How to Get the Best Price When Buying a Car

I wrote over two months ago about my desire to buy a newer car, but that it felt more like an impulse purchase than a real need at the time. I didn’t want to take us off our financial path, and surely didn’t want to buy a newer car upon impulse. The type of vehicle I had test-drove several times would’ve done so easily. Last week though, that all changed with a twist of fate starting on Tuesday night.

First, before I share this story, I want to let you know Chris and I swapped cars before Christmas. Both the same Hyundai Elantra model, just his a silver hatchback which I prefer and mine a two-year older blue sedan. I had planned to have him run up the miles on the blue car (he commutes far), so in time it would be ready for a trade for what I truly wanted to get; which I still wasn’t sure.

Tuesday night, I was driving the silver car and it started to make a strange sound in the wheel. I realized I didn’t have my cell phone with me, so I tracked back to my brother’s house which I was closest to (and he’s a mechanic) to have him take a look. It turned out to be fine, but just an adjustment Chris will need to make to one of the brakes.

While I was there, we started talking more about cars and what might be best for me. He suggested Toyota’s over Honda’s for their ease of repair and maintenance work (which we plan to do ourselves). And both hold their value and last 200,000+ miles, unlike the Hyundai’s I’m accustomed to driving and having them die around 100,000 miles and are worth pennies.

After I left his house, Wednesday I decided to see what was out in the market regarding Toyota’s. And surprisingly, Chris had put on 20,000 miles on the blue car since the swap. Whew! So, we were within a few thousand miles of figuring this next car out, which I decided would not be a Hyundai.

I didn’t want to end up in the same situation as all previous car purchases; having been bought brand new under pressure because our previous cars had completely died. Chris’ previous car had to be towed to the dealer, so we totally lost a lot on that purchase on both ends. Definitely, not the Frugal Momster way! I wanted to try to do it the frugal way and figure out what I wanted and have the time to strike when I got the best price.

Here’s how I bought a newer car that fit our family’s needs:

Zeroed in on the car I was most interested in: Toyota RAV4 XLE.

Size was a huge factor for me. I didn’t want something much larger than a sedan, but I wanted the flexibility. I also needed better MPG than most cross-overs and took that into consideration. The XLE also offered a sunroof and a few other features I wanted so badly in previous cars, so I didn’t want to budge on some of life’s pleasures.

Researched the model generations of the brand I was looking at.

The current 2016 generation RAV4 started with the 2013 model. I looked back at the prior-2012 model, but I did want a back-up camera which the 2013 included. I went with the earliest version of the current model for a lower price.

Checked Craigslist for prices/mileage ideas.

Craiglist had very few RAV4 models for sale locally, and most 100,000+ miles. I wanted lower mileage, but it gave me a feel for price and resale value.

Researched Kelley Blue Book, Black Book Value, and True Car Values.

I started a spreadsheet with the values of the used car and my trade-in goals for my current blue sedan. I wanted to get a range of pricing, of which I found the lowest fair market price for a certified used RAV4 below 30,000 miles and made that my price focus.

Called my insurance company.

I wanted to know ahead of time what the increase in cost would be to add this model car, as well as higher levels of coverage since it would be newer than my previous car. The insurance was actually cheaper for the same coverage, and the collision/comprehensive not much more (the old collision/comprehensive on the sedan was taken off years ago and was much higher in cost).

Located 4 dealers with Certified Used Toyota RAV4 XLE’s for sale.

I found several dealers within 20 miles of my home offering just a few of the model for sale. I did look as far at the next state over, but surprisingly their starting prices were much higher on the same cars.

Contacted all 4 dealers with the following script:

My husband and I are looking to purchase a USED 2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE by the end of the week. I am interested in hearing the lowest total out-the-door price you can offer on the following: Certified Pre-Owned Toyota RAV4 XLE with less than 30,000 miles.

Price is our biggest factor, with mileage being 2nd. Other features are irrelevant. Again, full out-the-door price is requested so we can compare to offers from other dealers in the area.

Thank you for your help with this.

After they all responded with different models to look at, I requested again the full OTD price with all fees listed. One wouldn’t give me that information without coming in, but three of them did. One dealer provided it continually but kept sending me cars that had been in accidents. They did eventually send me the best price on a vehicle, that on Thursday was sold before I could get there, and then went back to sending me accident cars.

The other two dealers had the same exact car/mileage/CARFAX as each other, just one in black and one in blue. The dealer with the black car was up over $1,000 in starting price, and I preferred the blue one anyway. I zeroed in on these two dealerships through Friday.

On Friday morning, I noticed the dealer with the blue version had an “internet special price” for the vehicle which had been sitting on their lot for 6 weeks per the CARFAX, so I wrote in as a new inquiry for that special price and got another $500 taken off of it (they hadn’t realized I was the same person).

The dealer with the black version offered to match the other dealer, and then I showed that to the blue dealer to see what they could do to beat it. Truly, I wanted a blue car in the end and knew I had the most leverage for how long it was sitting there.

I used this script to respond to all of their offers to see how low they would go:

Sorry, while I really want to buy this car, I’m afraid your bid takes you out of the running. If you want to make another offer today, I’ll look at it.

After getting the price negotiated via email with all taxes, license, and fees listed. I told them about the trade I had, the goal price for that, and negotiated before finally showing up. Prior to this, I had never bought a car via email, nor had I ever driven this model car to begin with! I told them I’d show up and if I liked the car, I would purchase that night as long as no difference in price occurred.

Finalized the sale within 15 minutes of arriving at the dealership.

Friday evening, I showed up on a rainy night to the dealer with their staff waiting to greet me. We took the car for a test drive. I inspected it thoroughly, and they inspected my trade. Within about 15 minutes, we walked in and agreed to the prices I negotiated prior and started the sales paperwork. I got the prices I wanted, which were the lowest possible I think I was going to ever get for this range and type of Crossover.

It doesn’t always make sense to buy used to save money, but more often than not it does. The best way to know for sure is to consider how many miles you’ll get on the car for the price you’re paying. For example, if looking at a car with 100,000 miles on it, you might expect to get another 100,000 miles on it and would divide the price by that number to get the cost per mile. In this case, a used car was definitely the better deal, and getting it at the lowest fair market value was the best deal.

This is the first time since college I’ve bought a used car again. And this is definitely the first time I’ve finalized a car deal to the end via email!

I tested this process out with the Honda dealers months ago, but I wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel right. I wanted a car with a warranty, which is why I sought out a dealer and I wanted to easily unload my other car. Private sale might have been more of less, and definitely taken more time.

As a side note, on my way out the door to buy this car, a red cardinal was sitting in the pouring rain in my front garden by my porch steps. He was eating a few sunflower seeds we had dropped and instantly, I knew my Dad was with me on this. I don’t see red cardinals often, but when I do I instantly think about my Dad. I felt it was a sign and a blessing that yes, I was getting the best I could do for this car.

Chris was happy to have his silver car returned to him and I am very at peace with the decision and the outcome. I don’t feel any buyers remorse and I know “Lucy Blue” will be a part of our family for a decade or more. She’ll provide us the space for cargo for all of our home projects and woodworking, as well as business space for all of my studio photography equipment to get around (which didn’t fit in either of my other cars!).

I actually look forward to going through this process again when it’s time to replace Chris’ car in another year or two, as I know the mileage will be run up quickly on that as well. We’ll look to get a smaller, less costly, and higher MPG commuter car to replace his and balance out our options between us.