What Can I Expect at the Local Car Dealership?

Anne-Marie Hays

Last Updated: September 14th, 2022

I’m a person who likes to know what to expect: Is it going to be sunny or rainy? Is the library busy or empty? Is the wait at Disneyland short or long? Am I going to know anyone at the party?

If there’s too much uncertainty, I will likely avoid an experience at all costs. I know that I’m not alone.

As someone who has always had help when shopping for a car, I wondered, what would the dealer experience be like? What variables can I control? Will I be able to handle it on my own?

If you are new to car shopping, you might have some questions about what to expect when you go to a car dealership. Here are dealership experience questions, asked and answered, to give you confidence when buying a car.

To help people who are nervous about going to a dealership, what kind of questions can they expect to answer from salespeople?

“A good salesperson will only ask questions to help you narrow down a vehicle that will best suit your needs,” says Ryan Mason from Jacksonville Auto Mart. “If you have social anxiety, much of the interaction can be done via Facebook or text messaging. Only once a trade-in price needs to be solidified and paperwork for your new car [needs to be filled-out] would you need to actually visit the dealership.”

However, other types of salesmen out there may ask different qualifying sales questions.

Paul Maloney, known as the “Car Buyer’s Advocate,” owner of Car Leasing Concierge, and best-selling author of the book, How To Beat The Car Dealer Every Time! It's So Simple, It's Ridiculous, explains, “Salespeople qualify you by asking the following questions 95 percent of the time:

1. How soon are you looking to buy a car?
2. Who is the car for?
3. Are you looking to buy or lease?
4. What payment range are you looking to be around?

By asking these prying questions, the salesperson is getting you to unknowingly show your hand. Once they see what you have, it’s very easy for them to play their trump card and siphon the money out of your wallet.”

For a detailed (and long!) behind-the-scenes look, check out this car sales training video.

Should customers call first to make an appointment or walk-in?

Autotrader reports that initial contact with dealerships in 2018 was as follows: 49 percent walk-in, 26 percent phone, 17 percent email, 4 percent online chat, 2 percent text, and 1 percent social media.

Valerie Coleman, head of automotive at 5miles.com, explains that how you contact a dealership initially should depend “on how quickly you want to go about finding — and buying — a car.” Coleman suggests that calling ahead can help the dealer prepare for your appointment. It also allows time to “get many of the preliminary questions (i.e. what are you looking for? what’s your price range? etc.) out of the way so that it can be a more efficient car shopping experience.”

Susanna Williams from Superior Honda in New Orleans says, “If you make an appointment, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time and your car shopping experience will be off to a professional start. By letting the dealer know which car(s) you want to see ahead of time, you give them the ability to find the car and clean it up. If you show up unannounced, the whole process could take some time.” 

Mason puts it another way, “Walk-ins are fine, but if you want to see a specific salesperson set an appointment. This will allow your salesperson to have a specific vehicle you'd like to check out pulled up, plated, and ready for you to check out. It also allows you to ask any specific questions you may have between certain vehicles to save you time.”

What paperwork or identification do people need to bring with them?

“What you need to bring depends on what you plan on doing at the dealership,” explains Williams. You may need some, or all, of the following items:

  • insurance card
  • loan release
  • proof of residency
  • SSN (at least know it to run a credit check)
  • recent pay stubs
  • references
  • registration
  • title
  • valid driver’s license

Test driving — valid driver’s license

“If you’re looking to test drive a car you’ll need a current valid driver’s license.” — Maloney

Buying a car — insurance, recent pay stubs, references, proof of residency

“Paperwork that will be needed depends on a couple different things and will vary state to state. If one is paying cash for a vehicle and have no trade you may only need your ID and a check. If you are financing its best to bring an insurance copy, proof of any income, an ID and any downpayment money.” —  Mason

Trading-in a car — title, registration, loan release

“If you have a trade, be prepared by getting a 10-day payoff on your current loan, your registration copy, and/or the title to the vehicle” — Mason

NOTE: NPR suggests that you bring your own photocopies of your ID, and ask for them back when you leave to avoid identity theft issues.

Can you describe the test drive process? What happens if there is a fender bender?

Test drives will vary a lot from dealer to dealer,” says Mason. They can vary by process, whether you will drive alone, and whether you have to leave some sort of collateral.

For more explanation, insurance broker Jeff Ryan explains on Quora:

“Generally, dealerships only require you to show your driver's license. Many dealerships will require a photocopy of your driver’s license. Some may “hold” your license until the test drive is completed.

