Editor's note: Clark Howard, the Atlanta-based host of a nationally syndicated radio show, hosts a new television show designed to help viewers save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off during these tough economic times. The show airs Saturdays and Sundays at 6 a.m., noon and 4 p.m. ET.
Clark Howard says to buy smart in this "buyer's market of all times."
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Cars are such a deal right now that you might feel you are stealing when you buy one. Dealers have no customers, regardless of the price point, brand, style or size. Americans are afraid to buy because of the scary headlines and the times we are in right now.
You add in the fact that a lot of us can't qualify for loans -- and even many who can are worried that they are going to lose their jobs -- and that cuts the car market down to almost nonexistent. Add in the fact that manufacturers kept making cars in the fall when there were already no buyers, and that makes this the buyer's market of all time. I can prove it.
Carmakers like to have a 60-day supply of cars on hand. That means if they stopped making them today, it would take 60 days to sell off all they have. That gives them enough out there to, in theory, get you the color, style and options that you would want almost right away.
Today, many companies have 90 to 140 days of cars on hand -- far, far too many. Even Honda and Toyota, which have set the world on fire in recent years, have seen sales decline 30 percent or more year-over-year. Add in the fact that nobody is buying, and as you might expect, you can buy almost anything you want at a fantastic deal.
If you are one of the rare souls out there who can actually buy a car now, I have simple steps to get you a great deal.
First things first: Get the money. Whether you are buying new or used, go qualify for a loan first at your bank or credit union. Credit unions and online banks tend to write car loans at about 1.5 percent lower than a traditional bank. For example, the credit union I am a member of is writing car loans for 3.90 percent right now.
When you get ready to contact a dealer, don't discuss that you have a loan already arranged and never, never, never tell a car dealer that you are going to pay cash, even if you are. If they know, they will not give you as good a deal on the car because they can't count on making money on your loan. (If the dealer can match the loan you have found elsewhere, it is fine to get the loan from the dealer).
Second, go read the April issue of Consumer Reports magazine. It starts circulating in March and is devoted 100 percent to car buying. You will be able to see what cars have proved to be reliable and which ones are prone to make you know your repair shop people on a first-name basis. I won't consider a new or used car if Consumer Reports shows it to be unreliable. If you want to buy a car this month or in early March before the April 2009 issue is out, go to the library and use last April's issue as a guide.
Third, once you have a new car or cars in mind, find your choices on edmunds.com to learn their current TMV, or true market value. Then go to carsdirect.com to get a fixed price for each model equipped the way you like. You can buy from carsdirect or use it as a guide to what price you want to beat.
Also, Costco, Sam's and BJ's Wholesale offer fixed-price car buying programs. Members should just go to the stores' Web sites, where you will be able to get a referral to the dealer handling the brand you are interested in. Some AAAs and some credit unions offer car buying services as well. The price you get is the real price, no games, no gimmicks.
You can also e-mail dealers for price quotes. I recommend that you take any or all of these steps before ever stepping onto a dealer lot. That way, you are getting your price or playing one dealer off against another from your own home or office. You don't have a chance to get a good deal if you drive to the dealer to negotiate.
Speaking of games and gimmicks: My wife was interested in buying a Toyota Prius. They had been in high demand this summer when gas prices were over $4 a gallon, but demand has collapsed because gas prices have fallen and because people in the know are waiting for the third-generation Prius due out in a few months.
She saw a newspaper ad for a new 2009 Prius at around $5,000 less than last summer. She e-mailed the Internet salesperson at the dealership and asked a very important question: What other charges were there in addition to the advertised price?
As often happens with car dealers, the advertised price was fiction. The dealer charges a $595 paperwork fee, known as a doc fee, (total garbage) and a mandatory $895 charge for exterior wax and interior fabric guard (also garbage). If she had not e-mailed the dealer and had just gone in, it would have been a wasted trip as the newspaper ad was just classic "bait and switch."
The only thing I want you to do at the dealership is sign the papers and pay. ALWAYS negotiate in advance on your home turf.
But what about a test drive? You learn very little on a 10-minute test drive at a car dealer. I recommend that you rent the car you think you want on the weekend from an airport car rental agency or from an Enterprise office in town. Car rentals are dirt cheap on the weekends, and getting two days to really put a car that you think you want to own through its paces can help you decide whether to buy it or write it off your list.
I discovered this by accident in the '80s on a trip to San Diego, California. There was a car I really wanted to buy, and just by chance, I had it assigned to me at the car rental. I drove it for three days. It was an awful car, but I never would have known that from just a short dealer test drive.
When to talk about your trade-in
Never discuss your trade-in until after you have secured your loan, and have agreed to a price for the car you are buying. Know in advance what your trade-in might be worth by checking values on kbb.com, edmunds.com and nada.com. You should also look at autotrader.com to see what people are trying to sell your vehicle for. And if one is in your area, visit CarMax to see how much your car is selling for. That helps let you know whether the dealer is giving you a fair amount for your old car.
If you can't scare up a good enough offer, you can try to sell your car yourself. You will generally clear from $1,000 to $1,500 more selling yourself, but it is no picnic. Watch how to avoid buying damaged used car »
In a future commentary, I will give you the steps to buying a used car. In most cases, you get far more for your money used vs. new. But whether you buy new or used, follow my guide, and not only will I save you tons of money, but you won't need store-brand pain reliever for the headaches most people get buying a car.