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The Three Best Times to Buy a New Car

If you’re thinking of buying a new car, 2010 is your year. The auto industry may be on the slow rise, but it’s still far from reaching its pre-recession sales momentum -- and Toyota’s highly publicized recalls mean there are more deals out there than ever.

To get people back into showrooms, Toyota is offering zero-percent financing for up to five years on most of its models. And to compete, several other automakers are following suit -- Ford, Honda and Chevy are all offering the lowest financing and lease rates we’ve seen in a while.

“It is going to be a lot tougher to get these killer deals next year,” says Jesse Toprak, vice president of Industry Trends and Insights at TrueCar.com. “There will be less excess inventory for dealers to get rid of.”

But with or without the great incentives, you can still give yourself a leg up by walking into the dealership at the right time of month, or even on the right day. The pricing experts at TrueCar collect and analyze real-time data from car buyers and dealers to show how much people paid for a particular car at a given time. The results give unique insight into the times of year and days dealers are likely to offer the biggest discounts.

1. End of the Calendar Year

According to TrueCar’s data, the absolute best day to buy a car in 2010 will be December 26. On that day, they predict dealers will offer new cars at an average of 6.85 percent below MSRP. The second best day to buy is November 26, the day after Thanksgiving, when dealers will discount cars by 6.76 percent. In fact, six of the 10 best days to buy a new car all year fall within the months of October, November and December.

“The optimum best price is towards the end of the year,” says Toprak. Why? Because that’s when a perfect storm of factors hit. First, dealers may be trying to make their end-of-year quotas. Toprak says manufacturers will sometimes give them yearly and monthly “volume bonus incentives” to move slower selling models off lots. If a dealer only needs to sell off a few more cars to get a lucrative cash payout by the end of the year, you’d better believe they’re going to work hard to sell you one.

Second, dealers are anticipating the beginning of the next year (January and February), when auto sales are traditionally slow. Finally, many of the next year’s models are already on lots by October, and dealers will want to sell off the current model year’s leftovers.

On top of all that, the two very best days to buy (the days after Christmas and Thanksgiving) are both big shopping days because people often have time off work, and dealers are expecting an influx of buyers. Incidentally, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends are also great times to get deals.

2. End of Model Year

A car's model year doesn't always correspond with the calendar year (there are 2011 models on sale just three months into 2010), but it marks when car makers make changes to their models. Before a manufacturer releases the new model year, dealers want to get the previous years off their lots. New model-year cars are more desirable since they almost always command higher sticker prices than previous models. Having the old model years around for comparison isn't in the dealership's best interest. As a result, “The dealer wants to make the 2010 attractive enough so you’ll buy it over the shiny new 2011,” says Toprak.

Get competing price quotes from multiple local dealers

Fortunately for buyers, the best way to make the older models attractive is to discount them heavily. Most new model years begin showing up on lots in late summer and continue through the fall. That means that in most cases later this year, you can get a brand-new 2010 car for a steal, simply because there's a 2011 model sitting right next to it.

But before you rush out to get those 2010 models, Toprak advises you know what you’re getting into. Obviously, a discount is the upside, but there's also a downside -- resale value for the older models will be much lower unless you drive them for five-plus years.

Make sure you know if the newer model is a carryover or a redesign. A carryover is almost identical to the previous model and hasn't changed much, or at all. A redesign, on the other hand, means the manufacturer has more substantially tweaked the car's performance, exterior or interior.

You'll get deeper discounts on previous models that have redesigns -- but you won’t be getting all the improvements the newer model brings. Toprak says you can often get at least a $3,000 discount on a model that has been redesigned, versus $2,000 on a carryover.

3. End of the Month

Just as dealers have yearly quotas, they have monthly ones. “It is true that a lot of manufacturers offer dealers volume bonus incentives,” Toprak confirms. “They will say if you sell 20 Camrys this month we’ll give you $500.”

Check out the best car deals available this month

He also notes that starting the last week of April, the last weekend of every month is “a sweet spot day” for discounts -- because it’s the last big influx of buyers dealers will get before the month ends.

Give Yourself the Best Advantage

No matter what day you walk into the dealership, you still need to do your homework. According to Toprak, 90 percent of new-car shoppers do research online before going to the dealership. “Just 10 minutes of research can save you thousands,” he says. “And it won’t cost you anything.”

First, look up the average price people are paying in your area (we list the average price paid for every model we cover). Bring this information to the dealership, and you’ll know if you’re getting a fair deal.

The second step is to line up financing. Dealers can usually get slightly lower rates than you as an individual -- and in today’s market many of them are even offering zero-interest rates. However, it always pays to know what you can get at your bank before comparing it with the dealer’s offer.

If you’re gun-shy about negotiating with a dealer (as many people are), Toprak says you can even get guaranteed pricing online through the dealership’s website. Costco and some credit unions also offer this service.

Make sure you're prepared by consulting resources such as the U.S. News guides on buying a carfinancing a car, and surviving the dealership.