In some cases, the dealer may keep the keys to the vehicle in which you arrived to the dealership.

On rare occasions, the dealer may require that a Vehicle Test Drive Agreement be filled out that includes additional information such as the test driver’s auto insurance company and policy number.

You can see a sample Test Drive Agreement with the examples below:

Whether or not a dealer carries their own insurance or requires signing a test drive agreement, it is always in your best interest to carry your own auto insurance while driving a vehicle owned by someone other than yourself.”

When it comes to the actual drive, you may be accompanied by a salesman, or you may not. This can depend on the dealership’s rules, its insurance rules, whether you are taking out a new or used car, and possibly the price range of the vehicle.

As for the actual driving route, it can vary as well. Mason explains, “Some dealerships will have a set path and have both you and the salesman drive, others will give you the choice to decide, or simply throw you the keys and answer any questions you may have when you return.”

“Don't be scared of getting in a fender bender,” Mason says. “Life happens, you won't be expected to cover any damages caused by an accident. While on a dealer plate, you are covered by that dealer's insurance.”

If someone is just browsing and not ready for the pressure of a one-on-one sales experience, what is the best way to proceed?

Maloney suggests, “Let the salespeople know upfront that you are here to look and test drive only as ‘I’m in the early stages of comparing other brands. Without driving them first, I won’t be able to decide if it’s a good fit for my needs.’”

Comfort is key. “Browsing online or finding a salesman you're comfortable with will save you from the high-pressure push of some dealerships,” says Mason. “We aren't all that way and most will be happy to open some doors and simply allow you to sit or look around the cars without them immediately present. Simply return the keys after and ask any questions you may have.”

At other dealerships, it might be a little different. A Reddit AMA’er explains, “If you don't want me to pitch the car just say, ‘Hey man, I'm not trying to get your pitch. I know about cars and I just want to experience this one first hand.’ I'll say, “Okay, well we can just hang out while you test it out and if you have any questions just ask.’ I'll probably just talk to you about what you do with your spare time and other things you might actually want to talk about. Most of the time I would prefer people like you because I hate pitching cars unless it's one that I really love that is tons of fun to drive.”

What is the deal with dealerships' digital sales teams?

Coleman explains, “Nowadays you can peruse most car dealers’ inventory online, and then, when you’re ready to speak with someone about a particular car, email, call, or simply stop by the dealership. With the ever-growing popularity of buying cars online, most dealerships also offer fair prices online. There does tend to be less wiggle-room though, since the cost of marketing, shipping, etc. all must be factored in.“

“A digital sales team's job is to convert you from an online shopper to an in-person shopper,” adds Mason. “Generally, the larger dealerships will have a sales staff dedicated to specifically following up with people who have submitted their information for follow up.”

You can submit information a number of ways, but most commonly, customers start on a third-party site, according to the Car Buyer Journey 2018 report. One example is TrueCar, which requires information to get access to the TrueCar Price Report.

What is the least busy time of the day/week to go to a dealership if you want one-on-one attention?

On this question, we got a few different well-reasoned answers from our experts.

“Skip out on the weekends and go on a Monday,” suggests Williams from Superior Honda. “After the weekend rush, dealers will have more time to spend with you and you may be able to get a better sale price on a day that isn’t that populated.”

Mason has a similar opinion, “A dealership is typically busiest on the weekends and evenings. I would recommend setting up an appointment for any time that works best for you or walking in mid-morning for the best one-on-one attention.”

“Wednesday afternoons are typically the best time to visit your local car dealership,” instructs Danny Baker from Marshall Goldman Motor Sales. “Wednesday afternoons between 2:00 p.m.- 5:00 p.m. are best for receiving the one-on-one attention that some car buyers are looking for. If you’re a first-time car buyer or have a lot of questions about a particular vehicle, make sure you don’t show up right before closing time and always give yourself enough time to make the right decisions about your purchase.”

Maloney suggests going on “Any weekday or evening.” He says, “Most people buy cars on weekends as their time is usually limited during the week.”

TLDR: Not on the weekends

How do you help people narrow down options when they aren't sure what to look for?

Most people know what they want.

“The beautiful thing about today's market is that most shoppers are very educated before they land at the dealership due to the amount of time they've browsed online,” says Mason. “If you're still not sure exactly what you want when you arrive to the dealership, no worries. I can ask you qualifying questions like size, budget, etc. and help you find the perfect fit for your life.”

