With cars in short supply at the dealership, more shoppers are ordering cars from the factory.
In exchange for waiting a few weeks – or months – you get exactly what you want. In the current market, you are likely to save money as well.
While Americans have long been accustomed to finding a car and driving on the same day, “build-to-order” is a common practice in Europe, a method espoused by electric car makers like Tesla, Lucid and Rivian. Now that supply chain delays are leading to bidding wars for vehicles landing in dealer yards, build-to-order is having a moment in the U.S.
Ford now allows buyers to order some popular models online and have them delivered to a dealership. The company says it received 74,000 new retail vehicle orders in November – an increase of 64,000 orders last November.
Most agents are eager to take special orders, too.
“This appears to be the hot move at the moment,” says Matt Jones, director of corporate marketing for auto shopping site TrueCar. “People want to get exactly what they want instead of buying what’s available.”
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Is custom building cheaper? Maybe
Ordering a car from the factory may also help you avoid tags from the dealer, says Ron Montoya, senior editor of consumer advice and content strategist for auto research site Edmunds.
Montoya’s aunt was recently shopping for a Subaru Crosstrek and was offered a car on the lot from a local dealer for over $3,000 off the sticker price. Instead, I asked the dealer to order one from the factory and just paid the sticker price. “And these days, the sticker price is a good price,” he notes.
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In fact, the current market is brutal. Casual shoppers compete with drivers who have lost a vehicle to theft, accident, or major mechanical problem. Some buyers take advantage of inflated trade prices to offset the thousands of customers who pay MSRP on a new ride.
Factory order allows both buyer and seller to take a deep breath.
For the dealer, a special order is a surefire sale rather than the risk of finding your perfect car elsewhere.
For the consumer, “build to order” gives time to think and make wise decisions. Kelley Blue Book describes ordering a custom-made car as a “smart life hack” because it “takes you out of the emotional process of seeing a car…and wanting to have it now.”
How to place a factory order
If you have the luxury of waiting for delivery, here’s how to navigate the build-to-order process.
Shoppers usually order a car in one of two ways:
Configure a vehicle on the manufacturer’s website and place your order through the designated dealer. The MSRP you see is not guaranteed. Negotiations are handled through the merchant.
Negotiate and order directly with the merchant of your choice.
Before signing anything, get these details from the agent:
time frame: The merchant cannot give you an exact delivery date, but their ordering system should be able to give you an estimate. Consider going elsewhere if the delivery date is too far away, as manufacturers allocate cars to dealerships at different prices.
the changes: Explain the points of no return. Maybe months before delivery, you could change your mind about the color or options. You may be able to roll back completely by a certain date.
deposit: Usually this is from $500 to $1,000. Many merchants don’t actually cash a check or run a credit card number because the deposit is “just to prove that the customer has sticky stuff in the game,” Jones says. Ask what happens to your deposit if you decide to back out.
documentation: Ask about the paperwork you will receive after placing your order and how to track the arrival of your vehicle. Often, agents provide a build order sheet that lists the model, the final negotiated price, and an estimated delivery date.
the price: While not binding, agree on a purchase price and ask that the paperwork you receive reflect the agreed amount. It should include the negotiated price of the vehicle, any add-ons that the dealer installs and agree to, taxes, ownership and licensing. Ask if this is how much you will pay when the car arrives. While discounts and incentives are rare these days, according to Jones, explain which ones are reflected in the price and what happens if they change.
Before your vehicle arrives
Before your vehicle arrives at the dealership, be sure to track it periodically or follow up with the salesperson. Once you get the delivery date:
Financing arrangement. Find a pre-approved car loan. You’ll avoid surprises with your credit and get a dealer price to try to beat.
Has your deal been evaluated? The dealer won’t give you a trade-in price until you’re ready to sign papers for your new car. If you are considering trading, quotes from online retailers such as Carvana can help you get the most value for your vehicle.
Ask about incentives. It doesn’t hurt to check the manufacturer’s website or ask your salesperson if new incentives are available.
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When your new car arrives
Act quickly. If you have a delivery date or get a call from the dealer, ask if the vehicle will be marked as sold and for how long the dealer will keep it. Montoya advises buying it as soon as possible.
Check the car. Look at the vehicle to make sure it matches what you ordered and hasn’t been damaged in transit.
Talk about any trade-offs. Ask the dealer to rate your old car and show them any competing offers. Keep in mind that the sales tax savings for trading can be significant.
Review the transaction with the finance office. If the agreed price is not met, ask why. You are under no obligation to buy a car on new terms, just as a dealer is under no obligation to honor the old terms. Take a walk, or you may decide the difference in price isn’t worth the trouble of canceling the deal and starting the whole process over again.
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Philip Reed writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: AutoReed.