8 Sneaky Car Dealer Tricks to Watch Out For

What’s the worst thing about car shopping?

According to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, we hate the price of cars and the dealership experience more than anything.

In fact, TIME magazine’s money section highlighted a study that said 75 percent of people who buy cars hate the dealership experience so much they would rather do everything – buying, financing, etc. – online:

“If given the opportunity, they would consider making their entire car-buying process online, including financing, price negotiation, back-office paperwork, and home delivery.”

Why do people hate the dealership experience so much? 

If you’ve shopped for a car, then you’ve probably experienced the different tactics and techniques salespeople use to wear you down or push you into spending more than you wanted to. But the tricky thing about all this is that, oftentimes, we aren’t even aware of these tactics.

The tricky thing about all this is that, often times, we aren’t even aware of these tactics.

They’re subtle and can change depending on how the salesman feels, how you feel, what the sales manager says, and a host of other factors.

And that, in our opinion, is why most of us dislike buying a car from a dealership.

Because the dealership experience can be like walking through a consumer minefield, wisdom and smarts are a necessity to make it out unscathed.

We’re going to help you come out of your car buying experience like a pro by talking about eight tactics used by car salespeople and what you can do to avoid them.

1: Bait and Switch

Like most people, you’ll probably search for a variety of cars on several different websites before going to a dealership. Just to make sure you don’t set out on a wasted trip, you call to see if the car is still on the lot.

The salesperson you talk with reassures you it’s probably still there and to come on down and take a look.

You show up at the dealership only to find out that the car actually isn’t there, but, the salesman tells you, there are several other cars that would be a great fit.

At this point, you’ve spent time driving down to the dealership and you don’t want to leave empty-handed; it wouldn’t hurt to look at one other car, right?

Welcome to the bait and switch, says expert auto negotiator Mike Rabkin, CEO of From Car to Finish.

 “It’s common for salespeople to mention a specific car on their lot that’s … priced unusually low,” Mike Rabkin says.

So what happens when they bring the bad news about the super-cheap car being gone? The upsell.

“They’ll say the car was sold when you get there to see it and try to upsell you on what else is there since you already made the trip,” Mike says.

A variation on this tactic has to do with the pricing of the car, says Mike Schatzki, a negotiating expert from Negotiation Dynamics.

“The idea is to quote you an unusually low price to get you into the dealership and then move to a higher price once you show up,” he says.

How do they get away with it? Through some creative deception.

“The way this is sometimes justified is that when you get to the dealership, either the salesperson says that the sales manager wouldn’t accept the price,” Mike says, “or alternatively, the salesperson discovers that they left something out of the price and it’s really more than he quoted.”

What do you do when this happens?

“Tell the salesperson that you want the offer approved in advance by the sales manager before you leave the house and that if the sales manager won’t do it, you’re not coming,” he says.

2. Leveraging Monthly Payments

As you and the salesperson talk about the car you want to buy, the price will eventually come up in the discussion. If the salesperson is smart, he or she won’t always ask you how much you want to spend total.

Instead, they’ll ask you how much you want to pay per month. Why? It’s just a matter of math (more on that in a minute).

I made this mistake once while shopping for a used car. I told the sales manager that I wanted to spend $150 per month. To me, that meant a $4,000 car, more or less, on a three-year loan. With taxes and fees, the payments would most likely hover around $140 or $150. But that’s me, the consumer trying to be smart about the bottom line.

Sales managers, in one sense, aren’t any different than me. They’re concerned about their bottom line, too. But instead of trying to get you the best deal for your situation, they’re trying to get the best deal for their situation.

So, when, I told the sales manager I wanted to pay $150 a month, he immediately had the salesperson get a newer sedan with a price tag near $8,000. In his mind, he could finance me in-house and get my payments down to $150 per month.

Even though I was going to pay $150 a month liked I’d said I wanted to, I would’ve been buying a car that cost twice as much as I wanted to spend.

