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By Thomas Muellner
We’ve all heard the cheesy TV and radio ads.
“This holiday season we’re clearing our lot to make sure you go ho-ho-home with the best new-car deal of the year!”
It’s a tempting prospect, no doubt. But giant red bows aside, is it really true? Is December actually the best month of the year to buy a new car or truck?
Well… sort of.
Experts agree there are several times throughout the calendar year that offer favorable car buying conditions, including December; however, purchasing a new vehicle over the holiday season does not necessarily guarantee you’ll get an amazing deal. By understanding the factors that affect the car sales process, you can set yourself up to get the best deal possible while keeping your cool at the dealership this winter.
The typical car dealership operates on a tight monthly, quarterly and annual schedule. In many cases, both the dealership and individual sales reps receive hefty bonuses based on the total number of vehicles sold during each interval. Because of this, buying a new car towards the end of the year has a natural advantage. If the dealership is pressed to hit its unit sales goal or boost annual revenue, it may be willing to sell the vehicle you’re after at a lower price than usual.
Assuming you don’t have an immediate need for a new vehicle, it can be strategic to wait until the last few days of December to make your purchase.
Cash back, loyalty cash, dealer cash, bonus cash - the laundry list of new-car rebate terms is dizzying to the average shopper. What’s more, the fine print associated with these rebates often makes them too good to be true.
Though discounts typically increase during the winter months, they vary significantly by vehicle type and model year. In general, pickup trucks and SUVs see the largest discounts, while small cars and in-demand vehicles have fewer total incentives.
Be cautious of what’s advertised and always ask the dealership to confirm your eligibility before you start the negotiation process. In some cases, rebates only apply to specific individuals, such as members of the armed forces or recent college graduates. They can also be restricted to specific trim levels within a given model or to individuals with a qualifying credit score, so be sure you and the dealership are on same page from the outset.
Once you’ve got a handle on the incentives available to you, use them as a starting point for negotiation. Treat any offer as the base price of the vehicle plus additional rebates, rather than rolling the incentives and vehicle price into one number.
Manufacturers begin releasing new vehicles between September and December every year. Sometimes there are major redesigns that completely revamp models, but often there are only subtle changes from one year to the next.
If the ride you’re eyeing falls into the latter category, you may be able to save serious coin by purchasing last year’s model instead of the latest edition. Dealers are often very motivated to sell old inventory to make room for new vehicles.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch.
If you hold out too long looking to score an unbelievable deal on the car of your dreams, you may be in for a disappointment. Once last year’s models roll off the lot, they’re gone for good. So, if you have your heart set on that edgy new compact SUV in robin’s egg blue, you’re better off making your move right away. Conversely, if you’re open to a variety of available models, you’re likely to find success buying at the end of the year.
Lastly, keep in mind that while December brings above-average deals and incentives, there’s still not a ton of wiggle room in new-car negotiations.
Tools on automotive research sites like TrueCar and Edmunds can provide market-level pricing data to help level set expectations. By doing your research ahead of time and preparing for your trip to the dealership, you can make sure you drive home happy this holiday season.
For more car buying advice, read our related post on How to buy your first new or used car.