How to Pick the Right Car Dealership

Shopper and salesperson


Going new-car or used-car shopping this weekend? There are a lot of choices out there, and it can be tough to decide. But I’m not talking about buying your next car. I’m talking about picking your new or used car dealership. That’s the second most important decision you will make on what is typically the second most expensive thing you own.

Here are 5 things to consider when choosing a dealership. Most apply to both new and used car dealerships.

What’s Its Sales Approach Like?
There’s nothing wrong with a dealership trying to upsell you. It exists to make a buck. However, if a dealership lures you in with one price and then claims that particular vehicle is no longer available, you don’t want to deal with it. Some dealerships—both new and used—are not above listing cars for sale that are phantoms. Those cars were sold long ago but are left online because of a low price.

Good Internet sales departments will handle the buying approach largely before you step in the store. Dealerships just pushing metal without regard to ongoing relationships won’t.

What Is Its Service Facility Like?
Gauge a dealership ahead of time to see how long it takes to get a service appointment. Ask if dealership customers get preference. Plus, check online and ask friends for feedback. Service facilities at used-car dealerships are important only if you are buying an extended warranty policy. That’s discussed below.

Is It Honest?
First impressions are important, and you should generally trust your gut feeling. I once had a 19-year-old salesman tell me he worked with his customers coming off lease. I asked him how long he had worked at the dealership. He told me 6 months, as in he had not worked there long enough to have his customers come off lease. Little lies up front usually mean bigger lies down the buying path.

The best way to check this out is to arrange your own financing ahead of time. Don’t tell the dealer what interest rate you’ve been offered. Let the dealership try to get financing, and see what rate they get for you. If it’s more than half a percentage point higher than the one you got yourself, the dealership is trying to pad its profit at your expense.

Will It Let You Say No?
Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, offers this advice: “You don’t have to buy [a car] just because it’s in front of you. Another car will show up.” That’s especially true at new-car dealerships. You might lose your “dream car” on a used-car lot. But be patient. A similar one is bound to come along. Don’t do business with a dealership that won’t let you walk away without a lot of pressure.

How Convenient Is It?
Say a dealership offers a great price and a great warranty and is honest. Should you use it if it’s 40 miles from your house? The answer is yes if you are buying a new car solely on price. You’ll probably never see the dealership again for service. However, if you’re buying a used car with an extended warranty, that’s a bad idea. Not only will you have the hassle of trying to get a claim approved under an extended-warranty policy, but you’ll have to drive a great distance to get the work done. Proximity is especially important when it comes to servicing a used car.

If you’re shopping for a car, you can and should check each of the 5 points above yourself, but please also consult CarGurus’ Sales Reviews of any dealership you plan to visit. CarGurus invites car shoppers who have interacted with a particular dealership through our site to leave a Sales Review of that dealership. Those Sales Reviews often address at least one of the points above directly, and you might be able to save yourself a lot of time by sticking with dealerships that have strongly positive reviews. Sales Reviews all include star ratings, and all of a particular dealership’s reviews get averaged into a Dealer Rating from 1 to 5 stars. That Dealer Rating should help give you a good idea how well other shoppers who’ve shopped at that dealership thought it was doing its job. Why not start your search for a car by working with a dealership that has impressed other shoppers?

-Keith Griffin

Find Certified Pre-Owned Cars and Used Cars in your area at CarGurus.

Shopping for a car this weekend?
Bring along CarGurus’ mobile app to help check prices, find good deals, and research cars on your smartphone.

19 Comments

  1. I never knew how important it is to choose a car dealership that has a sales approach that is honest to ensure you get the car you want for the price they advertise. My sister will be in the market for a new car soon. Hopefully, she can use this info to find a dealership that can help her get the best deal.

  2. I’ve been meaning to buy a new car for a while, and wanted to know what qualities a good auto dealer would have. You wrote that you should choose a dealer that has a reputation for great service and offers great prices, not necessarily the dealer that is the most convenient to get to. Since it is a big investment like a car, spending a bit more time to get to the dealer could really be worth it in the long run. Thanks for the great blog.

  3. My husband and I are looking to buy a used car for our son that will soon be old enough to drive. We want to make sure he is getting a reliable car at an affordable price. It’s important to choose the right dealership to help with this. As you said, arranging your financing ahead of time can help you avoid dishonest transactions.

