Buyer Beware: Best Time to Buy a Car

When the winter season began settling in last year, and the transmission on my barely six-year-old Nissan began lurching, I decided it was time for a new ride—not just new to me, but new. Thanks to rising vehicle costs, I was well aware that buying new meant I’d probably be limited to a model I was lukewarm about. But to be honest, my track record with used vehicles is less impressive than the Buffalo Bills Superbowl resumé. Winter was coming and I wanted something affordable and reliable—without the baggage of a previous relationship. Lucky for me, that sweet spot between October and December just happens to be the best time to buy a car.

Five words for you: Model. Year. End. Sales. Events.

Chances are, that in the past week some Buddy Garrity-looking guy has been pointing at you from the television shouting about “All the ways YOU can save!” And say what you will about his shtick—but he ain’t wrong. Truth is, if you’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on that sweet new ride, now’s the best time to buy a car. Like right now. As in, sometime over the next 35 days or so. Destiny waits for no man, vehicle shopping included.

Model year end sales events can often be the best time to buy a car.

So, why is the fourth quarter the best time to buy a car? Because, like every other business, dealerships have monthly, quarterly, and yearly sales goals. And while you’re breathing in the lovely scents of Fall, dreaming about hunting trips and seasonal off-roading, your local car salesperson is beginning to sweat bullets over that ever-elusive sales quota. Additionally, car dealerships have limited space. On top of sales-goal-stress, they need to make room for an influx of new models—like, yesterday.

They need to sell cars. Fast.

Listen up friends, because their misfortune is about to become your good favor. Maybe you’ve been eyeing up that new JL Wrangler in the showroom window for the past year. Or maybe you haven’t quite figured out what you want, but you’re itching for an upgrade. Regardless, we’ve got some tips and tricks to arm you with the knowledge and confidence you need to leave the lot a winner.

Know what you want—and what you can afford.

First things first, the best time to buy a car is when your budget allows it. Personal finance website, NerdWallet, recommends spending no more than 10% of your total take-home pay on your car payment. Remember that other expenses like maintenance, insurance, gas, and parking all need to be factored into your monthly cost. Check out the site’s car affordability calculator to help you nail down a realistic window.

The best time to buy a car won't mean anything if you don't do the right research.
A website like CarGurus can help you narrow down your search.

Once you’ve worked out the numbers game, start researching. Make a list of the absolute must-haves and then work from there. Going in, I knew I needed a daily driver with seating for five and at least all-wheel drive. Those simple necessities cut my list in half. From there, I narrowed my search based on what I could afford, then filtered in the performance and technology specs I would like to have. Then I read every article I could find on the remaining candidates.

This step takes some time, for sure. But if you’re serious about getting the best deal, you need to know your options. Educating yourself before you step onto the lot will ensure you don’t get roped into any unnecessary upgrades or add-ons… or worse, a car you can’t actually afford. Additionally, see if you can find the dealership’s inventory online. It’s easier to win the hand if you know what cards your opponent holds.

Know the best TIME to buy a car.

If you’re the type who doesn’t care about having the latest-and-greatest in modern tech and amenities, a model year end sale might be your best bet. See what kind of deals are running to push current models off the lot. And remember, businesses start planning for events like Black Friday and Christmas months in advance. So if you can hold out for a holiday sale, you stand an even better chance of snagging a discount.

The fourth quarter is the best time to buy a car.

A general guide seems to apply for the best time to buy a car. Shop late in the year, late in the month, and late in the day. Take advantage of the intersection of yearly and monthly sales goals, when dealers are antsy to hit their targets. Just keep in mind that the buying process can be delayed sometimes, so shopping on the very last day of a month can backfire. I almost missed out on a great deal because I shook hands on the second to last day of November. Luckily, my salesperson met me on his day off, so I could have my paperwork processed in time to get the discount!

Similarly, make your trip later in the day, preferably during the week. Weekends generate more traffic—and sales. Popping in late on a Wednesday usually guarantees more one-on-one time with the salespeople. Additionally, if the salesperson hasn’t snagged an offer all day, he or she may be more likely to negotiate yours before closing.

Be nice, but firm.

It’s important to remember that salespeople are people. And it is possible to be friendly without coming off as a pushover. Start things off right with an email or phone call, expressing interest in visiting the lot. Many dealerships now offer quote services directly on their websites, allowing you to start the shopping and contact process online. My personal experience with this service was great. By the time I arrived at the dealership, I had already met my salesperson via phone. He knew exactly what models I was interested in and had them ready to go for a test drive. By narrowing down my search before I arrived, I saved us both time and effort, and appeared confident and knowledgeable in the process. Win-win.

This attitude extended into the negotiating process, as well. I was honest with my salesperson: I hated the car I currently owned and felt unsafe in it. But that didn’t mean I was giving it away. I had a number in mind, and a determination to meet it. And being polite but firm paid off. He appreciated the candor, worked with me on price, and we both walked away feeling good about the deal. Additionally, he gained a repeat customer in the process, as I’ll be returning to him when I’m ready for a trade-in.

Remember, people enjoy doing favors for people they like. Find some common ground with your salesperson, and if the chemistry isn’t there? Cut your losses and move on. You can always come back another day and meet with someone else.

You know what’s best for you.

We get it, car buying can be stressful. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. Set yourself up for success by doing the legwork and taking advantage of year-end sales quotas. (Even the worst bargainer can do well during a time when the dealerships need your sale more than you need that new car!) And if you’re still worried about being taken for a ride, do your own loan research and brush up on a little dealer-lingo. Check out these Consumer Report tips on how to catch hidden fees and remember that you can always take your business elsewhere if things just don’t feel right.

Now get out there and treat yourself.

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