Don't Get Snookered On Presidents Day Car Deals

As with so many things, it's all about the Benjamins. (Or should we say the Washingtons?) Advertisements are everywhere for Presidents Day car deals, but are dealerships really offering true savings? Those with too much inventory have dropped their prices a bit, but you'll have to do some digging to separate the real car sales from the standard dealer "discounts."

After dropping from $5.2 million on Presidents Day 2008 to less than $4 million in 2009, automotive sales are expected to rise more than $4.6 million in 2011, up 9.5 percent from last year. That's great for the car makers, but not necessarily for buyers.

Ford, Toyota and Nissan's per-car incentives to customers last month all dropped significantly from January 2010, according to Edmunds.com. European, Japanese and Korean automakers all cut incentives to start off the year. This doesn't mean there aren't deals to be had. General Motors increased incentives from $2,900 in January 2009 to nearly $3,800 last month.

So how can you separate the good from the bad...and avoid being separated from too many of those green bills bearing pictures of presidents? Read on for eight tips.

1. Decide What You Want
Determine whether you want to buy or lease a car, what financing option will work best, and how much trade-in value is being offered on similar vehicles in your area.

2. Know Your Budget
Decide how much you can afford to spend before you start shopping. It's easy to be enticed to spend more once you get to the dealership. (There's a reason people are leery of car sales reps.)

3. Consider the Discount
According to TrueCar.com, anything below a 5.6 percent discount on the manufacturer's suggested retail price isn't a good-faith offer. It's just the standard price dealers can easily make up by conniving a customer into such questionable extras as "paint protection film" and "fabric protection."

4. Do Your Due Diligence
Once you've made these decisions, research automakers' websites for vehicle details, independent sites (i.e. craigslist, cars.com) for pricing and incentives, and dealer sites for inventory questions. This knowledge will help you barter better and save you from the exasperation of waiting on salespeople who have to "check with the manager" for every price discount.

5. Strive for Going Under Budget
If you're going after the right model, going under budget isn't out of the question. Volkswagen is selling its remaining 2010 stock at 19.4-percent below MSRP. Its 2010 Routan minivan, however, is zooming through dealerships for $20,197, or roughly 25 percent off its $26,930 asking price. Last year's Mazda Miata, Nissan Titan, Chrysler Sebring and GMC Sierra 1500 are all selling at a more than 20-percent discount.

6. Haggle On Overstocked Vehicles
Dealers may be swayed into chopping the sticker price on cars taking up a showroom space, particularly after they've sat around for 220 to 280 days. According to True Car, such vehicles include the 2010 Cadillac CTS, Ford Focus, Chevy Malibu and the Hyundai Accent.

7. Look For Dealer Cash Options
For 2011 models, the Chevy Impala's dealer cash option offers a more than 21-percent discount, while Mitsubishi incentives cut the average price of a Galant from $24,000 to $19,200. The $4,500 cash rebate Nissan is offering on its 2011 Titan pickup helps reduce the price by 18.5 percent. Even without incentives, a Toyota Camry Hybrid or Kia Rio may be worth looking at as piles of each tend to hang around on dealer lots for more than 100 days.

8. Ignore Presidents Day
If none of these vehicles are the model you're looking for, just ignore Presidents Day car sales. According to TrueCar analysis, it's not even the best day to buy a car this month or this winter. The less than 6-percent average Presidents Day discount is far worse than you'll get by waiting until Feb. 26 as the last Saturday of the month is when dealers are pushing to meet quotas. That can often drive the average discount up to 8 percent.

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