4 Tips for Buying a Car in 2024

Don’t be caught off guard while searching for your next car.

A couple sit in a new car in a dealership.
Get the most out of a tight market.
standret / iStock

If you were to sum up the car market over the last few years in just one word, it would be “weird.” Between shortages of both new and used vehicles, interest rate hikes, and a no-haggle market, buying a car has become a frustrating and often confusing experience. 

Luckily, all signs are pointing to relief in 2024 for both car inventories and interest rates. That should make the car-buying ordeal a little easier, though it’s certainly not back to its pre-pandemic days. Instead, it’s best to brace yourself for the new normal.

With a little flexibility, plenty of advance notice, and a solid negotiation strategy, you’ll still be able to buy the car you want; it just might cost you more than you expected. Now, more than ever, it’s critical to spend time researching and organizing your thoughts before heading to the dealership. 

Be flexible.

Flexibility is crucial if you’re trying to get the best car for your money. “Inventories are low compared to pre-pandemic levels,” says Portia Meneau, vice president of the AAA Smart Mobility division, which focuses on AAA Members’ transportation needs. There might only be a few Toyota Rav4 Hybrids available on the lot, for example, and they might not have every feature, trim, or package that you’re looking for. 

Meneau suggests focusing on your must-haves and remaining flexible on your wants, particularly things like exterior paint and interior upholstery color, especially if you’re price sensitive. Many add-ons, including winter floor mats, ceramic coatings, and hitches, can be installed after you buy the car, often at a fraction of what the dealership charges, helping you stretch your budget a little further. 

Consider new vs used vs leased.

Old adages about always buying used or never leasing might not be as relevant or critical today as they once were. If you’re looking for a used car that’s only a few years old, be sure to compare the price and value to a new model prior to settling on the used vehicle. Cars that hold their value well, such as Subarus, might not offer the substantial savings you’re expecting by buying used. 

If you’re in the market for an electric vehicle, consider whether the one you’re planning to buy will suit your needs in the long term or if leasing might offer an attractive alternative. With EV technology rapidly evolving and an influx of new models annually, the EV you want today might no longer fit your needs three years down the line.

A car dealer hands a woman the keys to her new SUV
Consider extras when negotiating.
SDI Productions / iStock

Give yourself time.

Due to the continued shortages, particularly on popular models, the sooner you start shopping, the better—regardless of whether you’re buying new or used. If you’ve been on the fence about replacing your car or you might be ready for an upgrade in the near future, start your research now. 

“When you’re in a rush,” says Meneau, “you’re at the mercy of whatever is in inventory at that point, sitting on someone’s lot, and you’re going to have to be super flexible about your wants and needs.”

Discovering that the car or trim you’ve settled on will require ordering and take months to receive, or that you can’t actually afford the version you want, just adds to the overall stress of car buying. You’ll also want to compare the out-the-door cost from multiple dealers, as it’s common to encounter add-ons such as paint protection that stealthily bump up the sticker price. By planning ahead, you’ll get a better picture of what’s available and reduce sticker shock, which “gives you the chance to get the car that you really want at the price you want,” says Meneau.

Electric vehicles and especially hybrids are susceptible to lengthy delays, so you’ll likely need to put a deposit down sooner rather than later, if there is a waiting period. 

Bargain for more than dollars.

Negotiating a car deal has always been a fraught process, but with limited inventory, higher interest rates, and added fees, it’s harder than ever to get a deal. Looking at the negotiation process holistically is the recipe for the best results. Instead of just focusing on the dollars and cents you can save off the car price, consider negotiating for added benefits, perhaps a maintenance package, extras such as floor mats or a roof rack, or a lower interest rate. 

Your current car is also an excellent bargaining chip and very important in getting the best overall deal. Determine what your car is worth using an online quoter before you try to trade it in. 

“Get a minimum of three quotes,” says Meneau. Companies, including CarMax and Carvana will provide you with an actual number they’re willing to pay for the car, which you can use as leverage when negotiating the value with the dealership. 

Armed with an open mind and dedicated research, you’re sure to find a car that suits your needs and your budget.