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11 Tactics of the Used Car Salesman and How to Handle Them

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Some people look forward to a trip to the car dealership as much as a visit to the dentist. In both cases, you want the end result — a vehicle and clean teeth, respectively — but it’s the getting there that can be a pain (figuratively and literally).

Car salesmen have a job to do, namely selling you a vehicle, and many of the techniques we describe below are used because they’re effective. Your mission is to get the best deal you deserve, minus any unnecessary distractions. We’ll prepare you for some of the common “closes” a salesperson might use to convince you to buy a car and how you can respond.

The short game

These sales tactics are aimed at getting you to buy the car ASAP — not tomorrow, not after you go to lunch with some friends and think about it, but now.

Now or never

Used car salesmen often understand the phrase “I want to go home and think about it” to mean “no.” They believe that the longer you take to think about a car and do more research, the less likely you are to buy a vehicle from them. So they try to convince you to sign for the car while you’re there.

How it’s done. You may hear the phrases: “the car might not be here tomorrow; someone else might buy it before you come back,” “the rebate will end tonight,” “the sale will be over and the price will go up.”

How to counter. Sometimes they’re right — the sale might end, or the next buyer could snap up that exact car you had your eye on. But, you could do some quick internet research to fact-check a sale’s expiration date and if there are other options nearby. That way you could tell the salesperson, “The sale, according to your website, is supposed to last for the whole month and if this car is sold, one just like it is at the dealership across the street.”

The assumptive close

This is when the salesperson phrases questions in such a way that the obvious answers involve you agreeing in some way that you’re getting a car.

How it’s done. They might ask questions about what else you want with your new car. The underlying assumption is that the sale of the car itself is a foregone conclusion. For example: Do you want the technology or appearance package on the car? Would you like to get the maintenance plan with it? Which trim are you going with?

If you answer you don’t want the technology package or maintenance plan but do want the upgraded trim, you bought into the scheme. No, it’s not a binding agreement, but you made a verbal commitment, which is a good sign to the salesperson.

How to counter. You could answer such a question by saying you haven’t decided on a car yet. How could you decide on the technology package when you’re not yet set on a car and thus a car price?

The sharp angle

This happens when you don’t expect it. It’s a way for the salesperson to try and hurry you into buying a car.

How it’s done. As an answer to one of your concerns or objections about the vehicle, the salesperson asks you to go ahead and buy the car, with the promise that the dealership will take care of the problem(s). For example: If you sign for the car today, I guarantee we’ll fix the squeaky seat next week. Well, buy the car today and I’ll owe you a new inspection sticker.

How to counter. Don’t be in a hurry and get any promise in writing. Anything that is promised to you verbally should be written down and signed not only by you but also by the dealership. Some dealerships have what’s called a “We Owe” form for that purpose.

The freebie

This is the same type of tactic as the sharp angle, only the dealer gives you something now, instead of a promise to give you something in the future.

How it’s done. In answer to a concern you raised or, just as an impetus, the salesperson offers to give you something in exchange for buying the car now. For example:
You’re worried about only having an inflator kit; why don’t I throw in a spare tire?
Here’s a ticket for a free oil change; the first one for your new car is on me.

How to counter. Focus on what’s important. Don’t let the offer of a free oil change (which can cost less than $20) convince you to spend several thousand dollars buying a car.

The long game

If you resist the temptation to buy now or you feel like you’re being made to wait, you might be hit with one of these tactics.

The puppy dog close

Most people would have a hard time saying “no” to a cute puppy once their kids and/or neighbors have fawned over it. That’s the idea behind this close.

How it’s done. If your kids are with you, the salesperson will want to get them on their side and alleviate what can be a boring process by giving candy, pointing out the pretty colors of the cars, having the kids climb in a back seat and asking for their opinion once they know it’ll be a positive one. If your kids look at you with puppy dog eyes, asking for something that you want, too, you’re more likely to get it.

If you decline to buy car that day, the salesperson might offer an extended test drive, up to three days, even. Why would the dealership do this? Your neighbors might notice, ask about it and compliment your new car, compliment you on getting such a nice new car. It could garner as much attention as a new puppy. If you come back with your old car in a couple days, “what happened?”

How to counter. The easiest way is to counter this tactic is to not bring your kids when out car shopping and to not take the car home.

