The ten golden rules for buying a car

Buying a new or used car? Follow these pearls of wisdom to get the right car at the right price.

Rule 4. Car dealers can only take advantage of you if you let them

You may have heard of the original ‘Golden Rule’ – whoever who has the gold makes the rules. It is amazing how many people forget this as soon as they walk into a car showroom, and immediately capitulate to everything the car salesman wants them to do.

The car sales process is cleverly designed to extract the maximum amount of money from your wallet as possible. You are led along a very specific path, ultimately arriving at the destination of buying the car that suits the dealer best (see Rule 5), using their finance and with as many extras attached as they can fit into your stretched budget. But they can only do all this if you let them.

Turn the tables. Make them prove that their car is better by comparing it to others. Make them work harder to get your business by shopping around for a better deal.

The Executivecondominium Ten Golden Rules - make the salesman earn his commission!
Keep asking questions. Make sure the answers suit your needs. If not, wave bye-bye.

Be polite and reasonable, but don’t be afraid to tell them if they are not doing a good enough job at earning your money. Walk away and find a dealer who will treat you and your wallet with more respect.

If they don’t listen to what you are asking for, don’t accept it. Make them show you a car which meets all of your needs, not the one that they really want to sell but doesn’t really suit you. If they don’t have a car that suits, go elsewhere.

Basically, don’t take any crap and don’t give them your money unless they have genuinely earned it. They’re all paid on a commission basis, so you are personally paying them to sell you a car.

Next page: Don’t get distracted by their tactics

Stuart Masson
Stuart Masson
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Executivecondominium, and . Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

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  1. Hi stuart. I went to see a car but it wasn’t at the showroom, the dealer asked me to pay a “holding deposit” of £500, and gave me an unsigned contract stating my car would be part exchanged for 1p. I specifically asked if it was,refundable and he said yes, and suggested I use a debit card as it was easier to refund onto. I was promised the car would be at the showroom three separare times and then told on the same day or night before that it wasn’t ready. I then decided to pull out, as I have been messed around and asked for my deposit back. What’s my outlook? Thanks, George

    • Hi George. If you haven’t signed anything, it’s difficult to prove what the money was for or that the dealer hasn’t met their contractual commitments. If you argue long and hard enough, you should get your money back but they’ll probably fight you for a while.

  2. Hello. I paid a deposit to a VW dealer for a car offer that I find on the internet on wow car. So I couldn’t see the car at the dealer but he said he will order the car as this car should be still build. Next day I call the dealer to ask him to put an extra option for this car ( park assist ) and I sign the paper with the car with this extra options. Some days later the dealer calls me back and he said there is a good news and a bad one. The good news is he order the car and I can have it. The bad is I can’t have it with that extra Optional. I am wondering why I can have it with this extra option as long as the car is not built yet? If I change my mind I lost my deposit? The dealer order the car in the first day? Why he said in 2 day ,that I can add this extra option and then it is not possible any more?! My order is a petrol car that seems stop be ordering any more at present.

    • Hi Mihai. It sounds like either they are trying to source a car that has already been built or is already locked into the production schedule (which will arrive faster so they will get paid sooner), or that Volkswagen has changed something on the model and that option is no longer available (and the dealer didn’t realise or the information hadn’t been updated).

      Check with another Volkswagen dealer and see if they tell you it can be ordered with the options you want – after all, Volkswagen has quite a reputation for lying to everybody.

  3. Thanks Stuart, much appreciated, the other order was not raised thankfully so I’m now the happy owner! Kindest regards, Liz

  4. Interesting reading!
    I’m recently placed a deposit on a car and got a pre-purchase inspection done with the RAC. I intend to export the car. The inspection came back good but noted the front tyres were close to the legal limit. I ed dealer to see could I get new tyres or a discount but he was adamant that they only replace at 2.5mm and the tread depth was slightly over this figure so he wouldn’t budge.

    I had intended to travel to collect the car in a day or two, flight booked etc, but due to work commitments I now have to put the journey off until the following week which will be the start of April. He insisted for the full payment on the car by the end of the month, to balance the books (or words to that effect). Even though the car essentially got a clean bill of health from the RAC, I would be wary of paying up front for a car that I haven’t inspected myself. I realize that if I didn’t proceed my deposit would be forfeited but I haven’t given him reason to think I’m not buying the car.

