Car salesmen know buying a car is a big commitment for most people, so they develop car salesman tricks designed to put you at ease and build trust to move you toward a sale. These tactics may be legal, but they’re still subtle forms of manipulation designed to close the deal. If you understand the game being played, it can help you leave the dealership with the car you want—at a price you feel good about.
The reason behind car salesman tactics
The salesman wants to close a sale, but there are also bonus structures, quotas and other moving parts on the salesman’s end. In some cases, their job security might hinge on selling you that vehicle. As the buyer, you think about payments, negotiating a trade-in, haggling over the price, working something out for a loan either with your bank or the dealership and probably a few other things as well.
With that much on your plate, the vehicle itself can take a backseat to other considerations. Just remember that while you might buy a vehicle every few years, this is a process the dealership’s sales staff goes through daily. Their tactics are designed to leverage that experience gap to convince you to agree to buy a car that might not be the perfect fit or add-ons you don’t need.
Car salesman tricks revealed
Here’s a breakdown of some of the different kinds of pressure tactics a salesperson might put on you to move you toward a purchase.
You walk into the showroom and a salesman introduces himself and offers you coffee and maybe even a doughnut. He asks what you’re looking for and a few questions about your job, your family and your overall situation. Bear in mind, this isn’t just everyday small talk—it’s a scripted routine designed to get a salesman the info he needs to give him an opening to take charge of the situation.
How to handle it: Go in knowing exactly what you want and communicate that upfront. This saves time for both you and the sales staff, because they don’t have to probe to try to figure out what they might be able to sell you.
This one’s a pretty common complaint among car buyers. You start looking at vehicles and, before you know it, a salesman has latched on like a bulldog. Whatever you do or say, that salesman isn’t going to give up. You’re going to be pressured and pestered and dogged and browbeaten until you either give in or just lay down a hard no.
How to handle it: Firmly let him know you aren’t going to be pressured into making a purchase that day. You don’t have to be rude about it, but any decent salesman should recognize that and respect it. If you feel like the salesman is still being too pushy, leave. They’re probably not the only dealership in town.
Building a rapport
This is often part of the orientation script. The salesman asks you about your life, family, interests and goals. This is also part of the salesman sizing you up and collecting the info needed to qualify you for a sale. Do you have teenagers in sports leagues? Maybe they’ll use that information to try to get you into a pricey SUV. A long morning commute? They could use that to steer you toward a comfy full-sized sedan rather than a gas-sipping compact.
How to handle it: Feel free to answer general stuff and make small talk, but know that the salesman is doing more than just passing the time. As always, you’re better off going in knowing exactly what you want rather than allow the salesman to play a role in your decision.
Running down the clock
You’ve been there awhile, and maybe you’ve looked at two or three vehicles, gone for a test drive and been through all the tactics the salesman knows. By this time, you’re a little stressed, maybe hungry and ready to get out of there, one way or another. The salesman knows this and can read your impatience, then turn it around and use it to close the deal.
How to handle it: Even if you feel confident about the vehicle, you’re under no obligation to buy it that day. Let the salesman know from the start: “I’m here to look at a vehicle and maybe do a test drive. If I find something I want to move on, we can talk about pricing, payments and financing tomorrow, because I’ll need a day to sleep on it.” Set the terms from the start.
Payment vs. price
This is when the salesman pushes to get you into a vehicle based on a monthly payment, rather than the total purchase price. $85,000 for a pickup may be far beyond your price range, but spread out over seven or even eight years? That sounds a lot more manageable. Their hope is you forget the interest on the note may substantially increase the amount of money you pay overall, and it’s a tactic that can get a buyer to forget about a multitude of other issues in the heat of the moment.
How to handle it: If you’re happy with the vehicle, the purchase price and the payment plan, that’s great. Don’t rush into it, though; the smart play would be to insist on a complete breakdown of the details, including warranty coverage (or availability of a warranty plan for a used vehicle), trade-in allowance, final purchase price, interest rates and every other aspect of the purchase. Also, if you’re buying a vehicle that’s 10 or more years old and has more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, a 60-month note probably isn’t a great idea—the last thing you want is to owe money on a vehicle that’s no longer operable.