What's the best thing about working for an auto dealership?

“I've been obsessed with cars since I was a child. My father runs a local auto repair shop and has some classic cars. I participate in organizing car shows in my city and have a weekend car to have some fun in. The best thing about working at a dealership is sharing my knowledge and passion for cars with others. A car can change someone's life. It's an awesome feeling to help so much!” Mason shares.

What is the one thing that you wish the general public knew about what goes on behind the scenes at a dealership?

“One of my pet peeves of the industry that should be brought to light are some of the less than truthful online marketing [strategies used] to get you in the door, says Mason. “You'll see payments promised way under reality or noting several thousand dollars down at signing, payment calculators online for terms that aren't possible, no payments for XXX months, etc.”

He cautions, “Stop being sucked into this generic bait. Find the car you like and see if you can agree on a price with the dealer. Most dealerships will be pricing their used car from what they could get out of it taking to an auction. This means we generally own comparable cars for the same cost as long as the condition is similar.”

“Most people dread the car buying experience,” says Baker, “but what they don’t know is that dealerships love to have fun! Car salesmen usually have a bad reputation, but we have great personalities and love making our buyers happy. We like to have a good time and we genuinely care about our customers. We keep their interest at heart, because it's not about just one sale for us, it's about building a relationship with the customer.”

There are pros and cons of working with a dealership vs. a private seller, says Coleman. “A dealer or salesperson can do only so much for a customer. While car dealerships tend to have better financing and warranty options than a private seller, a private seller does not have commission or typical business operating expenses to account for, so he may be able to get more aggressive with pricing. You also typically can get more context or information about the condition of a car (one owner, mostly city miles, etc.) from a private seller, as well as a quicker transaction time vs. spending hours at a dealership.”

Do you really have to check with your manager?

“My short answer is sometimes,” explains Mason. “This industry is flooded with newbie salesmen that jump from store to store. I joke and call them door greeters vs. salesman. I personally can handle everything from the first hello to a handshake after the sales, but most salesmen do not have access to any of the actual margins and are simply presenting an offer someone else has written for them.”

Maloney agrees, “Yes, unfortunately, most dealerships just use salespeople as pawns to get the information they’ll need from you on how to proceed next so they can extract as much money out of your pocket as they can.”

Another salesman recently explained what happens when he goes back to talk with his manager in a Reddit AMA: “I literally go to the back to try to get my manager to do whatever it is you asked me to do. I have ABSOLUTELY no control over any of the numbers so I basically go to my manager and beg him to sell you the car for cheaper so I can get a sale. Even if I’m not making any money off the sale it helps get our monthly bonuses. Sometimes it's just not possible to get what someone is asking because we have too much invested into the vehicle. I actually have to basically fight with my manager to drop the price more.”

What happens at the finance office, and what experience can people expect? Will everyone judge me for my credit score?

“A finance office's job is to find a bank to work with low credit score individuals or get the best terms/rate possible for those who score higher,” explains Mason. “Dealerships work with a variety of banks and probably can get you a payment you’re comfortable with,” says Coleman; however, “it may not be for the exact vehicle you want though.”

As for any credit-score-related embarrassment, Mason assures, “The finance office will see scores between 400 and 800 every day. Don't be ashamed if you score low or have no credit. They only review the facts of the deal and work as the middle man for the bank to save everyone time."

While car dealerships offer to be a go-between to help save time, it may not be the best loan terms for everyone. Coleman warns, “Zero-percent financing or low interest rates are reserved for those with excellent credit, so be mindful. Dealerships also can be compensated for handling the loan, which means you may be paying a higher interest rate. Some of the best rates, in fact, can be found at credit unions if you're shopping price, and not simply payments.”

Do dealerships help with government paperwork like registration?

Yes, mostly.

Mason explains, “Dealerships will generally handle all of the title and plate/registration work needed when you purchase your car. This exception will be made if you are purchasing across state lines. This situation will vary state to state, but you are often times responsible for tax and title upon returning to your home state!”

What is with the free popcorn?

“Free popcorn is an old subliminal sales tactic,” Mason explains. “One presumes subconsciously that they are to return a favor if they've been given something. This favor would be buying a car. For what it's worth, our dealership doesn't have popcorn, haha!”

Special thanks to star contributor Ryan Mason from Jacksonville Auto Mart in Jacksonville, Illinois, for answering every question we threw at him, even if they were silly (see popcorn above).

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