  4. This article has some really good tips in it. I especially like the tip about choosing convenience if buying a used car with a warranty. It would be such a pain to have to travel just to get your car serviced for something covered by the warranty. I’ve been looking at selling my car and buying another used one so I’ll definitely be keeping that in mind.

  5. We have been thinking about getting a new car for a while now, but didn’t really know where to take it. I makes sense that you would want to see where the location of the dealership actually is. That way, you don’t have to drive too far just to look at the car you are interested in.

  6. My husband and I have been living with one car between the two of us for a few years now. We’ve been able to work it out up to this point, but now that our lives are starting to get more and more busy, we really need to have two cars! I like how you point out that when choosing a dealership to buy from, you should look for someone that focuses on convenience. Like you said, it is best to buy from a dealership that is close to where you are located if you get an extended-warranty policy. That way, you can get your car serviced more easily.

  7. I really like your question “will it let you say no?” My husband and I have been thinking about getting a used car for a while now but we aren’t really sure where to start. I think that these tips will be really helpful in finding something that we can use for our family. Thank you for sharing!

  8. I love your questions about checking how honest a car dealership is before buying from them. It seems like one of those things that’s not always as easy to do as it sounds though. I would imagine that following an automotive review blog from someone local in your area could help you get a feel for which dealerships are trustworthy.

  9. I appreciate this information about how to pick the right car dealership. It is good to know that one should look for a dealership that is convenient. It would be best if they offer great prices and warranties. Something to consider would be to seek references from friends and family to find a trusted dealership near you.

  10. I agree that if a dealership gets you to come to their location because of an advertised price, and then no longer carries that vehicle, you probably should not do business with them. You also mention looking for honesty in the salesman, as honesty up front tends to bring honesty down the road. I would also suggest getting referrals for specific salesman so that when you say “so and so recommended you”, the salesmen’s reputation is now on the line and they are more likely to get you a goo deal.

  11. I’m considering buying a new car soon so this guide should be helpful in choosing the right dealership to work with. I hadn’t thought to gauge a dealerships service by how long it take to schedule an appointment, but I’ll have to try that in the future. I’ll also need to keep convenience in mind when looking at Ford dealerships as well, like you recommend.

  12. I’m glad you mentioned that a good dealership will let you say no! I’m a little bit nervous about going into a car lot because I know they are very convincing. At this point in my life I need to say no to some things or I’ll be broke. It would be nice to go get my self a new Honda car though so I’ll just have to go into a Honda dealer and hope that they let me say no to some things, thanks for letting me know how to choose!

  13. Yeah. I have plan to buy used car in near future although I know that this can be a tricky process. Thanks for giving this tips. For choosing a car dealership, I will simply look for feedback or reviews on the web, which I thinks is the simplest way to know more about certain car dealership.

  14. My wife and I are looking for a new car, and we’ve been having a hard time deciding where to buy our car from. I really like the tips that you have posted, especially how you mention honesty. I think that an honesty in a car dealership is important, because buying a car is a pretty large investment, and you don’t want to be lied to while purchasing it. I’ll make sure to follow the tips that you provided to make sure that the dealership we’re buying from is being honest with us. Thanks for the help!

  15. I buy from carmax. They may be a little more expensive than run of the mill local car dealers, but the security of knowing that they aren’t going to sell you a lemon is worth it.

  16. I bought an illegal (cracked window low down where I didn’t see). And unsafe tires, all four cracked sidewalls, at Armani motors in Roseville, ca. They will not even let me talk to anyone on the phone, they avoid me. All they offered was come there (120 miles away with unsafe illegal windshield and unsafe tires and
    they will help me buy tires!. Plus they said they replaced front brakes before I bought it and they are not new.

  17. Thanks for the information. Your tip for whether to buy from a dealership far away from you is really helpful. I hadn’t thought about how getting a car with an extended warranty from a dealership far away wouldn’t be a good deal, since you would have to drive quite far to get service. I will be sure to remember that when I buy a car in the future.

  18. “Let the dealership try to get financing, and see what rate they get for you. If it’s more than half a percentage point higher than the one you got yourself, the dealership is trying to pad its profit at your expense.”

    We do have to disagree with this statement. Many smaller independent dealers simply don’t have access to finance companies who offer interest rates that compete with larger banks and credit unions. These dealers make no profit whatsoever on the financing and often lose quite a lot of their profits to “Discount Fees.”

    Other than that, very informative article for car buyers.

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