This one may be part of the orientation and rapport-building process. A savvy car salesman can be as skilled at profiling and reading verbal or body language cues as a detective. The profiling might be as innocuous as asking about your favorite football team, But they’re all designed to reveal something about what makes you tick—what motivates you, what turns you off and how you’re most easily persuaded.
How to handle it: Making small talk is fine, but reiterate you’re there to buy a vehicle and you should talk about the make/model/year you want, the equipment package you want and the final purchase price. Things like the payments can be discussed when the time is right and not before. If you feel you’re being pushed into something, say so; if the pushiness persists, leave.
Time sensitivity and the impending event
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The salesman tells you this is the last one on the lot that meets your criteria, or there’s another prospective buyer looking at it, or there’s a special that ends today and you might miss out.
How to handle it: Call their bluff by politely asking the salesman to confirm that the car won’t be available tomorrow for the same price. It’s almost never true.
That salesman doesn’t want to see you leave, and this is just one more way to exercise some agency over the deal and remind the salesman you’re the one making the decision.
Extracting concessions, aka “If I can, will you?”
The salesman is offering a specific delivery date, payment plan, minor repair or any one of dozens of other things if you’ll go ahead and close the deal today. This is meant to let you think you’re getting the upper hand when really it’s designed to paint you into a corner and sweeten the deal enough so you’re driving home in a car this afternoon.
How to handle it: Keep your cool and don’t commit. You can say something like, “Well, that could get us closer to a deal, but I’m still not ready yet.” Again, you can mention you have been looking at the same car at a different dealership.
The pros and cons list
Not unique to car salesmen, this sales technique has been used to sell everything from real estate to vacuum cleaners. Also known as “the Ben Franklin close,” the salesman draws a line down the middle of a sheet of paper and starts listing reasons to buy versus reasons to not buy a particular vehicle. Not so shockingly, the “pro” side always winds up being longer. The idea is to wear you down and make you feel like you don’t have any legitimate objections to closing today.
How to handle it: Just don’t play the game. Tell them that you’ve already done such a comparison, and that’s why you landed on this vehicle in the first place.
Sure, maybe the salesperson does know someone who managed to squeeze two child seats into the back of that subcompact. Maybe they do have a customer who found that a mid-sized crossover was a perfect replacement for their minivan. But that’s not the typical use for those types of cars. They’re exaggerating a vehicle’s strengths (and downplaying its weaknesses) to talk you into a car that might not be right for you.
How to handle it: Again, this is where it pays to be fully informed on the vehicle you want before you head to the dealership. If you know the salesman is gilding the lily, you’re under no obligation to fall for it. If you see maintenance issues or damage on the vehicle, point it out and use it as a bargaining point when it’s time to talk about purchase price.
“Can I interest you in undercoating? Extended warranty? Seat covers? Floor mats? Paint protection and clearcoat?” All the things they want to tack on to put a little icing on the cake—for the dealer, that is.
How to handle it: Nope, nope, nope. Warranty coverage can be a good idea for a used car, but for the rest of that stuff? Chances are you probably just don’t need it.
“C’mon in the sales office, I have to meet with my manager. I’ll be back in just a minute.”
When the salesman eventually returns (often after much more than “just a minute”), they’ll either relay the good news that your deal has been approved, or reluctantly state that the boss just can’t let it go for that price.
The management approval game accomplishes a couple of things. One, it strengthens the bond between you and the salesman, as you now appear to be in alliance against their wet blanket of a manager—though in reality, the salesman knows what he’s authorized to sell the car for and needs no approval. It’s also the easiest way to employ the “run down the clock” tactic.
How to handle it: Even though it might be late in the game, just stand your ground and don’t agree to anything—not one single thing—that you don’t want or need for that vehicle. If they get pushy about it, vote with your feet. Call the deal off and leave, or at least threaten to leave.
The trade-in trick
The vehicle you want is listed at $20,000 and you know your trade-in is only worth $5,000. When all is said and done, you plan to be out $15,000. But when it’s time to talk trade-in value, they offer you $7,000 in trade—now you’re only out $13,000. What a deal, eh?
