Need a car for home or work? You're in luck.

Dealers are struggling to sell cars in this mess of an economy, and that means there are plenty of great deals. Provided, that is, you can afford to buy a car in the first place.

Despite the hot deals available, coming up with the cash to pay for a new car or SUV is more difficult than it was a few months ago. Reason: The credit crunch has meant belt-tightening at lending departments around the country.

But even though dealers aren't offering as many no-money-down deals as they used to, there are still options when shopping for a new car. If you own your own business, you have a chance to save thousands of dollars. Here are a few tips to make sure you stretch your hard-earned dollars to buy the car of your dreams.

Shop around: Dealers exist in the same economic reality as any other retailer, which these days means slumping sales, rising inventory and trouble accessing credit. Dealers pay interest charges on cars sitting on their showroom floors. The longer it takes to sell a car, the more they pay. Dealers paying the most interest will be the most eager to unload cars at fire-sale prices. That means deals will vary from dealer to dealer, so it is worth shopping around.

The easiest way to compare prices is to search online using Web sites like Cars.com or AutoTrader.com. You can search for a specific make and model based on your ZIP code. Make sure you understand what options are included in a quote. A quote $1,000 higher may still be a better deal if it includes the six-CD changer, sunroof and fog lights you have always wanted.

Line up financing: Before you contact a dealer about a car, make sure you have financing lined up. That way, you're ready to wheel and deal if you run across the perfect car. If you already have a good relationship with a lender who offers car loans, check his rates and terms. To get an idea of rates in your area, check out the auto-loan section of BankingMyWay.com and search by ZIP code. Nationwide, rates are averaging around 6.8% for a 36-month loan and 6.96% for a 60-month loan, according to BankingMyWay.com.

Take stock of your situation before applying for a loan. Check your budget to see how much you can afford as a monthly payment. If your credit is only average --700 points or less -- you may not qualify for the best rates. Consider increasing the down payment.

Negotiate: Even if you find a good offer online, don't be afraid to negotiate the price when you contact the dealer. Companies like Toyota and Saturn require dealers to stick to the advertised price, but most other companies do not. If you are nervous about negotiating in person, try it over the phone.

If you know the make, model and options package you want, call up four or five dealers and ask them for their best price. If the online price beats their offer, tell them they have to do better. If they can, circle back to the dealer who posted the online price and ask for a lower price. Once you've given all the dealers a second chance to go as low as possible, choose the best deal. By doing the negotiating over the phone, you end up avoiding the pressure of sitting in a sales office, face to face with a salesperson.

Buy last year's model: Many car companies ship their 2009 models to dealers in the early fall. Since sales have been weak this year, dealers are still carrying a lot of 2008 stock. Who would pay the same price for a 2008 model when a shiny new 2009 model is sitting right next to it? That leaves dealers eager to unload whatever 2008 stock they have left, and leaves you in a good position to negotiate a good deal.

Buy used: Even better than targeting last year's models, why not buy used? Low prices for new cars means lower prices for used cars as well. Although the price of a used, fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla may not drop as far as a used Chevy Suburban, used cars have the potential to be great deals. Most car-search Web sites are good for finding both new and used cars. Also check Kelley Blue Book to make sure you understand price ranges.
Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.

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