Image: Couple shopping for car -© Don Mason-Blend Images-Corbis

With interest rates near record lows, it might seem like now is a great time to buy a new car. But don't speed down to the dealership just yet. Take the time to do a little homework first.

Many car-buying mistakes are quite common, say auto industry watchers. To identify those errors, we asked for advice from experts at Edmunds.com, AutoPacific, J.D. Power and Associates and AAA. They gave us their best advice for navigating what can be a confusing path to buying a car.

They also told us that most dealers are honest, reliable and hardworking local businessmen and women, but that there are some simple precautions every consumer should take before purchasing a car.

1. Talking too much. Three things to never say on the lot:

  • "I need this car now." Desperation breeds price inflation.
  • "I love this car". Emotions make you vulnerable.
  • "This is how much I can afford to pay per month." Once dealers know how much you want to pay per month, they'll find other ways -- through fees, warranties and financing -- to make up the difference between that payment ceiling and how much they must make on a sale. Talk about the absolute price of a car, not the monthly payment.

2. Not doing your research. Walking into a dealership open to any ideas the salesperson has is a bad idea -- it makes you vulnerable to impulsively buying something you don't need, can't afford or ultimately won't want. Determining the market value of your car will help you know where to begin negotiations on the starting price of the vehicle. Use Kelley Blue Book (you can check Kelley values on MSN Autos here), the NADA Guides research center, Cars.com, AutoTrader.com and Edmunds.com to find the true market value and the expected residual value of the car you want.

3. Not being realistic about what you need. Before you hit the showroom floor, take a hard look at the kind of driving you do. Don't assume you need a brand-new car, and consider keeping a driving journal for a week, or even a month, to chart exactly when, where and how far you drive each day. Then buy a vehicle according to those needs -- not aspirations, like thinking "maybe someday we'll need to tow a boat, so I need a truck with three-ton towing capacity."

4. Leasing a car because you can't afford the down payment. Lease payments, especially for luxury cars, don't require a down payment and are often cheaper per month than what it costs to buy the car outright. But they don't always pay off. You have to determine if having a new car every two or three years and with no down payment -- but no ownership and no stake in the residual value -- is more important than long-term cost savings and ownership of a vehicle you will eventually pay off.

5. Assuming you'll use the dealer's financing. Instead of going through the dealership, arrange for financing at your bank or credit union. And choose the shortest-term car loan you can; long-term loans coax people into buying cars they can't really afford by stretching out the payments over such a long period that the car is almost fully depreciated by the time it's paid off.

6. Buying at the beginning of the month. Dealers don't offer their best deals or incentives until the end of the month, when they realize how close they are to (or how far they are far from) hitting monthly sales goals. So if you can, wait it out.

7. Buying at the beginning of the year. Dealers have less incentive to give you a great deal at the start of the year, when their inventory is brand-new and they have 12 months to hit annual sales targets. But in December, they'll have to clear out old stock in time for the new model-year cars to hit the showroom. That's when you should buy.

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8. Discussing the trade-in deal during the new-car negotiation. Be honest at the beginning that you may want to trade in your old vehicle -- but keep the new-car purchase discussion and the trade-in value discussion separate. If the purchase and the trade become one big transaction, it's easier for the dealer to fudge on how much you actually pay for the new car.

9. Assuming a hybrid is "greener" than gasoline or diesel. Hybrids use less fuel than gasoline-powered cars of the same model, but they don't always offer huge gains. A $38,340 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid in the HY2 four-wheel-drive crew cab trim package delivers 20 miles per gallon city and highway, while the all-gas $20,850 Silverado 1500 four-wheel-drive crew cab work truck gets identical highway mileage (granted, it gets a significantly lower 14 mpg city). Smaller engines, like those found in Ford's $28,950 EcoBoost-powered Flex, offer better fuel economy and fewer CO2 emissions compared with larger engines.

10. Visiting only one dealer. Don't hesitate to walk off the lot if a dealer can't meet your terms or expectations. The more you know about the options one dealer is offering, the stronger your negotiating position with another. If you live in a small town with just one showroom, call a dealer in the nearest metropolitan area to get a quote (it'll most likely be lower than in your rural area) and then see if your local guy can meet it.