As car incentives return, here’s how to find them and save money

21 March 2024

By Shannon Bradley | NerdWallet

Car incentives nearly vanished during the past several years, thanks to pandemic-driven supply chain issues for auto manufacturers. As vehicle inventories dwindled and consumer demand outweighed supply, automakers had no reason to offer incentives like rebates or low-rate financing. The good news is that auto incentives, while still below prepandemic levels, are starting to return.

According to Kelley Blue Book, a Cox Automotive company, auto incentives — as a percentage of the average new-vehicle price buyers paid — reached 5.9% in February 2024. That’s compared with a general range of 10% to 11% before COVID-19 hit and 2% in fall 2022. In February, auto manufacturers spent an average of $2,808 per vehicle in incentives, up 88% from a year ago.

With inventories returning to normal and some auto manufacturers again sweetening deals to move vehicles, here’s how you can find and possibly save with car incentives.

Tips for saving with auto incentives

Although new car prices have declined since peaking in late 2022, the average price a buyer pays remains around $47,000. Incentives are one way to whittle down that price tag, and certain strategies can help maximize savings.

Be flexible about the vehicle you buy

Traditionally, auto dealers strive to have 60 selling days’ worth of cars in stock. As auto production has returned, some manufacturers — like Toyota — remain well below the 60-day mark, while others — including Ford, Nissan and Buick — are overstocked and more likely to offer incentives and discounts to move cars.

“The key right now is to be flexible about which vehicle you consider,” says Sean Tucker, senior editor for data company Cox Automotive. “If you had your heart set on something from Toyota, you’re probably not going to find a great deal. They just don’t have trouble selling cars right now.”

Auto manufacturer websites are a good place to research auto deals and incentives — including cash rebates, low-rate financing and lease deals — that are available for various makes and models. Such incentives often vary regionally, so you can usually narrow a search by ZIP code. Also, auto research companies like Edmunds maintain webpages with current car deals and incentives by carmaker.

Tucker suggests that incentives for leasing and electric vehicles are both good sources for saving in the current market. Auto dealerships are trying to restore the leasing cycle that feeds the used car market, so many dealerships are offering lease deals.

“It’s actually relatively easy right now to get a good lease on an EV,” Tucker says. “And that might even be a good idea just from a technology standpoint, because three years from now, when your lease is likely coming up, there may be far better EVs on the market.”

Know what incentives you qualify for

To ensure you receive every incentive available to you, know exactly which incentives you qualify for before engaging with a car dealer. Joseph Yoon, consumer insights analyst at Edmunds, recommends telling the dealer upfront what you expect in the way of incentives.

“The dealer is not going to offer it to you unless they’re deeply desperate to get the deal done,” Yoon says.

As part of your research, be aware of the different types of incentives available, because in some cases they can be combined.

Auto rebates provide a certain dollar amount to reduce your overall cost of buying, financing or leasing a vehicle. The rebate reduction should be on top of any other discount you’ve negotiated.
Low-rate financing is an incentive offered by automaker captive lenders — although you’ll need to have good or excellent credit to qualify and may be limited on loan length. As of March 5, 2024, Cox Automotive reported that 14.2% of new vehicle financing transactions had an APR of 3% or less. Only 3.2% of transactions had a 0% APR. While low-rate offers are available, they aren’t plentiful.
Loyalty incentives may be available if you have a certain car brand and want to buy or lease another one from the same manufacturer.
Demographic-focused incentives — for example, if you’re a recent college graduate, military member or educator — are also offered by some auto manufacturers and dealers.

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Stacking more than one incentive, when possible, can help you take advantage of every dollar available to you. If you have to choose between multiple incentives, for example, either a rebate or low rate from the same manufacturer, use an auto loan calculator to run each scenario and see which will save you the most money in the long run. Also, consider whether taking a cash rebate at the dealer and financing elsewhere could save you even more.

When you buy or lease an EV, stacking manufacturer and other incentives can result in major savings. If you and the vehicle qualify, you can claim the federal EV tax credit of up to $7,500. On top of that, you may find EV incentives from your electric company or state and local governments. The Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center enables users to search and filter by state and utility/private incentives.

About EVs, Yoon says auto manufacturers and dealers are motivated right now to offer savings on top of the federal incentive, because “there’s still a little bit of inventory left from 2023 that they really, really, really want to get rid of as the 2024 models [are starting to] hit.”

Plan to negotiate and comparison shop

If you know you qualify for a $1,500 car rebate, don’t assume that’s the best you can do — even if the dealer tells you it is. The ability to negotiate car prices for some models has also reappeared, and incentives should be in addition to any amount you negotiate off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can use valuation tools on car-buying sites to see what people are paying for the car you want and whether negotiating a lower price is realistic.

Finally, if you can find more than one dealership with the vehicle you want, present the deal you expect to each and let them compete for your business. Dealers receive factory-to-dealer discounts to help move certain vehicles, usually slower-selling ones. They can choose whether to pass these savings on to you and may be more motivated to do so if they know you’re shopping for the same car elsewhere.

Yoon says if a dealership isn’t willing to “play ball,” you shouldn’t hesitate to walk away. “Cars cost literally more than they have ever cost the consumer, and so you should, rightfully so, fight for every dollar that you can save.”


Shannon Bradley writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected].

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