideration to your case.

The bottom line

The best way to avoid a bad deal is to be your own biggest advocate. Educating yourself about market prices, understanding affordability and researching consumer protections in your state, all before you talk to a salesperson, can help you stand up to pressure and recognize red flags quickly.

Ultimately you shouldn’t be afraid to walk away, no matter how difficult the dealer makes it to leave. Both the car and the financing have to work for you. “I want people to buy a car when its right for them and do it on their own time,” says Montoya, “not a dealership’s time.”

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Sarah Brady
Sarah Brady |

Sarah Brady is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah here