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Top Tips When Buying a Van From a Dealership

If you decide purchasing your future campervan from a dealership is best for you, that can be daunting. For many, this vehicle purchase will be one of the most expensive purchases of their lives. It was for us. And it can be a scary experience walking into a dealership, like swimming in a pool of sharks.

We learned so much from our first van-buying experience, and we want to share every tip and trick that helped us get a great deal for our brand-new Ford Transit van. Please read below to learn more about our experience.

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Learn the Terminology

Before negotiating your van purchase, the first step is to learn basic dealership terminology. You want to become fluent in several of these terms before entering a dealership.

Window Sticker

2018 Ford Transit window sticker
Our 2018 Ford Transit’s window sticker

The “window sticker” gets its name because this large informative sticker is usually stuck onto the windows of all new vehicles at every dealership. This window sticker is perhaps the most important document when assessing the vehicle and how much it initially costs. Much information is packed into this sticker, and we will isolate the critical information in the above window sticker.

MSRP/Sticker Price

Ford Transit window sticker indicating the total MSRP of the vehicle
Indicating the location of the vehicle’s MSRP price

The MSRP is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price and is the “recommended” price for the vehicle. Because the MSRP is always listed on the window sticker, it is often called the “sticker price.” This includes the vehicle’s base price, additional options, and the destination/delivery fee.

For buyers, this is the maximum you should ever pay for your vehicle. The MSRP is usually negotiated down. We will discuss further how to do this effectively.

Options/Optional Equipment

Ford Transit window sticker indicating the vehicle's options and add-ons
Window sticker indicating the location of additional options & add-ons

Optional Equipment (or “Options”) are additional equipment that comes with the vehicle that is on top of the vehicle’s base model. Usually, options might entail nicer seats, extra keys, a stronger engine, a moon roof, etc.”

Ironically, options are not REALLY optional. Since these options are already built into the vehicle, you cannot ask the dealer to get rid of them to lower the price of the vehicle.

You can, however, negotiate the price down for the various options, which we will discuss further below.

Price Information

Window sticker indicating location of vehicle price breakdown
Window sticker indicating location of price breakdown

Though not as important, you can find additional window sticker information under “Price Information.”

  • Base Price – This is the vehicle’s price if no other options are installed. Very rarely will you see a vehicle being sold at the base price. Additional options are almost always added on.
  • Total Options/Other: This is the total of all the additional add-on options for the vehicle.
  • Destination & Delivery: Delivering a new vehicle to the dealership is a cost, and dealerships pass this cost on to the consumer. In the past, dealerships would add whatever cost they wanted. But nowadays, the destination charge is a government-mandated amount and is precisely the same for all vehicles of the same model. This price usually hovers around $1,000, regardless of the type of vehicle. Contrary to popular belief, you CANNOT negotiate the destination charge with the dealership.

Manufacture’s Discounts

If you do some research, you may find that the vehicle manufacturer is offering consumers various discounts to help entice them to make a purchase. These discounts can include year-end discounts, military discounts, and competition discounts.

Invoice Price

Sometimes referred to as the “dealer cost,” the price appears on the dealer’s invoice and is not usually shared with the prospective buyer. This is supposedly the price that the dealer purchased from the manufacturer. But with rebates and incentives, this is not always the case.

Study the Market

Woman studying in front of laptop

Before studying the vehicle market, narrow down which vehicle you’re interested in buying. Even more helpful is if you already have specific requirements for vehicle height, vehicle length, and engine size.

We were specifically looking for a Ford Transit F-250, high-top, 148″ wheelbase, with an Eco-boost engine.

We then used Edmunds to get a general overview of our expected prices. This website is a great initial resource for getting the following vehicle information:

  • Base price
  • MSRP
  • Likely included options
  • Available manufacture discounts

We like using Edmunds because the information provided gives us a good baseline for what prices to expect.

For example, a quick search for a new Ford Transit shows all the available manufacturer discounts for this particular vehicle. You must figure out how many of these discounts you may qualify for.

Screenshot from Edmunds website indicating current manufacturer discounts for Ford Transits
Current manufacturer discounts for Ford Transits

Communicate With Dealerships Online First

Now you know which vehicle you want to buy and the approximate price you expect to pay. It’s time to start contacting various dealerships in your area to gather real information and prices.

But going straight to the dealerships without any prior research is a huge disservice. You won’t have time to think at the dealership, and you may be rushed into a decision you’re not 100% ready to make.

Emailing the various dealerships in your area in advance allows you to consume the initial pieces of information at your own speed and without being pressured. Through e-mail, you will be able to:

  • View each dealership’s inventory
  • See their initial prices & negotiate
  • Learn which dealerships are worth doing business with

View Each Dealership’s Inventory

It’s important to clarify exactly what vehicle you want to buy through email. In our initial emails to salesmen, we always write exactly which model of Ford Transit we are looking for:

Ford Transit F-250, high-top, 148″ wheelbase, with an Eco-boost engine.

We then ask to receive scanned copies of all the window stickers of vehicles that fit our above requirements. In our case, each dealership only has about 1-2 vehicles that match our description.

Receiving the initial window stickers online allows you to compare prices and digest the financial numbers in the comfort of your home instead of in the high-pressure environment at a dealership and in-front of a salesman looking to close a deal.

Even though most Ford dealerships would have the specific van we wanted, it does not mean that all the window stickers will be the same. The “base model” price will be identical, but because of mandatory “options,” each van will be slightly different, and so will their MSRPs.

Some vans will come with leather seats, some will have a tow package installed, some will have cruise control, some will come with an extra battery, etc.

During this initial email phase, you can see all the different Ford Transit models to choose from, and you can begin to keep and discard the different vans based on which options you like and which aren’t important to you.

Negotiate First Round Discounts

A dealership's hand written discount offer on a scanned window sticker
A dealership’s offered discounts written on a scanned window sticker

For us, negotiating discounts is an uncomfortable process. When face-to-face with a salesperson, the process feels awkward and tense.

But the benefit of email communication is that you can skip the awkwardness by asking for any “dealership discounts” off the MSRP. Since you went to Edmunds.com, you should already know what “manufacturer discounts” you qualify for. Dealership discounts should be extra.

In this black & white window sticker, the dealership replied to my request for a discount with two handwritten discounts.

Learn Which Dealerships Are Worth Doing Business With

Emailing all the various dealerships in advance helps you differentiate between professional dealerships that respect your time and those that simply don’t care. You may be surprised by just how many dealerships were inept or unprofessional in their communication.

Email allowed me to filter out bad dealerships quickly.

If a dealership responds to your questions, attaches window stickers of their available vans, and willingly offers a 1st round discount, that is a dealership worth potentially doing business with.

Before Visiting the Dealership

Once you select which dealership and vehicle you intend to buy, doing more work on your end is important.

Understand Your Current Starting Price

By this time, you should already have three key pieces of information to help establish where the current starting price is for the vehicle you want.

  1. MSRP (original price)
  2. Manufacture’s discounts (from Edmunds.com)
  3. Initial dealer discounts (from e-mail exchanges)

Therefore, the current starting price once you enter the dealership should be:

Starting price = MSRP – Manufacture’s Discounts – Dealer Discounts

Set Your Expectations for Additional Discounts

But of course, it is assumed that you should be able to extract additional discounts when negotiating at the dealership.

Through online research on Edmonds.com and elsewhere, you should be able to get an idea of what percent additional discount you can get when at the dealership.

In my case, I found dealers were giving buyers anywhere between 5-10% additional reductions in price. I used this to set my expectations of what I could expect when I arrived at the dealership myself.

Negotiate in Person

After you find a dealership worth your time (i.e., respectful, professional, sent you the window sticker in advance, and has a van you’d like to purchase), it’s a great time to visit the dealership in person and test drive the van.

You Did Your Homework; Be Confident!

If you’ve done the proper research and number crunching beforehand, you may be surprised just how confident you will be when you walk through the dealer’s doors. I know I was!

I already knew EXACTLY what vehicle I would be looking at, the initial starting price for our negotiations, and the price range I could expect to pay after additional dealer discounts.

Getting Additional Dealer Discounts

During my talk with the salesperson, I did the following three things that helped me get to my final price.

  1. Point out the useless options – Because vehicle “options” and their associated costs can’t be removed, I clarified to the salesman which options were useless to me. I didn’t need the “heavy-duty alternator” or the “tow package.” I asked if he would give a discount on those options since I didn’t value them.
  2. “I love the vehicle, but what’s the best price you can do?” – I love this phrase because it’s forward but not aggressive, and you’re putting the salesperson on the spot.
  3. “My target price is $xxx,” can we get to this number?” – If it looks like negotiations are about to come to an end, you can try to extract an additional $500-$1,000 with this phrase. It never hurts to ask, and this strategy helped get us a great final price that we were happy with.

Ask for Complimentary Extras!

Even when you’re happy with the final price, you can still come away with some cool free extras before formally shaking the salesperson’s hand.

In our case, the van we discussed did not have cruise control built in. So I simply asked if there was any way their workshop could install a complimentary 3rd party cruise control system for me.

They immediately said “yes”. And we shook hands and formalized the sale.

Things like adding cruise control are of little additional money and effort to the dealership but have great value to me. So, it was a win-win situation for both me and the dealership.

Ford Transit camper van parked by the side of the road

And Remember, Car Salespeople Are Human, Too!

Before entering the dealership, I thought that car salesmen were hungry sharks just waiting for unsuspecting customer prey to wander into the salesroom.

But to my surprise, I was greeted and treated with respect and had an incredibly amicable relationship with my designated sales person during the entire negotiation and sale of the vehicle.

It really reminded me that car salesmen are human, too.

Of course, this does not mean you should accept a deal you are uncomfortable with, or that is outside your researched price range. You should still be firm in what you want and how much you will pay.

But it means that being kind, respectful, and communicative goes a long way toward getting an acceptable deal for you and the dealership.

Your experience as you walk away from the dealership (with or even without a new vehicle) will be much more positive.

Go Back: How To Build A Camper Van

If you have any questions regarding purchasing a new van from a dealership, please let us know in the comments section below.

Happy buying!

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