    The order form which was ed to me noted ‘subject to inspection’ but did not mention anything about needing full payment by months end. Could he put the car back on the forecourt if I don’t pay the balance even though I said I would be travelling a week later? Initial was a week ago and now I cannot travel until 5th April so all in all it would be a little over 2 weeks from to drive away…doesn’t seem like an unreasonable length of time?

    • There should be a clause in the vehicle contract T&Cs that specifies how long you have to complete the purchase before the dealer is allowed to declare the contract void and put the car back up for sale.

      Yes, he will want to have the car paid for by the end of the month – dealers always do. But he’s unlikely to be able to enforce that in any way.

  5. Hi Stuart,

    I test drove a car at Mercedes-Benz and confirmed I was after a particular spec and colour combo. The salesman sourced me said car, but better spec, after negotiations told them I was happy to purchase and paid my deposit. The car sourced, still within the same group chain, but at different site, all ok as got voice message they were waiting to go and collect, car is still showing for sale on the other site website, and my salesman rang me to say the the dealership has brought that car in for another person who has yet to see it, though I’ve got the order raised and deposit paid and car still advertised for sale!
    They have contractually agreed to my purchase as taken deposit and I ed to confirm details and reg no re car I’d placed deposit on.
    What are my rights here please? I think it appears to be down to site sale stats because if car had been brought in for another person, it wouldn’t have been reserved with deposit and not advertised on the website or Auto Trader surely!

    Many thanks,

    • Hi Liz. Unfortunately, it’s common that a car advertised nationally is “bought” by more than one person at the same time. It’s inevitable that at some point, two (or more) people in different showrooms will decide on the same car and sign an order/place a deposit.

      Often, the problem isn’t noticed until a day or so later (especially if this has happened over the weekend) when the admin people are filing all the paperwork for vehicle sales. What the dealer group should do in these cases is check to see who placed their order first, and that person should get the car.

      The problem can be compounded by cars not being removed from the sales websites once a deposit is placed. At some dealers, it is policy not to remove the car from a website until all the money has been received – as that is the point when the car is really sold. This can cause confusion and annoyance for customers who think a car is available when it is basically reserved pending full payment.

      Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your contract says if the dealer can’t actually supply the car. If you think that the dealer has behaved incorrectly and been deliberately misleading, you can report them to Trading Standards or try and sue them through the courts. However, your chances of success are likely to be low unless you have excellent proof of this behaviour (which you almost certainly don’t).

  6. Hi Stuart. I found a VW Sharan through a dealer on carwow, who didnt have the vehicle “in their premises” but said they would procure the car for me from “VW HQ” in Milton Keynes. He was not willing to negotiate the price, either for a cash deal or PCP contract. So I took that car details/specs/regtn to a local (big) VW dealer close to me. They offered to price match, gave more discount etc and get the vehicle for me, provided I paid a “booking fee” of £250. I gladly did, paid on credit card & they gave me a receipt for my payment. It was agreed that as the vehicle was “off-site”- once it arrives, I could see the vehicle, colour, condition, test drive etc & then, once I agree, they go ahead with the formalities. No contracts signed as yet. All verbal. All went as plans. Vehicle arrived after 8 days with the beast from the east around!!!. We test drove etc…but not being sure of flexibility of the third row seating (which later we are convinced that the Ford Galaxy definitely has an upper hand!!)…we hesitantly, verbally, told them to proceed. As luck would have had it, next day, we liked the Ford Galaxy Titanium X, immediately came back to VW dealer & told them that we would want to cancel our order. They say now that they have ‘physically purchased the vehicle from VW” and I got to pay for it???!??..
    I said I am surely not. Would want to cancel my order. Its been less than 24 hours. But they claim: “I verbally consented them to proceed”??..? No papers signed yet.

    What are my rights as a consumer?
    Do I have a legal right, if any, to get my £250 back as the car wasn’t actually there in the VW dealership premises from the outset. It was off site?

    I am lost in this jargon of the rules- of purchasing at a dealers premises.

    Mine- is a peculiar situation.
    Could you help & advise your take & what should my approach be to tackle with this dealer please?

