Unless you’ve recently hit the lottery, you probably don’t have the cash to go out and buy a new car outright. That means you’re probably going to need a car loan if you hope to drive away with some new wheels. Unfortunately, not all car loans are created equally. Before you sign on the dotted line, it’s important to understand a few key things to ensure you’re getting the best deal possible.

One of the most critical factors in minimizing the hit to your wallet is getting a great rate on your loan. The APR for auto loans ranges from as low as three percent to as high as 10 percent, so you’ll need to do your homework to make sure you get the best deal.

To help out, here are 10 important tips you should keep in mind to keep your costs down and come away with the lowest rate available.

1. Mind Your Credit

The most important factor in what kind of rates you’ll get on a loan is, unsurprisingly, your credit standing. A prime credit score means you’ll likely qualify for a wider variety of loans with lower interest rates and more favorable terms. Knowing your credit score allows you to be better prepared to negotiate loan terms and make informed choices in selecting a financing option.

Finally, take some time to review your full credit report. You’re entitled to a free report from each of the three major bureaus every 12 months, which provides a fuller picture of your credit history and also allows you to identify and dispute any erroneous information.

2. Improve Your Score

A good credit score is typically considered anything above 700 for VantageScore or 670 for a FICO Score. If your numbers fall below these thresholds, there’s no need to despair. In fact, there are several things you can do to improve your score in a relatively short period of time.

First, consider paying down outstanding balances as much as your finances permit. This is often a beneficial move even if it means delaying the purchase of your new car for a few months. You may also consider requesting a credit line increase on one or more of your accounts. This will lower your credit utilization ratio and provide a boost to your credit score the next time it’s calculated.

3. Buy at the Right Time

If you aren’t in immediate need of a new vehicle, you can improve your odds of getting a good deal by waiting for the opportune time. The fact is that car dealerships typically have quotas dictating the number of vehicles they need to sell in a given month, quarter, and year. Dealers who still haven’t met an approaching quota are more apt to offer a favorable deal in order to make a sale.

To maximize these odds, consider shopping for a vehicle during the last week of October or December. Deadlines for all three quotas often fall during these times, so you’re more apt to get great financing terms.

4. Maximize Your Down Payment

Nobody likes to shell out a bunch of money up-front, but it’s worth considering how much cash you can spare. Paying more than the minimum required down payment has a couple of benefits. First, it’ll often make you eligible for better interest rates. Second, it can potentially shorten the term of your loan. This means you’ll end up paying even less interest over the course of your loan. Even if you need to put off your purchase for a few months in order to save up, there are serious benefits to making as large a down payment as you reasonably can.

5. Explore Your Options

Getting financing straight from the dealer is certainly convenient, but it’s not necessarily the best way to get great rates on your loan. Instead, shop around and explore all your financing options to identify the best choice. Approach your personal bank and get their best rates first. Next, check in with other local lenders and see how their offers compare. Credit unions are often particularly competitive when it comes to car loan rates. It’s also a good idea to do some research online to check loan rates in your area.

6. Minimize Your Credit Hit

It’s great to shop around and cast a wide net when it comes to car loan options, but there’s only one problem. Applying for a car loan requires a full credit check that comes with a hit to your credit score. These hits are small and temporary on their own, but several of them in a short span could potentially lower your score enough to affect the loan qualification process.

To minimize this effect, be sure to complete all your loan applications within two weeks. This ensures that all your credit checks are treated as one, limiting the overall hit.

7. Focus on Total Cost

Shopping around for a car loan can be tricky. There are lots of terms thrown around to try to muddy the waters, and dealers often try to persuade customers into taking deals that aren’t best for them. Simplify the whole process by doing two things.

First, calculate the maximum amount you can realistically spend on monthly payments. After that, ignore everything else and focus exclusively on the total cost of the loan. Don’t agree to a costlier loan just because it offers a lower monthly payment. Similarly, don’t fall for a lower interest rate if the other terms of the loan add up to a greater expense over time.

8. Get Pre-Approved

Once you’ve finished shopping around and you’ve settled on the loan terms you like best, it’s time to put your plan into action. Apply for pre-approval for the loan you’ve selected. Take the approval letter with you when you go to the dealership. The fact that you have a favorable loan that’s already pre-approved puts you in a much stronger position. It means you have options and you won’t feel forced to take whatever the dealership offers. It’ll also encourage you to stick with your planned budget, so you’ll know you’re making sound financial decisions.

9. Embrace Negotiation

The most important reason you should get pre-approved, however, is because it helps you negotiate. You should always be prepared to haggle when it comes to the price of a vehicle. The same is true when it comes to car loan rates. Discuss financing with the dealer and wait for them to make an offer. If their offer falls short of the pre-approved terms you’ve already secured, don’t hesitate to ask whether they’re willing to make a better offer.

10. Read Before You Sign

Once you’ve finally arrived at the best loan offer you can find, it’s almost time to put pen to paper. First, though, be sure to read over your contract carefully. Verify that the terms laid out in the contract are exactly as discussed. Be sure that you understand any fees or clauses that might affect the cost of your loan. Finally, double-check the calculations laid out in your loan to be sure that the math checks out.

Buying a new car certainly isn’t cheap. A car loan represents a major commitment that will affect your life for several years to come. With the right information and a willingness to put in work, however, you can go a long way toward securing the most favorable rates possible.