To say 2021 hasn’t been a standard year would be an understatement, and the automotive industry is no exception. Worldwide shortages on automotive semiconductor chips, rubber, and even foam for the interiors of auto seats have led to a car crunch.
“Manufacturers aren’t producing the volume of vehicles they once were, if they’re producing at all,” said Andrew Guthmiller, owner of Gocarconcierge.com and a former car sales manager. He pointed to General Motors’ recent announcement of downtime at production plants. “At a dealership, there is a car waiting for you. But where most dealerships used to have 50 to 100 cars, now there are four or five to choose from.”
Luke Bratlie, general manager of Holmes Volvo Cars Dealership in Shreveport, Louisiana, has seen shortages similar to the ones Gutmiller described. “The entire industry is feeling the pinch of strain on the supply chain with factory closings and temporary shutdowns,” he told The Balance by email, though he added that Volvo Cars has been able to allocate vehicles to dealerships.
But as a result of the car crunch, Guthmiller said, prices on new and used cars are higher than they were a year ago. So, while the advice we’ll offer may help you save money, timing your purchase may not be as effective as it might have been last year—or may be next year.
“Right now, there isn’t really a best time,” Guthmiller said. However, learning the basics now will help you plan for your next purchase—and to negotiate.
Year-end offers closeout pricing on current-year models, Bratlie said. Deals should start showing up in October and last until the end of the year. “By Black Friday, the picks of the litter are all gone, and if you plan on a New Year’s Eve purchase, you’re at the mercy of whatever is left,” he said.
March is also a fine time to buy a new car, Guthmiller said. New-model cars aren’t discounted much between December and February. In March, rebates are on offer, and dealerships are ready to start moving current-model vehicles off the lot.
And don’t get too focused on the price of the car itself, Guthmiller said. “Focusing 100% on price is often a disservice to the consumer,” he said. Some dealerships pad the price with high fees. For example, one dealership’s car might seem like the cheapest option—until you discover the additional documentation fees, high interest rate, or poor trade-in value for your last vehicle compared to what’s offered at other dealerships. When you compare pricing among dealerships, make sure you’re considering the total amount you’ll need to hand over.
Advertising-driven holiday sales are usually designed to grab attention and attract customers, not necessarily offer great deals, said Guthmiller. And even if the prices are appealing, as Bratlie noted above, you may have fewer options to choose from.
It’s not all about the best time of year. Other kinds of timing can help you get the best purchase price—or at least improve your car-buying experience. Consider these strategies for car shopping and buying.
If you have to visit an auto dealership to test-drive, consider a less-busy morning hour, said Mike Rumple, a former auto salesperson and founder of Yourcarbuyingadvocate.com, a car-buying concierge service. Morning is also a better time to call a dealership to request bids or buy.
Days with bad weather might be great days to buy, Rumple said. “Maybe they haven’t made a sale all day long,” he said. He suggested not car shopping on Saturdays and Sundays to avoid the crush of shoppers and a potentially lengthy wait to speak with the finance manager. If you call in for a deal on a Tuesday or Wednesday at 10 a.m., you may be the only customer around.
If you need to visit a dealer on Saturday, arrive about 30 to 40 minutes after the dealership opens so you can catch the sales team’s attention. Bratlie said most shoppers show up around 1 p.m.—a time you should avoid, if possible.
The end of the month can be an incredibly good time to buy a car. The dealership may hope to hit a sales quota from an auto manufacturer and may provide a retroactive bonus for vehicles sold that month, Rumple said. For example, the manufacturer may say, “If you sell 30 cars in June, we’ll give you $200 for each sale.” If a dealership has sold 28 cars and it’s the last day of June, the salesperson may be more likely to give you a better deal to get closer to their sales quota.
However, finding dealers close to their bonus targets may be tricky, Rumple said, and it requires you contact multiple dealerships near the end of the month. If you’re considering a few different vehicles, it’s a good idea to schedule test-drives earlier in the month to narrow down which car you want to buy.
Mid-month, call four or five dealerships. Let them know you’ll buy before the month’s end and request a proposal in writing or via email. “You may see a dramatic difference from the low end to the higher end,” Rumple said.
Yes, call rather than visit in person. “I tell clients to never negotiate at a dealership, which gives the dealership control, and it’s a bad negotiating tactic. They know you don’t want to leave and go to another dealership and spend another 10 hours there,” Rumple said.
In the month’s last week, send a reminder to each dealership: “‘Hey, I’m buying a car in the next two days, and you’re close in price to another dealership, who’s beating you. Can you send your final proposal?'” Rumple said. You may see thousands of dollars in difference.
The information above only applies to new cars, Rumple warned. Used cars play by different rules.
“The longer a used car sits on the lot, the better deal it should be,” Rumple said. If a car has been onsite for three or four months, you may have more negotiating power; the dealer may be desperate to get rid of that vehicle.
Usually, a dealership will discount after 20 days, then after 30-40 days, they drop the price again, Guthmiller said. However, by 90 days, the price probably won’t come down much more.
To find out how long a vehicle’s been in inventory, you can check the website Cargurus.com or look at the Carfax report, Rumple said. And like you would with a new car, test-drive the vehicle in person, but negotiate pricing over the phone.
When negotiating for a used car, don’t show your hand, Rumple said. Even—and especially—if it’s the exact car you’ve been hoping to find. If you state that you love the make, model, and color, a salesperson can easily review inventory and see that it’s the only car for miles around. At that point, they’re unlikely to negotiate on price.
According to our experts, there shouldn’t be any difference or hard rule of thumb regarding the best time to buy a car vs. a truck. However, Bratlie said that convertibles and sports cars are more desirable in the summer, while trucks and SUVs become increasingly desirable closer to winter, when drivers might need them most.
Pay close attention to rebates long before you want to buy, but understand that inventory levels often drive rebate availability, Guthmiller said. All manufacturers offer rebates, but there’s little rhyme or reason behind them if you don’t (or can’t) understand the inventory levels.
Dealerships outside a city’s metro area may need to be more aggressive in sales and pricing because they don’t have a million or more people driving past the dealership every week, Guthmiller said.
“Dealers have to get more creative to get clients, which means the price has to be better,” he said. After narrowing down your options, look within a 45- to 50-mile radius if you live in a major U.S. city, and try some of the tactics described above.
Guthmiller pointed to a recent and somewhat extreme example. A dealership was charging $18,000 over the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for an in-demand vehicle—but another dealership in the next state offered the same car for $400 under MSRP. Doing a little hunting might help you find a great deal.
While 2021 might not offer the most standard car-buying experience, it doesn’t hurt to try some of the strategies listed above.
And a final, solid tip from Bratlie: “One of the best things you can do on the hunt for a great deal is to be flexible about the car. Like I always tell my sales staff, a customer is looking to buy a car, or they’re looking to buy a payment. When one of those variables becomes the driver, the inverse is true for the other. If someone is hot on a specific car, the payment matters less. And when someone is locked into an idea they’ve had about a number, the car that gets them there is less important.”