Always Read The Fine Print

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So – what’s the catch?

While there are some great deals to be had on new cars today, it’s always smart to be sure you understand the offers – and especially, whether there are any “qualifiers,” “restrictions,” “exclusions” or “limitations” that could affect you.

Most ad offers – whether TV, print or online – showcase the big numbers and best deals in very large type – with any stuff that might not be so appealing scrunched down into micro-sized print at the every bottom of the page (or read-through at warp speed by an announcer speaking Klingonese).

Here are some things to be on the lookout for:

* “Offer only available in FLA, GA, SC… ” (and so on) –

Incentives offered by the automakers are sometimes regional – meaning, if you don’t live in one of the areas where the deal is good, the deal is not available to you. The same car might cost $1,500 less (or more) just by crossing the state line.

* “All estimates are computed on the basis of a 10 percent down payment…” –

Some financing deals are contingent on things like the buyer coming up with a predetermined cash down payment. For example, if the car you’re looking at has a price tag of $40,000 then you’d need $4,000 in cash at the time of sale to take advantage of the advertised low-rate financing. If you don’t have the $4k cash down payment, they may stick you with a higher-than-advertised finance rate.

* “Offer not compatible with other offers…”

This means you may not be able to get both low-rate financing and “x” dollars cash back. You have to pick one or the other. It’s important to run the numbers before you are in the pressure cooker of the dealer’s store, too. This way, you’ll know ahead of time whether it makes more sense for you to go with the lower-rate financing – or the rebate.

* Dealer participation may affect savings… “

This means the offer’s contingent on the dealer’s “participation” in the program (rebate/cash back, special rate financing, etc.) being advertised by the automaker. Remember: Dealers are independently-owned franchise operations; they may sell Fords or Hondas, etc. – but you are not dealing with Ford or Honda, per se. Be sure the dealer you’re negotiating with is, in fact, participating in the rebate/cash back deal you saw on TV. He may not be.

Don’t assume he is.

* “For Bonus Cash, buyer must take retail delivery by …”

As implied, the deal’s only good if you buy the car before a specific date. This can put pressure on the consumer to make a snap decision – or purchase a car “off the lot” that may not have all the features and equipment (or color) the buyer wanted, etc. Or worse, have more features (and a higher price tag) than the buyer wanted. If you end up buying a higher trim or more optioned-out version of the car you wanted, the higher price may negate whatever savings you were counting on via “bonus cash.”

* Estimates do not include the cost of transportation and handling charges, dealer prep, labor…”

This is a potential loophole big enough to drive a Hummer through. The price you thought you were getting could very well turn out to be nothing like the price you actually end up getting, if you are not careful – and determined. Insist that every charge/fee associated with the proposed purchase be clearly spelled out, in writing, before you commit to buy. “Dealer prep” alone can add hundreds to the bottom line – erasing the savings you may have expected via the “cash back” lure that got you into the showroom.

* “Not all buyers will qualify…”

Most finance offers have this little caveat somewhere in the fine print. If you are a young/first-time buyer – or have less than exemplary credit – that 1.9 (or lower) finance rate you were counting on may be unavailable to you. It’s a good idea to check alternate sources for financing – such as a bank or credit union – just in case the deal being offered by the automaker’s finance arm won’t be extended to you.

In fact, you should always shop money before you go shopping for the car.

* Residency and other mileage restrictions may apply…”

This means the offer might be contingent not just on where you happen to live – but also on how many miles you drive annually (lease contract). It doesn’t do you much good to get a great deal on a lease if your annual mileage exceeds the maximum allowable, at which point you’ll get whacked with often hideously high additional charges. It’s always best to over-estimate your annual mileage – just to be safe – when it comes to lease contracts.

* “Vehicle shown may contain optional equipment available at additional cost…”

In other words, what you see (in the ad) may not be what you get (at the dealership). Be sure the car you want – with the equipment you want – is in fact available under the terms of the offer.

A great deal on a car you don’t want isn’t much of a bargain.

* “Bonus cash offered on eligible vehicles must be financed or leased through (the automaker’s captive finance arm)… “

This means that in order to get the offered cash back/rebate, you have to finance the vehicle through the automaker’s own finance company (Ford Credit, GMAC, etc.) rather than a credit union or private bank. You may also not be able to get the cash back if you pay cash for the vehicle. Basically, the automaker is looking to recoup the “cash back” by making money from you via interest payments. It may still be a good deal for you – or not.

The key to negotiating the fine print shoals is to take the time to read and understand every clause, caveat and potential loophole before you sign anything or cut a check.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. The key point the Eric makes in this article is to be absolutely sure every single charge is on the contract before you sign it. Read it and reread it if necessary. If the dealer has added things like fabric protector, undercoating or any other questionable “option”, tell them to take it off or it’s a deal breaker.

    It’s best to have a witness with you when you’re negotiating too. I actually had a sales manager offer me a truck literally for less than what the dealer had in it (it took me 3 hours of haggling to fluster him to that point). He tried to back pedal on the price, but I’d taken a friend along and he simply stated, “I heard what you said”. Then I made him write it up at that price.

    The dealers typically have a lot of room to negotiate and if they won’t cut the deal you’re looking for or cross off the fine print you don’t like, get up and walk out. There are plenty of hungry car dealers. You’d be surprised how many will follow you and try to coax you back to the table.

    Bottom line: If the contract or financing agreement is too complicated for you to understand, you’d better not sign it.


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