    • Hi Arijit. You gave the dealer a deposit, so you have essentially agreed to buy the car. You have admitted that you inspected the car and confirmed with the dealer that you wanted to buy it, so you have basically bought the car. If you didn’t want the car or were not sure, that was the time to walk away and get your deposit back. It’s not an off-site sale because you went to the dealer and drove the car.

      You then found another car you liked better the next day, and tried to get out of your previous commitment to buying a car from the first dealer. That’s not a peculiar situation, it happens all the time. But you don’t have the right to your £250 back. The good news is that the dealer is unlikely to pursue you for the full cost of the vehicle if you insist on withdrawing from your commitment.

      For more information, have a read of our article on buying a car then changing your mind.

  7. Hi Stuart
    I spoke to a well known car dealership at the weekend explain what I would like for my purchase. He phoned me back a few hours later saying he thought he had found a car for me. He sounded very convincing, but it was a ‘whirlwind’ of a conversation and before I knew it I was paying him £500 over the phone. He finished by saying “congratulations you’ve just bought yourself ….etc”. He sent me an order form via the next morning which I printed off ready to sign. I haven’t even seen the car yet let alone test driven it,, what is your advice here please? I have been out of the car buying game for a very long time ,, I expect I have been somewhat naive?!!

  8. Hi
    I am 2 years and 2 months in to a 36mth pcp on a skoda citigo. I have kept up my payments of £124.70 per month this totals £2750 ( approx ) . I want to give up my PCP now and don’t understand if I will have to pay any more money as I have paid for more than 50% of the 3 years could I hand it back without a penalty ?

  9. Hi Stuart I recently sighted a paper at BMW for them to check my finance no handover paper and paid 500 does that mean I am legally binded to the car also the invoice price is much higher than the actual price of car is that correct?

    • Hi Jasmin. If you signed a form for them to “check your finance”, this was almost certainly a finance application. The finance company generally does not check your credit score or review your financial situation until they have a formal application – it’s not in their interests and it’s certainly not in yours.

      If you have signed a form and paid the dealer £500, they consider you to have bought the car.

      The invoice price may be different from the advertised price of the car, but there should be a good reason why. If it’s a used car, the advertised price won’t include road tax. Dealers will often also try to throw in an admin fee that may have been mentioned in very small print in the advertisement or on the car’s window display, they will almost always try to sell you extras like GAP insurance and other crap that you don’t need or want. Often they will assumptively include this in the finance quotation and hope you won’t demand they remove it later on.

  10. Hi Stuart, I’m considering taking a PCP out on a brand new Audi S3, I have a considerable deposit that I can put down, 12k to be exact which makes the monthly payments easily affordable but my concern is, that after the 3 or 4 year payment term comes to an end, the difference between the GFV and what the dealership actually values the car at at the time of trade in, the actual deposit I’ll have to put towards another PCP deal will be considerably less and the payments will be considerably more. So 12k inital deposit turns into 2k after 3 years so in effect 10k lost! Are people aware of this?

    • Hi Rob. Always assume that you will have no equity over and above the GMFV. If you do, then great. But never start counting equity in advance.

      It’s not so much as “£10K lost” as “£12K of cash lost now but lower monthly payments for three years”. If you put no deposit in, your monthly payments would be much higher and you would also be paying interest on all that extra money borrowed, so your Total Amount Payable would go up.

      (But you are right in that most people seem to be unaware of this; they get sucked into a PCP and then get to the end of it and realised they are screwed when they want to change for another similar car)

  11. hi stuart ,
    is it right that a balloon payment on a bmw new car purchase deal , cannot be reduced by early repayment sums . ?we were told by their salesmen that we could reduce the balloon payment by early overpayments. how much interest is included in the balloon payment,? would it typically be more than the interest accruing in our regular monthly payment on a pcp deal?

    • Hi Robert. Normally no, the balloon amount at the end of the term is fixed as it represents the predicted value of the car at that time. Usually overpayments will reduce the monthly payment amount, which includes the interest payable on the balloon. Some finance companies will allow you to use overpayments to shorten the term, but this is less common.

      You pay the same APR on the balloon as you do on the monthly payments. However, you are paying the interest for the whole loan amount (inc. balloon) up-front. Making overpayments will reduce the total amount of interest you pay as you are reducing the amount of debt outstanding.


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