Coronavirus and Your Money: Special Coverage

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By Daniel Bortz
May 8, 2020
Giacomo Bagnara for Money

In the midst of a pandemic, buying a car might not be the first thing on your mind. But if you are willing to leap some hurdles, there are great deals out there, say experts.

A case in point: U.S. new-car and truck sales plunged to a 30-year low of around 633,000 vehicles last month, a 53% decrease from April 2019, according to industry analyst Edmunds.com. Automakers such as Toyota and Honda reported their sales in April were cut in half compared to a year ago.

“Things have slowed down dramatically, especially in parts of the country that have had strict stay-at-home orders,” says Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of Cars.com.

The good news? To compensate for lost profits, many car dealers are working hard to attract buyers by offering marked-down prices, consumer-friendly financing options, and other incentives. “It’s definitely a buyer’s market,” says Brian Moody, executive editor at AutoTrader.

And, if you’ve been waiting on the sidelines for a new model to arrive at your local retailer, you may not have to wait much longer. “Many manufacturers have said they’re reopening plants and resuming production within the next couple of weeks,” Wiesenfelder says.

Ready to purchase a new set of wheels? Here are the steps you need to take to drive home a great deal.

Hunt for deals online

Although most states and counties allow auto sales, many dealers have adopted new rules in light of social distancing guidelines, such as appointment-only showroom visits or sales by phone or email with home deliveries of vehicles. But that’s not such a bad thing, considering these changes help decrease both your and the dealer’s risk of exposure to COVID-19. Plus, by not going to a dealership in person you can avoid face-to-face sales pressure.

Still, you’ll want to do as much research as possible. If you know the exact model, trim, color, and options that you want to buy, provide that information when getting quotes from several dealers so that you can compare apples to apples. If a dealership doesn’t have a car that fits your specific needs, they may be willing to accept a lower sales price on the closest vehicle that they have in stock.

“We’re seeing some once-in-a-lifetime deals,” says Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights at Edmunds.com.

Which begs the question: What models are selling well below sticker price? Currently the average savings for a 2020 Infiniti Q50 sedan is $8,144 off MSRP (16% off), according to Consumer Reports, while a 2020 Volvo S60 sedan has an average savings of $5,433 off MSRP (13% off).

Want a lot of bells and whistles? “Dealers may have some more wiggle room with negotiating add-ons than they would normally because of the state of the economy and the industry,” says Drury.

But when shopping around, don’t just look at sales price, says David Bennett, AAA’s resident car buying expert. “Find out if there are other purchase incentives,” he advises. “Is the dealer offering free oil changes for a period of time? Are they offering free car washes or free maintenance service?”

Not sure what car you want to buy? Take one for a test drive…

Get behind the wheel

A salesperson can show you what a vehicle looks like over FaceTime, but a virtual tour of a car is no replacement for an actual test drive, which allows you to get a hands-on feel for a car’s steering, handling, and ride comfort. Ask dealers for a “remote test drive,” where a salesperson brings the car to your home for you to give it a spin. Some will even let you test drive without a salesperson in the vehicle. “Before the coronavirus, at-home test drives were usually reserved for luxury car buyers, but that’s not the case anymore,” says Moody.

You may want to disinfect a vehicle’s touch points before you drive it. “Dealers are disinfecting cars, but I don’t think anyone would balk at you for sanitizing the gear shift or the steering wheel,” Moody says. Also, wear a face mask, Bennett recommends.

Bear in mind, there may be some coronavirus related restrictions. For example, some dealers aren’t allowing adults to test drive cars with their children in the vehicle.

Take advantage of low car loan rates

A typical auto loan has an interest rate of 4% to 5% on average, Drury says, but a number of car manufacturers are currently offering rates as low as zero percent. For example, Dodge is offering zero percent financing for up to six years on some models, including its 2020 Dodge Durango and 2019 Dodge Journey.

Nabbing a lower interest rate can mean big savings. Let’s say you get a 7-year, $35,000 loan with a 5% interest rate. Over the seven years, you’d wind up paying an extra $6,554 in interest than if you had obtained the same loan with a zero percent rate.

Generally, you need a strong credit score (think 750 or higher) to qualify for the best interest rates, but credit score requirements may vary by lender, so talk to a dealer’s financing division. Another reason to shop around for auto loan offers: “I’m hearing that some dealers are loosening credit score requirements a bit and becoming more understanding of people’s financial challenges right now,” Drury says.

In addition, some carmakers are offering to defer payments for up to 180 days. Ford has a program where it will pay a qualified borrower’s first three months of car payments and then defer the next three months of payments.

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