saving money for car down paymentIf you’ve been wondering all year when is the right time to buy a car, the answer is “Now!” That’s because for automakers, ‘tis the season for giving great deals.

If you’ve been saving money toward a down payment on a new car and patiently waiting for the best deal, you can get the biggest bang for your buck if you buy during the holiday season, especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Traditionally, the holidays are a slow time for dealers. Consumers are busy with other things—or just want to keep out of the cold—and automakers try to lure them in with a slew of holiday deals and year-end incentives.

With interest rates on auto loans hovering at historic lows and automakers trying to recover from their September sales slump, now is the time to find the new wheels that fit your lifestyle and your budget.

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Holiday prices are low, but don’t get snowed—remember the cost of ownership

As the holiday season kicks into gear, many automakers need to clear out their old inventory to make room for next year’s models. Dealers have an extra incentive to sell in December, since they have both monthly and annual sales quotas to meet.

As a result, you will likely be able to find no or low-interest financing, cash-back rebates or special lease rates—all of which will help you get the car model you want for less. Car dealers may also be more willing to negotiate during holiday time, which could give you the extra leverage you need to get the best offer.

But don’t let the lure of a good deal cloud your better judgment. A heavily discounted car can still be over your budget, so set a spending limit before you set foot in the dealership.

It’s also important to remember that the costs of car ownership can easily offset holiday savings. Research the make and model you are thinking about buying, and be sure you understand how much money you’ll have to dish out to cover auto insurance, regular maintenance, repairs and gasoline.

Online cost estimators, such as those offered by Kelley Blue Book and RepairPal, can help you calculate the long-term costs of owning a car, helping you see past the holiday discounts.

Some cars also depreciate—or diminish in value—faster than others, which is important to consider if you plan to sell or trade in your car in the not-so-distant future.

The amount of money you put down also impacts how much your car will cost over the long haul. If you don’t have a lot of cash for a down payment, you’ll typically pay a higher interest rate and have to take a longer loan term.

If possible, you’ll want to put down 10 to 20 percent of the car’s sale price—but the more you put down, the less interest you’ll pay over the life of your loan.

Do your research to find the best deals

In order to reap the most in holiday savings, start by searching online to get familiar with the car dealerships in your area. This will help you find sales and other incentives. If you know what type of car you are looking for, you can also narrow down your search to the specific model that interests you.

You should also pay attention to local TV ads and newspapers to learn about holiday car sales. If you get overwhelmed by the many offerings, keep a list of the most enticing deals so you can easily compare them.

When it’s time to hit the dealerships, hold them to their advertisements. You can even bring copies of the advertisements, if necessary, to help ensure you get all of the savings you are entitled to.

Ilyce Glink is the author of ten books, including the bestselling 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. Her nationally syndicated column, “Real Estate Matters,” appears in more than 125 newspapers and Websites, and her online “Ask Ilyce” columns are read by hundreds of thousands of people every month. She is a top-rated radio host on WSB Radio in Atlanta, the Home Equity blogger at CBS MoneyWatch.com, host of the Internet program “Expert Real Estate Tips,” managing editor of the Equifax Personal Finance Blog, and publisher of ThinkGlink.com.