How to Buy a New Car in Portland (or Anywhere for that Matter)

Earlier today, I talked about a good way to get rid of an old car. As it happens, I wasn’t planning on getting rid of that particular car this week, or any time in the near future. But things happen, and now I find myself on the market for a new car in very short order.

So in the interest of the common good, let me share a tried-and-true method of buying a new car.

The most important thing to remember is this: Under no circumstance should you set foot on the car lot until you’re well along the path to buying a particular vehicle, preferably with a price quote, stock number and detailed description of the vehicle you are about to buy.

First, do your research on the Web and by looking around you and decide exactly what you want. Make, model year, model, trim level and options. is a great place to compare cars side-by-side, feature-by-feature if you’re not sure of make and model.

Options are often bundled, so make a list of those you can’t live without and those you would prefer not to pay for, then go to the manufacturers’ Web sites and find the “build a vehicle” or some such link. Pick your trim level, color and options, and get the MSRP. Nobody should ever be asked to pay this price.

Instead, you should pay right around the dealer’s invoice or below, which is hundreds or thousands below MSRP. (Don’t worry, dealers pay less than that, I can assure you. They’re not giving them away.) You will never negotiate down to dealer’s invoice if you just walk onto the lot. The lot sales guys are working for commission, and they just won’t go that low. Again, never, ever just walk onto the lot. The conversation must begin electronically, with a request for a quote.

Contact all the local dealers that sell this brand via their Web site (some manufacturer’s let you do this through their site directly) and request a stock check and quote on the exact car you want. A metro area the size of Portland will likely have three or four dealers, more if you include Salem and Vancouver. They all have internet sales people now, basically extensions of the fleet department. They make their money on volume, not markup.

Tell them the “must-have” options in case they don’t have that exact package. Most dealers let you request a quote online, and will respond by phone. Ask them to e-mail or fax you a detailed quote, including the stock number and options.

Once you have quotes from at least one of them — and remember, this should be right around dealer’s invoice, and they should show you dealer’s invoice if you didn’t get it online — go drive one.

If it’s the one you want, figure out who has it in the color you want, etc., then ask the dealer that’s the most convenient to you to match the best price quote you’ve been given. If they can’t do that, ask the one with the best price if they can get it for you in the color you want.

Basically, pit them against each other. Tell them who you’re talking to, and share with them the prices you’re getting quoted. Then, finally, when you’ve settled on one, make an appointment to go buy it. Decline the extended warranty, undercoating and fabric protector, and drive your new car home, thousands of dollars less poor than you would be had you just walked onto the lot.

25 Comments so far

  1. Betsy (unregistered) on December 12th, 2007 @ 9:40 pm

    And do all of this near the end of the month, if you can. They want to move cars out to hit sales quotas, and will be happy to agree to your terms.

    One more – get your financing lined up before you walk in the door as well. But you knew that already, right?

  2. Steve (unregistered) on December 12th, 2007 @ 9:47 pm

    At least know the rates at your credit union. It turns out manufacturers like to do incentive financing deals, and can frequently beat your bank’s rate.

    But definitely find out before you go. Also research the trade-in value if you’re doing that. Kelly Blue Book is the place for that:

  3. chris (unregistered) on December 12th, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

    now this is a psa!

    I was looking recently on a lot and was just shocked how brazenly high the sticker price was *over* MSRP.

    I think they were calling them “market adjustment” or whatever. Anyways, in general, car dealers suck.

    Anyone ever use a broker?

  4. Rob (unregistered) on December 13th, 2007 @ 12:48 am

    I have an ex girlfriend who bought a new car by email.

    She set up an email account that looked important but lacked her first name, thus removing gender from the equation. She then carbon copy emailed every dealership that sold the exact model she wanted and had them bid against each other for the sale, and she kept in touch with all of them, notifying them of the current lowest bid. She signed each email with her first initial and last name – again, to keep gender out of the equation.

    She got one hell of a deal, though she had to fight for it once she got to the dealership since the salesperson was… well, how should I put this. To say the salesman was sexist would be putting it mildly. The first words out of his mouth were “You’re S. Suchandsuch?” This was in Texas, and the poor bastard had no idea he was dealing with a woman.

