Buying a car from a dealer: everything you need to know

The mere prospect of buying a car – whether new or used – can conjure up very different feelings and associations in different people. For some of us, it can be a very exciting prospect – you might have long been eager to upgrade that unreliable ‘old banger’ to something new and a bit more desirable and glamorous. But for other people, the whole ‘world’ of car purchasing can be an overwhelming and intimidating one.

And of course, it’s not as if a dealer is the only place you could conceivably buy your next vehicle from. You could also purchase your next car privately, of course, but today, there are also options like car ‘supermarkets’ and brokers.

Anyway, there’s a whole separate debate about that; for this blog post, we’re focusing specifically on the task of buying an automobile from a dealer. This one’s a long read, so feel free to make a coffee and settle down on the sofa for this run-through of our favourite tips for dealing with… erm, dealers when you are on the lookout for a new vehicle.

Should I buy used or new?

Before we get onto the ‘nitty gritty’ of deciding what you want from your next car, or the specifics of approaching a car dealer, it’s worth asking this somewhat broader question: would I be better off purchasing a used car for my next vehicle, or a showroom-sparkly-new model?

As this guide on the subject from What Car? explains, three in every four cars sold in the UK is typically a used one – but that doesn’t automatically translate into a used car being the best option for you.

Now, if the car that you want would cost way beyond your budget if bought new, you might feel that the decision to buy used has already been made for you. And even if you have a fair amount more financial ‘wiggle room’, looking to the used-car market could be a good first port of call, given that it really will give you an exceedingly broad range of car manufacturers and models to choose from.

Plus, if you like the idea of benefitting from the lower cost of a used car versus a new one, there are plenty of manufacturer-approved used schemes that will help give you the utmost peace of mind about the reputability of who you are buying from.

And what’s the benefit of buying a new car? Well, you will get to choose a car in the exact specification that you desire, and will also have a full manufacturer warranty to protect you against the worst that could happen with your purchase. And you won’t have to worry about the history of the car you’re buying, either.

As always with questions like this, you will need to think carefully about what your priorities and circumstances are, in terms of matters like price and specification requirements. There is no entirely ‘risk-free’ route here, but whether you buy new, used or nearly new, there are respective ‘pros and cons’ to think about.

Do you know what you want from your next car?

The adage “knowledge is power” is applicable to a lot of things, and the process of buying a car is most certainly one of those things.

Now, we aren’t going to admonish you if you don’t have an exact make and model in mind already, although if you do, that will be great for focusing your search for the perfect example of your dream vehicle. It helps, though, to have at least some ideas for what you want in your next car, which will doubtless be informed by the reasons you are looking to buy a car in the first place.

Are you, for instance, seeking out a car because you are about to welcome a new addition to the family, and therefore need something reasonably priced, economical to run, practical and reliable to carry them around in? Or maybe you’ve just passed your driving test, or have just received a pay rise and have your eye on a bit of a ‘dream’ car such as a sporty coupe or cabriolet?

With so many car body styles out there – encompassing everything from humble city cars and superminis to MPVs, saloons and SUVs – you might have a lot of narrowing down to do when perusing the possibilities.

As for if you have a few models in mind already, a quick Google search for the reviews of those cars on sites like What Car?, Autocar and Auto Express will enable you to get a better idea of their reputation.

How much can I afford to spend on a new or used car?

A really crucial factor all by itself, of course, will be your budget. Once you have at least a vague idea of what you will be looking for on your visit to the dealership, you will need to decide on a budget, and stick to it. This, in turn, will enable you to filter out some of the vehicles you had considered at the aforementioned stage.

When you are determining your budget for a car, it’s not just the headline price of a vehicle that you will need to think about. That’s because you should also very much account for the ongoing expenses associated with whatever models you are considering, on the basis that getting behind the wheel of your ‘dream’ vehicle won’t count for much if you can barely afford the fuel, road tax and insurance payments from one month to the next.

Don’t forget too, though, that you don’t necessarily have to fork out the entire price of a car upfront from whatever is presently sitting in your bank account. In fact, even many people who theoretically could pay for a vehicle upfront, instead take out a car finance agreement, because of how it allows them to spread the costs over a longer period of time and even improve their credit score.

Now, we know what some of you reading this are thinking: “I can’t take out a car finance deal! I’ve got a dodgy credit history, lenders will never accept me.” Well, that might not be quite true.

Here at Car Finance Genie, for instance, we have a proud track record of helping many people with less-than-perfect-credit scores get accepted for car finance. We offer attractive bad-credit car finance options for those who might be worrying about whether they can stretch to a car purchase at all.