What do the two loans look like? Here’s an idea of the total cost after taxes and fees ($700 for the first car, $1,000 for the second, more or less):

  • $4,7000 at 5% over 36 months: $141
  • $9,000 at 5% over 72 months: $145

Those payments look pretty similar, don’t they? This is where the salesperson or manager will try and get you to say yes. But think about it, not only are you paying nearly twice as much for your car, but you’ll also be paying an additional $1,065 in interest and you’ll be making payments for twice as long.

“It’s especially bad to mention what you can afford in terms of a monthly payment, as salespeople can simply do a longer-term auto loan to make the payments fit your parameters, disguising the higher price you paid for the vehicle,” Mike Rabkin says.

But what do you do if the salesperson corners you and won’t seem to let you move forward in the process without getting a number out of you? Hold fast and play smart.

 “You should never answer the monthly payment question,” Mike says. “Just say it depends on how much you like the vehicle.”

3. Dragging Out the Sale

Think of your dealership experience like a title fight between two stubborn boxers. The battle is going to go the full 13 rounds and the winner, most likely, won’t be the most powerful puncher but the fighter who has the grit to still be standing when it’s all said and done. 

One of the ways that dealerships try to wear you down is by making you wait at crucial times.

For instance, when I bought a used car six months ago, pauses were a big part of our price negotiation. 

The salesman started off with a price. We countered, haggled, and hard balled. Eventually, he said, “Okay, I’ll take this price to my sales manager.”

He walked to a room surrounded by glass windows and was in there for five or six minutes, which may not seem like a long time, but when you’re waiting to hear back on the price of a car, it’s an eternity.

Eventually, he came back to the desk with a sheet of paper. Scrawled on that paper is a price higher than what we wanted. More countering, haggling and hard balling.

He went to the sales manager again. More waiting. And waiting. Finally, he came back with a price that was lower, but not what we wanted – a difference of about $350. At that point, we were done. We didn’t want to fight anymore so we accepted the price. 

Mike Schatzki says this is a classic dealership scenario; waiting is a weapon meant to chew away at your resolve so that you’ll give in.

“It’s a common tactic to keep the buyer waiting, hoping that it will make him or her anxious and nervous,” Mike said.

“It’s a common tactic to keep the buyer waiting, hoping that it will make him or her anxious and nervous.”

Though it may seem like a coincidence at the moment, it’s very intentional, says car-buying expert Scott Hicks from Carloan.com. 

“They know that people have a limited supply of determination and discipline and that after a long enough time, most will be ready to just get it over with,” Scott says.

Both experts said you have to be prepared to combat this tactic.

“The best strategy to combat this is to keep your schedule open on the day you buy your car,” Scott says. “If you’re in a hurry to get to something afterward, you’ll be more likely to agree to anything just to move things along.”

Mike says bringing along something to read or work on not only thwarts the waiting tactic, but it shows you’re not in a hurry.

“The counter to this (tactic) is to be totally prepared,” Mike says. “Bring a book or some work to do, or make some phone calls. This shows that you are relaxed and unconcerned and will not be affected by their waiting game.”

Sounds easy, right? Blaze through some Sudoku or try and level up in Clash of Clans. Done deal. But, that’s not the whole story.

Once you agree on a price, you’ll be sent to F & I – financing and insurance.

4. The F&I Pressure Cooker

Remember how we likened the negotiation process to a prizefight? Well, once you agree on a price for your car, you’re entering the last round of the fight. Your resolve is weakened. You’re tired. The coffee they offered you is stale and flavorless. Your wife and kid are ready to leave.

And then the salesperson says those foreboding words: “Okay, I’m going to send you back to F&I so you can finish up the paperwork.”

This is the dealership’s final chance to break your will. They know you’re tired and beaten up and they’re going to try and use that to their advantage by pushing extended warranties, add-ons, and in-house financing, all of which make them money and don’t really benefit you.

