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Know Before You Go: Car Dealer Ads and Promotions

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Looking to buy a car? You might see dealers advertising unusually low prices, low or no up-front payments, low- or no-interest loans, or low monthly payments. Other dealers promise high trade-in allowances, attractive discounts and rebates, or free or low-cost add-ons, like service contracts. Or if you’re looking to lease a car, you might notice ads for very low — or no — payments due at signing. Here are some ways to help you decide if car ads offer a real deal.

Know Before You Go

You might start your car search online, but don’t stop there. A great way to follow up on interesting listings and offers is to contact the dealer before you visit in person. Hammering out the details before you visit can save you hours on the lot, and thousands in your pocket. Here are some ways to make car shopping easier:

Whether you’re buying or financing the car, ask the dealer to confirm that the vehicle is actually on the lot and to send you the “out-the-door” price — in writing — before you leave home. The out-the-door price should include all charges and fees. Here’s why you’ll want to do this.

  • Some unscrupulous dealers will advertise for a particular listing, lure you to the dealership, claim the vehicle is unavailable, and then try to sell you on a different vehicle at a different (usually higher) price.
  • Advertised prices might not include various fees and charges, and dealers may try to tack on add-ons to jack up your cost. Having the out-the-door price in writing ahead of time can help you save hours and hours of waiting at the dealership, negotiate a better deal, compare other offers on an apples-to-apples basis, remove any unwanted add-ons, and spot any last-minute additional charges that the dealer may try to add-in when you’re ready to buy.
  • You’ll also want the out-the-door price on your next vehicle even if you’re planning a trade-in and the dealer can’t give you a firm offer on your current car. This way, you only bother taking your current car to be assessed by dealers whose offers you’ve first confirmed.
  • If you plan to finance your purchase, also try to get pre-approved for a loan before you work with the dealer’s financing office. Banks, credit unions, and other lenders can offer preapprovals, even if you don’t have an account or are not a member. Having a preapproval before you get to the dealership can help you determine whether the dealer is matching you with an attractive offer and can help you negotiate for an even better loan.

If you see an ad for low-rate financing, ask, and get written answers to, these questions:

  • Is the advertised offer limited to certain types of borrowers?
  • Do you need to make a certain down payment? If so, what are the financing terms for bigger loans with a smaller down payment?
  • Are there other fees or payments? If so, what are they?
  • What is the annual percentage rate (APR), and total you’ll pay for the loan? The APR is the cost of credit expressed as a yearly rate.

If you plan to lease, ask:

  • What is the amount due at signing? If an ad promises $0 due at lease signing, are there still things you have to pay for before you drive off the lot — for example, fees, taxes, a security deposit, or the first month’s payment?
  • What is the total amount due under the lease?
  • How many miles are you allowed under the lease? What is the charge if you go over the allowance?
  • What other types of fees and charges may apply at the end of the lease?

Remember: your time is valuable, and your bargaining power is greatest before you go to the lot. Get your offer details (including discounts) in writing. Walk away if the dealer doesn’t have the car you want or won’t honor the price it sent you. Then report the dealer to the FTC.

Deceptive Car Ads

Confirm prices, discount offers, and financing and lease terms before you visit a dealership because not all dealers play by the rules. They might bury important details in the fine print or on different pages of their website, or not give them to you until you’re in the showroom or finance office.

Here are examples of ad claims that may be deceptive — and why.

Low, low prices or special discounts

  • Low prices or discounts in ads are misleading when:
  • The dealer doesn’t honor them. You might get to the lot, think you are getting the advertised price, and walk out paying much more because the dealer has included add-ons or other fees and charges to your deal.
  • There are unexpected eligibility restrictions. For example, you have to be a current lessee, recent college graduate, be in the military, finance with a particular bank, or meet some other criteria to qualify.
  • There are big costs, like a large down payment or a processing fee, that aren’t disclosed or are buried in the fine print.
  • The low price is available only on limited models.

 “Only $99/Month

  • Low monthly payments could mean a few things: you’ll need to come up with a large down payment, the offer is for a lease, not a purchase, there are low monthly payments that balloon later, or there are a lot of eligibility restrictions.

Zero or low interest rate loans

  • The low advertised annual percentage rate (APR) might only apply to “highly” or “well” qualified borrowers, meaning those with high credit scores.

“$0 due at lease signing”

  • The fine print could say additional fees — sometimes several thousand dollars — are due at lease signing or that the offer involves rebates or discounts with significant qualifications or requirements.

“You’ve won!”

  • The prize is often just a tactic to get you into the showroom, and often you must jump through hoops or win a game of chance to get it.

Before You Sign a Contract

If you’re ready to buy or lease a car from a dealer:

  • When you get the documents for signature, ask to see how your purchase price and other terms match what the dealer sent to you ahead of time. If not, ask questions and be prepared to walk away.
  • Make sure you understand the terms before you sign and drive away with the car.

Report Problems

If you think a dealer isn’t being honest when it comes to its ads or selling (or leasing) process, let the FTC know at

Learn more about buying and owning a car.

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