You know everything you should do when you’re shopping for a new car: compare prices, compare features, take a test-drive. But what about when you’re shopping for a dealership?

Yes, you heard that right. After you buy your vehicle, you’re probably still going to be visiting the dealership on a regular basis for maintenance and service, and maybe eventually to trade it in on another new one. So you need a car that will fit your needs, and a dealership that fits as well.

In many cases, you won’t have a choice, because the car brand you’ve chosen only has one store close to you. But if your vehicle is coming down to a couple of closely-matched choices, look at the dealerships and make that part of your buying decision.


Save for a couple of exceptions, all dealerships are independently-owned franchises. They have the manufacturer’s name over the door, and they have to meet standards set by the automakers, but they’re privately owned, and their quality can vary.

The sales and service departments usually keep to themselves—in some dealerships, they might as well be on different planets—so be sure to look at both of them. You may find that you’re happier with “one side of the store” than with the other. Once you’ve purchased your vehicle, you’ll probably be spending the bulk of your dealership time in the service department, so that’s what you really want to check out.

It goes without saying that it should be clean and tidy, and that care is taken with vehicles. Technicians should be putting disposable floor mats and seat protectors on each car before they get into it.

If you can, visit the dealership during the “rush hour,” in the morning when people are dropping off their vehicles before they go to work. The service advisors will be very busy, but they should still be giving each customer their attention, and writing down exactly what the customer says is happening with the vehicle. Some advisors will always be better than others—and when you find out the ones who are, stick with them—but a well-run shop puts emphasis on getting all the information so it can be conveyed to the technicians.


Insurance regulations will prohibit you from walking into the shop, but take a look through the doors or window to ensure it’s clean and organized. Meet with the service manager, and also the shop foreman, who should be your liaison between the service advisor and the technician. He should be approachable, knowledgeable (he should be a licensed technician himself), and willing to help customers, including taking the car for a road test with you if there’s an issue that he needs to communicate to the person who’ll be repairing it.

Just a reminder: you don’t have to get your maintenance and warranty work done at the dealership where you bought the car. You don’t even have to get your oil changes and other upkeep done at any dealer, and you can take it to the local quick-lube place if you like. But you do need to keep your receipts, because if your car develops a problem, the automaker is within its rights to see proof of scheduled maintenance before it authorizes a warranty repair. But building a good rapport never hurts. In extraordinary circumstances, such as repairs just out of warranty, a dealer is far more likely to work with the manufacturer to get a break for a regular customer, than for someone who bought the car but never came back again.

Most dealerships keep roughly the same hours, but look for one whose schedule best fits yours, since they’ll likely have one or two weekdays when they stay open later. There should be a “drop box” where you can leave your car and drop the keys in during after-hour periods.


Look at the dealership’s location. One that’s close to public transit could be handy if you have to leave your car for any length of time. Most dealerships have a shuttle service, but find out when it runs, and if your home or work is within the area the driver will go. It may seem like a little thing, but if you’re deciding between two brands, that minor convenience will become major if your car’s in the shop.

You won’t get the full picture until you’re actually in the showroom buying your vehicle, or until you’re standing at the service counter waiting to get it fixed, but doing some preliminary research will get you halfway there. A dealership that’s conveniently located, handles its customer concerns promptly, and looks after your needs is a major part of the car ownership experience, so don’t underestimate the importance when you’re buying your car.