How to find the most suitable car dealer

If, at this stage of reading, you’re thinking, “but we haven’t even approached a dealer yet!”, there’s a good reason we’ve structured this article that way; it really is the case that you need to do your research and establish what you’re interested in from a car, before you even walk into a dealership.

But once you have accomplished the above things, it will be time to start your search for potential dealers. And with this being the 2020s, almost any car dealer worth bothering with will have a fairly well-developed online presence these days, so you should be able to start identifying dealers to potentially approach, and cars to look at, from the comfort of your own home.

Even here on the Car Finance Genie website, you can have a sift through some of the car models we presently make available for sale.

As Citizens Advice points out, though, whatever business selling cars you might be tempted to approach, it is also important to establish the reputability of that business. That should mean doing your research to get a sense of the dealer’s general reputation, as well as looking for the sign of a trade association such as the Retail Motor Industry Federation.

If the thought of having to carry out research into each and every dealer you might consider fills you with tedium – or even if you might lack the time to do it – there’s always another option: using a broker.

The idea of using a broker is that you tell them what car you want, and they will then do the hard work of going off and buying it for you, so that you don’t have to engage directly with a dealer at all. You will, of course, still have to research the reputation of the broker itself before approaching them, but it could be an option if you aren’t confident about handling a dealer ‘in person’ when it comes to such things as haggling.

Another type of broker to consider is a car finance broker like ourselves here at Car Finance Genie. We may do car finance above all else, but we also have connections with carefully vetted and trusted dealers, so that you won’t even have to worry about comparing different dealers once you have been approved for car finance through us.

When is the right time to turn up at a car dealership?

Let’s face it – even if you have settled on a dealer or two that you are confident in the reputability of, such as a manufacturer-approved one or an independent dealer that has strong reviews among locals, it can still be a bit scary to actually walk into such a place.

Still, there are certain things it is worth knowing in advance for your in-person visit to a dealership, or even just if you get on the phone to one.

There’s the matter of the timing of your visit, for example; as is the case with other firms that sell high-value products, dealers and their individual employees commonly have sales targets that they strive to meet, and these are often on a monthly or quarterly basis.

So, if you are eager to snap up a great deal, it could be a particularly good idea to turn up to the dealer towards the end of a month, particularly if that month is March, June, September or December. Think, too, about when particular types of cars are in most demand; you might have a hard time getting an attractive deal on a cabriolet during August when it’s sunny outside, but you will probably have much better luck if you attempt to do so during a drizzly December.

Another potentially excellent reason to approach a dealer in December is because many people focus on Christmas spending at this time of year rather than buying a new car, so dealers often see slow business during this part of the winter.

The art of haggling is an art everyone can practise

Speaking of getting a great deal on a car, it’s difficult for us to talk about it without touching on the subject of haggling.

In fact, there’s a whole art to haggling, and yes, you might be intimidated by the prospect of trying to ‘drive a hard bargain’ with an experienced dealer, but look at it this way: what do you have to lose? The realistic ‘worst-case’ scenario if you try to haggle is that the dealer might stand firm, and you simply have to decide whether you are happy to pay the asking price.

And if you aren’t happy, you always have the option of just walking away, or (if your circumstances and need for a car allow it) perhaps getting back in touch with the dealer at a time when they might be likelier to agree to a discount.

The MoneyHelper website has some more in-depth advice on how to haggle successfully for a car, including being friendly and polite, but also not telling the salesperson what your top limit is.

Even if your attempt to get a discount isn’t proving very successful, but you want the car enough, you could always say that you’re prepared to buy right there and then, as long as the two of you can agree on a price. This alone might be enough to get the dealer to finally budge on what they’re asking.

Finally… don’t forget to scrutinise the car itself!

It might seem like ‘common sense’ to some of our more experienced readers, but we can’t end this comprehensive guide without also touching on the things you need to check about the specific car you’re considering, before you commit to a purchase.

That will include such things as the car’s mileage, its MOT and service history, and whether the vehicle comes with a V5C (generally speaking, you are advised to avoid buying a vehicle that doesn’t have a V5C, otherwise often referred to as the ‘logbook’).

And if you are stood in front of the actual car on a dealer forecourt, you have an obvious opportunity to carry out a visual inspection of the car, and to ask for a test drive – the latter giving you the chance to listen for any worrying noises, such as a loud exhaust or squealing brakes.

That’s the advice done – it’s time to get on with your search!

There you have it – a top-to-bottom guide to the various key things you need to know about if you do decide to buy your next car from a dealer.

It doesn’t have to be quite as intimidating a process as you might imagine it to be, and equipping yourself with the knowledge you will have hopefully acquired from reading this, will help maximise your chances of landing the right vehicle for the right price. Good luck!