  5. Smashing. (unregistered) on December 13th, 2007 @ 6:52 am

    Thanks for the tips.
    Looking to get an 08 Chevy HHR Panel!!

  6. plm (unregistered) on December 13th, 2007 @ 7:19 am

    Title access is something to keep in mind when financing a vehicle. When you decide it is time to sell that car you just bought you will need to be able to access the title. If you are trading in the vehicle then there is no problem, the dealer will take care of it. If you are selling to a private party it can be a completely different story. As an example, BMW financing stores their titles in Texas. It can take up to two weeks to get the title after the loan is paid in full. Is your cash buyer comfortable paying for the car and then waiting for that title? Will the purchasers loan provider deal directly with the sellers loan provider? I prefer to avoid a lot of hassle by just getting the loan from my credit union which stores the titles locally.

  7. martin (unregistered) on December 13th, 2007 @ 9:00 am

    Also, you should have at least 20% of the down payment. I guess that’s pretty obv.

  8. Ken (unregistered) on December 13th, 2007 @ 5:33 pm

    Or you can spring for the twenty bucks it costs to get the online New Car Buying Guide at Consumer Reports. They give you the cost of the car to the dealership, and then you offer them $200 over that.

    Because of incentives and bonuses the manufacturers give the dealers, that $200 is enough to get you your car.

  9. Steve (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 6:55 am

    With the Web, you can be your own broker. I don’t see why to use one. Also, the guy who sold me my car last night for $200 below dealer invoice told me the Costco price is $500 more (dealer invoice plus $300).

    He also told me that you could possibly negotiate down to dealer invoice if you just walk on the lot, but it will take several hours, and you will be brow beat by at least three different guys trying to keep you as far away from the dealer invoice price as possible.

    Oh, and another tip. You’ll probably get the best price quote from the largest dealer in town. They do the most volume, which means they get more cash back from the manufacturers and can sell for less. But even the smallest lot in town might want to match the price just to get your business, even if it means they don’t make as much as they want on the car.

  10. greg (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 8:53 am

    -Regarding the “Costco price” mentioned above… usually the Costco price is a set amount above invoice (varies by car from $0 -$500) BEFORE any factory incentives. If you are buying a car that has any rebates, Costco usually ends up much better than any dealer will give you if you just walk through the door. I helped a friend buy an Altima for $1200 below invoice through Costco, her friend did $500 below on a truck a week later.

    If you can, always try costco first. Someone from the participating dealership will call you and set up an appt. You can clarify over the phone that they have the car you want, what the deal is, and ask about rebates (check edmunds for those too).

    Then the only thing to fight the dealer about is bogus protection packages, gap insurance, and extended warranties…

  11. Jennifer Heath (unregistered) on December 14th, 2007 @ 1:36 pm

    My experience has been better with the smaller lots and private owners. I do my research to get an idea what car I want, and then I go to the cutest lot with the best prices, with the most clear understandable people, who will allow me to take the car to a mechanic for a complete checkup. And then I buy it. Sweet and simple just like my cutie Mazda!

  12. none (unregistered) on December 15th, 2007 @ 6:37 pm

    Man, I thought my best bet was to spot my favorite model while driving by a dealership, then slam on the brakes and pull in the lot and trust the first salesman that came up to me with their business card and pay whatever price they gave me.

    That’s the way my Dad always did it.

    I also figured that the only person more trustworthy than a car salesman was a USED car salesman.

  13. Bruce L (unregistered) on December 15th, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

    I have used a broker twice and paid $250 over invoice for his fee.

  14. indy (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 12:18 pm

    Perhaps I’m strange, but I would never buy a car new: ever.

    Here is why?
    The expense of the car is at its greatest. You are paying for the dealer’s salaries, lot lease, taxes, insurance, what they pay the manufacturer, advertising for the car nationally, advertising the car locally, delivery, comission. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.
    Now, the minute the new car is off the lot, it loses all that expense. The car immediately is worth 5-20% just by the original owner leaving the lot. That’s more money that you will ever be able to negotiate at a dealership. So why bother with the hassle?
    My strategy: Foreclosure Auctions. These are auctions on forclosed homes and cars where the fat-cat couldn’t live within their means. They took good care of their autos, but they just couldn’t keep up the payments. I’ve been able to find very, very nice cars under yearly mileage and $5-10K below blue book. These auction houses just want to clear inventory, and they want to do it fast. So I look for the newest Japanese cars that are 6 months to 2 years old, and it works quite well for me…

  15. LKnight (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 1:30 pm

    There is one good reason I bought a 2008 Model Mercury Mariner..ESC..and Ford is the only manufacturer with a two gyro system, preventing lateral skids as well as roll SAFETY features are definitely a marketing tool for me.