I’ll take you back to my situation. What I haven’t told you is that my wife and I had just moved to the United States from Barcelona seven days before.

Our kid had been up nearly every night with a sore throat and cough. We were exhausted. And I definitely wasn’t happy about having to grind out more negotiations with F&I.

But we had to. And here’s how it went – the guy spent a good 45 minutes trying to push in-house financing and a warranty on me. 

His logic was this: “What kind of rate did your credit union give you? I think I can beat that, and the money you save from financing through us can be used to buy a warranty.”

At certain points, he became condescending and treated me like a kid when I told him I wasn’t interested: “So you’re telling me you don’t want to protect your car if something goes wrong? That doesn’t make any sense.”

But I didn’t budge. Why? Because I was being targeted with a classic tactic. The F&I guy makes you believe he can get you better financing, but he has absolutely no idea what your credit scores are and what kind of rate he can negotiate.

And they offer you the warranty before they get you the financing. Do you see what’s happening here? They want you to sign off on a warranty that’s paid for by the better interest rate he’ll supposedly get you without even knowing if he can get you that rate. It’s an empty promise.

Mike Schatzki says this is standard for most dealerships. They know they’ve got you on the ropes and they want to land the knockout punch. You might think it’s over when you agree on a price, but it’s far from over. 

 “Welcome to the world of backend sales (F&I),” Mike says. “They have two jobs: The first is to handle and make a profit on your financing. The second is to sell you a whole bunch of stuff that you don’t need at the highest possible profit.”

What’s that “whole bunch of stuff you don’t need?” Aside from financing and extended warranties, Mike listed the following unnecessary add-ons:

  • Undercoating – “Something you almost never need and could, in some cases, damage the car.”
  • Scotchgarding – “If you want to (protect) the fabric in your car, buy a can for a few dollars and do it yourself.”
  • Paint sealant – “Today’s manufacturing techniques make this an option that you don’t need.”
  • Window tinting, pinstriping, and alarm systems – “You can get it much cheaper from a third party after you buy the car.”

5. Guilt Tripping

Remember how I told you about the monthly payment shenanigans one dealership tried to pull on me? Well, the story doesn’t stop there.

When the sales manager showed me the car that was twice as expensive as I wanted, I told him exactly that: “This car is twice as expensive as I told you I wanted to spend.”

His response: “Just test drive the car.”

I battled with him, but he wouldn’t relent.

Then, he left. The salesperson leaned over and told me, “Look, let’s take a test drive. If we don’t my boss is going to be really mad at me.”

I totally fell for it. I didn’t want the guy to get in trouble. I didn’t end up buying that car (thankfully), but I did take a test drive because of the guilt trip.

The truth is, I got off easier than most. Mike Schatzki pointed out that guilt trips come into play when you’re talking price, and that’s when things can get ugly.

What are some of the favorite lines salespeople like to throw at you? Here are a few:

  • “We have to make a profit, too, you know.”
  • “I have a mortgage to pay just like you do.”
  • “You are really being very unfair to us.”
  • “Do you think that anybody could stay in business at the level of profit you’re offering us?”

When I recently bought a used car, the salesperson slipped a more subtle guilt trip in when he came back with a price that was $500 more than what we wanted to pay. Here’s exactly what he said to me: “I hope we don’t lose your business over $400.”

Do you see how sneaky this is? Not only did he guilt trip me, but he also made the price difference seem less than it actually was.

How do you fight back? Well, in retrospect, I would’ve told the salesperson, “If our business was important to you, you wouldn’t risk losing it over $500.”

Mike says brutal honesty is the key. Avoid their jabs of guilt and stay focused.

“Guilt trips are all part of the psychological warfare,” Mike says. “Do not engage or argue. Just refocus the discussion back to the price of the car.”