The waiting game

No one likes to wait. It can be even worse sitting around, waiting to hear back about a price or whether you’re approved for a loan at the dealership.

How it’s done. The salesperson, for no evident reason, disappears. You may start questioning your financial ability to buy the car and thinking about how much you want the car. The longer you wait, the more annoyed you may become, but, hey, you’ve already waited this long, surely they’ll be back soon. You may be more likely to say yes to everything when they do come back.

How to counter. If you are interested in the car, let the salesperson know this, but also say you aren’t interested in waiting. It’s perfectly OK to leave and come back later. Tell the salesperson you’re leaving now and they should call you when things have cleared up and the dealer is ready to move the process along.

The sneaking game

Here are some of the “sneakier” tactics salespeople may use. You might notice it’s the biggest section of tactics.

Sneaking in add-ons

Dealerships make a lot of profit from selling add-ons, such as GAP insurance and extended warranties.

How it’s done. A salesperson quotes a monthly payment, and then says, as if it’s an afterthought, that it includes an extra warranty. “It’s included” may sound free — it’s anything but. You may not even notice the $1,000-plus price buried deep in the paperwork you have to sign.

How to counter. Ask what the total price is for anything they say that is “included.” And we stress the total price, not your monthly payment. If the monthly price is $20, over a 72-month contract, that’s $1,440, plus interest. If you would like an extended warranty though, see the link for more info.

The runaround

This is usually done by talking about everything except the price or the problem.

How it’s done. The salesperson refuses to talk about price directly. Or, they might use a worksheet, also called a “four-square.”

Here’s how the four-square works: Instead of writing down the car price, a salesperson might write in everything from your trade-in value to your monthly payment in different boxes or squares on a sheet of paper. Or they might not even use numbers, but features instead, such as “leather seats” and “Bose radio.”

How to counter. Tell the salesperson you want to discuss car price, now, not whatever else they’re using as a distraction. If they don’t, leave. There are plenty of other salespeople out there who are honest.

“I called the bank” or “I found a coupon”

When the dealership is the middleman between you and the lender, you’re in the dark.

How it’s done. When a used car salesman comes back after a minute of being away and says they talked the bank into dropping your APR or that they found a special coupon to lower your APR, be cautious. The salesperson may tell you there are new caveats, including the add-ons we mentioned earlier.

How to counter. The best way to counter this is to get a preapproved car loan from your own lender before going to the dealer. Shop around for the auto loan like you would for a car, to make sure the dealer and the lender don’t take you for a spin. Question any caveats.

It doesn’t hurt your credit to apply to multiple lenders any more than it does to apply to one, as long as you do so within a 14-day window. You can read more about getting preapproved and, when you’re ready, you could fill out an online form at LendingTree for up to five potential auto loan preapproval offers from lenders.

And if they say you must buy other products (such as an extended warranty) in order to get a loan, ask to see the requirement in writing. Odds are, you don’t have to buy it and they’re trying to push it on you.

A monthly payment focus

It’s conceivable that anyone could sell you anything at any price and still meet your monthly payment requirement — they just make the loan longer.

How it’s done. Most people rightly don’t understand the full cost of borrowing tens of thousands of dollars over multiple years. What is much more understandable is monthly payment. Dealerships take advantage of this: A lower monthly payment sounds attractive. In reality, it might disguise a higher cost of borrowing over time.

How to counter. Use a free online auto loan calculator. There are some that allow you to put in a price of a car and see how much your payment would be and others that allow you to put in the monthly payment you want to see how much car you could afford. Don’t let the salesperson only talk about monthly payment; instead, focus on price. If you get a good price on the car, a good monthly payment will follow.

Specific numbers

This may sound like a good thing. (But it’s not.)

How it’s done. In price negotiation, the salesperson gives a really specific number. Instead of, say $21,000, the salesperson comes back with $20,959.29. They may say that is the minimum amount they can sell the car for.

How to counter. Tell them you know this is a specific type of “close” and it won’t work on you. You can also look up what the car is worth on free sites such as KBB and NADAguides.

The bottom line

Just as there are many techniques to close a car sale, there are many (polite but firm) responses you can give to make sure you’re getting the best deal for you. Also, remember to use an auto loan calculator and get a preapproved auto loan before you head to the dealership. Once you’re there, keep your smartphone on you and use it to look up competitors’ car prices.


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