  16. Thomas (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:06 pm

    I sometimes wonder why people have such hard feelings toward car dealerships and the people who make their living by working there. Have you had a bad experience or is this just the status quo and how you’re supposed to feel? I agree that no one wants to be taken advantage of BUT what is wrong with getting a fair deal? The dealership is a business. Who goes into business not to make money. And what about the sales person? Should they work with you for hours on end, sometimes for their whole shift to be paid and treated like an indentured servant? When I purchased my Honda I went in knowing pricing, dealer cash etc. I didn’t shaft the dealership nor did I get taken. There is a happy medium.

  17. Craig (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:17 pm

    Having once worked in a car dealership. I feel for car sales people. They spend hours with customers that think they are scum. they only want to feed there family. That said, I feel people should never over pay for a car. Pitting dealers against one another is just dragging out the process. Every internet department secret shops every other internet department. They will never give any other price than there best price. why? If they did you would just go by from the other dealer. Buy from the dealer that treats you right.

  18. Claire (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:25 pm

    I just want to say Congratulations to the Oregonian!! What hypocrites!! You print an article basically outlining how car dealerships screw everyone over…Yet you’ve happliy taken millions of their dollars to run their ads. THE DEALERSHIPS SPEND MORE MONEY THAN ANYONE IN ADVERTISING TO YOUR NEWSPAPER! Not so smart biting the hand that feeds you….

  19. Richard (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:28 pm

    When it comes to new cars. Every dealer pays the same price from them. I recently bought a New Honda element. I emailed every dealer in portland Area and every price was within $5. I went to the dealer that gave me the most extras. I got a free 100K warranty included.

  20. Dr. Presser (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:31 pm

    Car dealers are the great Satan. You should all ride bikes and use the Max. Go Green!

  21. indy (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

    LKNIGHT above:

    According to Consumer Reports, the safety record (accident avoidance in particular) on that 2008 Mariner is rated “very” bad. Even in the government rollover tests it did “average.”

    Predicted depreciation is also “very bad.” All in all a typically badly made American car.

  22. Eliza Jane (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 4:39 pm

    I’m sick of these car buying articles they just re-hash the same process that was made up 10yrs ago. Has the internet changed in 10yrs? Everyone knows you can find the invoice online. Just because you magically know the invoice price doesn’t mean a dealer will sell it at that price. It is all about supply and demand. They will sell it for what people are willing to pay. If no one is buying there cars they will lower there quotes, sometimes under invoice if they have incentives. If they have no problem selling them at MSRP there quotes will be at MSRP. and yes Richard, all the quotes will be the same.

  23. Blarne Charnel (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

    Buy a Used Crown Victoria for $3000 and drive and enjoy it for 5 years. Don’t EVER buy a new car!

  24. Steve (unregistered) on December 16th, 2007 @ 9:36 pm

    Here’s what happens when your post gets submitted to Oregon Reddit: Your post gets linked off the front page of, and people assume your post is an Oregonian article.

    Claire, this is MetroBlogging Portland, and I am an unpaid blogger. I was just passing on some advice many people are unaware of. I don’t disclaim prior art, Eliza Jane, I’m just passing on some information to save some people some money.

    And all respect to the guys earning a living, and I don’t think I mistreated anybody. I went to the guy that went out of his way to help me get the best price available in the Portland Metro area.

  25. L Knight (unregistered) on December 17th, 2007 @ 6:41 am

    Odd that Consumer Reports would be mentioned..I read their road test of the Mercury Mariner..and the entire article referred to the 200HP V6 did they road test?? Perhaps it was the same group that did their child car seat project? Interestingy they state that reliabilty would be acceptable based on “owner reviews”..

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