They’re trying to make you feel like you’re hurting them by negotiating price. In reality, Mike says, they own the car and they decide the price at which they’ll give the car to you. You aren’t being unfair; you’re being a smart consumer.\

They’re trying to make you feel like you’re hurting them by negotiating price.

Guilt trips are the final tactic in what we consider to be the five main tactics car dealerships will use against you when you’re shopping for a new car.

We’re going to continue our list with three more strategies that aren’t as common but still tend to pop up at different times. Whereas the first batch of tactics we covered is sneaky but not necessarily dubious, we consider the following trio of tricks to be unethical or just downright bad form.

6. “Your Financing Fell Through” 

We’re really glad that Mike Schatzki shared this strategy with us because it could end up costing you a lot of money.

What happens in this scenario is that the dealership finalizes everything – the price of your new car and the value of your trade-in. Everything, that is, except the financing.

But they’ll promise you they have a rate that can’t be beaten and that they just need a few days to sort out the paperwork.

“A week later they call you and tell you that the financing didn’t go through because of your credit score and that … your payment is going to be much higher,” Mike says. “At this point, you have put mileage on the new car and your used car has already been sent off to auction.” 

In other words, your trade-in is already gone and the value of your new car has already dropped at least a thousand dollars because you’ve put miles on it.

As a result, things get ugly. The remedy? Mike has some great advice:

“If you choose to finance through the dealer, NEVER, EVER sign a blank piece of paper or take your new car and leave your trade-in,” he says, “until every single aspect of the financing is completely signed, sealed and delivered.”

7. Rolling Your Old Loan into the New One

Let’s say you’re about to say yes to a new car, but you’re worried about the remaining balance on your previous car’s loan.

You express your concern to the salesperson, who gives you a sympathetic nod, pauses for a moment, then tells you he or she thinks there’s a solution: “We’ll pay the remaining balance on your auto loan.”

Sounds too good to be true, right? What a generous offer! This, you think, must be your very lucky day.

Here’s the dirty truth: They aren’t “paying off your loan,” Mike Rabkin says.

“Dealers act as if they’re generously paying off your old auto loan,” he said. “What they don’t tell you is they’re simply rolling the amount they pay off into the new auto loan. There are no free lunches.”

8. Losing the Keys to Your Car

This is a little bit of an old-school tactic, but, according to Mike Schatzki, it still pops up now and then. You’ll see this trick at work when you’ve got a trade-in.

“You don’t see this as much these days, but some unscrupulous dealers still will try to keep you at the dealership by either losing the keys to your trade-in or accidentally blocking your car so you can’t get out,” Mike says.

What they’re trying to do is keep you around so they can pressure you into buying a car, pure and simple.

The solution here is just as basic: Give them a spare key to your car so you always have access to your vehicle. If your car is magically blocked in so you can’t get out, don’t be afraid to be straightforward about leaving.

“If they block you in or lose your keys, they are totally unscrupulous and you want nothing further to do with them,” Mike says. “Go somewhere else.”

The Bottom Line

Buying a car from a dealership really is like a boxing match. You’ve got to know your opponent ahead of time. Verify that a car is in stock and make sure the price is what it is before you even step out the door to drive to the dealership.

Manage long waits by bringing reading material, work stuff, or calling a friend. Block off four or five hours for the purchase so you aren’t in a hurry.

Don’t buy into guilt trips; they’re designed to make you bend or break.

Now, it’s important to remember that these are common tactics every dealership uses, so you don’t necessarily need to leave a particular place just because they employ these tactics.

However, if they pull the old “Your car is blocked in,” “We lost your keys,” or “We’ll pay for your existing loan”, we suggest finding a new place to buy a car.

Be strong. Know that you’re entering a fight and be ready to throw a few of your own uppercuts to get the deal you want.

Recommended ReadingCarvana Review: Is It Really a Better Way to Buy a Used Car?

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.

8 Sneaky Car Dealer Tricks to Watch Out For