Not so fast. In reality, the vehicle you wanted could probably be had for more like $17,000. By making you think you got a good deal on your trade-in, they’re disguising the fact that you paid a little more for the new car than you should have.
How to handle it: Do your homework before you go to the dealership. Know exactly what your trade-in is worth (do a VIN check) and what the vehicle you want is worth. If they try any sleight of hand on the transaction, let them know that you did your research and aren’t prepared to take a bath on the deal.
Open-ended questions and “alternative choices”
This is where the salesman offers up a similar vehicle or asks if you’re interested in a different option package or maybe a different drivetrain than your specific choice. A good salesman rarely asks a yes-or-no question, and this can be a way to get you to consider something else so you’re a little closer to committing. You encounter this when exactly what you want needs to be special-ordered, and the salesperson is trying to get you to drive off in something they already have on the lot.
How to handle it: Don’t take the bait. You know what kind of vehicle you came in for, and if you’re being offered something else as an alternative choice, just say yes or no so that you don’t waste anyone’s time.
There really isn’t such a thing as a “hidden fee,” because you can bet the dealership knows what they all are. They could include closing costs, finance fees, tax/title/registration, processing fees and a handful of other stuff, some legit and some maybe not. It’s true a dealership has to charge something to cover their back-office expenses, but tacking it on after you’ve agreed on the price is unethical and sketchy.
How to handle it: Insist the fees are rolled into your final price rather than added on after you’ve agreed on the final figure. If the dealership insists on adding these costs, you can counter by asking that these costs be part of the final price you agreed on, which is effectively a cram-down on the price. If the dealer balks, take your business elsewhere.
Pencing is the practice of rounding up and turning your $327/month payment into a nice round number like $330 (usually after the sales manager submits the agreement to the finance department). That $3 may not seem like much, but it’s pure profit for the dealership over the life of the note.
How to handle it: In the negotiation phase, insist that the salesperson use exact language—your payment won’t be “about $210,” it will be $209.78 or whatever the precise number is. When it comes time to sign the financing agreement, stand your ground and insist the payment you agree to is the final figure.
This is where you get the final number from the finance department and, lo and behold, your payment is higher than what you were told because of “credit issues” or other vague reasons. This can legitimately happen if there’s something concerning in your credit report, but it veers into scam territory when it happens after you’ve already driven the vehicle off the lot.
How to handle it: Never, ever drive off the lot in a new or used car unless the agreement is signed and finalized, including a hard number on your monthly payment. In fact, no reputable dealer will allow you to leave the lot without doing so. It’s also a good idea to pull your own credit report beforehand so there are fewer surprises when it comes time to secure financing.
Avoiding car salesman tricks
Several of these tactics have been used for decades, and they wouldn’t keep using them if there weren’t still people falling for them. Regardless of the individual tactics deployed, try to avoid them by keeping in mind the following:
- Trust your gut. If the deal doesn’t smell right or if you don’t feel good about the dealership itself, don’t be afraid to walk away.
- Do your homework beforehand. Look up the dealership to see what kind of reputation they have, talk to friends about dealers and, most importantly, think about the kind of vehicle you’re looking for. That includes year/make/model, trim level and option packages, drivetrain, maximum number of miles and your budget, which includes final price and payments.
- Don’t be afraid to walk away. You’re the one making the decision, and walking away means you’re in control. Plus, the threat of walking out can light a fire under the salesman to sweeten the deal for you. You can even mention you’re looking at a similar vehicle at another dealership for a better price, even if you aren’t.
- Don’t commit. If you really are there to browse, let the salesman know that and repeat it as many times as you need to.
- Keep your cool. Remember the salesman is there to get your money and get you into a vehicle, and there’s no reason for you to be forced into anything, ever.
- Be aware of sales cycles. The end of the month or the introduction of a new model year means that sales managers are pressuring their team to close deals, and that can mean salesmen are more eager to sweeten deals and get customers into cars—but it also means they’re more likely to apply pressure via sales tactics.