Offers on TV (and radio and in print) showcase the big numbers and best deals in very large type - with any stuff that might not be so appealing scrunched down into micro-sized print at the every bottom of the page. Or read-through at warp speed by an announcer who might as well be speaking Klingonese, as far as your ability to follow what he's saying.

Here are some things to be on the lookout for:


* "Offer only available in FLA, GA, SC... "



Many incentives are regional - meaning, if you don't live in one of the areas where the deal is good, the deal is not available to you. The same car might cost $1,500 less (or more) just by crossing the state line. This caveat is almost always read super-fast and sotto voce.


* "All estimates are computed on the basis of a 10 percent down payment..."


Some financing deals are contingent on things like the buyer coming up with a predetermined cash down payment. In other words, you might have to come up with "x" dollars in cash at the time of sale in order to take advantage of the advertised low-rate financing. If you don't have the cash down payment, they may stick you with a higher finance rate - which will balloon your monthly payments. Same basic deal with lease offers. Many require a pretty substantial "acquisition fee" at time of lease inception in order to take advantage of the advertised monthly lease payment.


* "Offer not compatible with other offers..."



This means you may not be able to get both low-rate financing and cash back. You have to pick one - or the other. It's important to run the numbers before you are in the pressure cooker of the dealer's store so you'll know ahead of time whether it makes more sense for you to go with, say, the lower-rate financing - or the cash back rebate.


* Dealer participation may affect savings... "



This means the offer's contingent on the dealer's "participation" in the program (rebate/cash back, special rate financing, etc.) being advertised by the automaker. Remember: Dealerships are franchises like McDonald's or KFC. They may sell Fords or Hondas, etc. - but you are not dealing directly with Ford or Honda, the car company. Be sure the dealer you're negotiating with is, in fact, participating in the rebate/cash back deal you saw on TV. He may not be. Don't assume he is.

* "For Bonus Cash, buyer must take retail delivery by ..."


As implied, the deal's only good if you buy the car before a specific date. This can put pressure on the consumer to make a snap decision or purchase a car "off the lot" that may not have all the features and equipment (or be the color) the buyer really wanted, etc. If you end up with a car you don't like, it's a bad deal- no matter what it cost you.


* Estimates do not include the cost of transportation and handling charges, dealer prep, labor..."



This loophole is big enough to drive a Hummer H1 Alpha through. The price you thought you were getting could very well turn out to be nothing like the price you actually end up getting. Insist that every charge/fee associated with the proposed purchase be clearly spelled out, in writing, before you commit to buy. "Dealer prep" alone can add hundreds to the bottom line - negating any savings you may have expected via the "cash back" lure that got you into the showroom.

* "Not all buyers will qualify..."


Surprise, surprise. Most finance offers have this little caveat lurking somewhere in the fine print. If you are a young/first-time buyer - or have less than exemplary credit - that low finance rate touted in the ad may be unavailable to you. It's a good idea to check alternate sources for financing - such as a bank or credit union - just in case the deal being offered by the automaker's finance arm (GMAC, etc.) won't be extended to you.


* Residency and other mileage restrictions may apply..."


This means the offer might be contingent not just on where you happen to live - but also on how many miles you drive annually (lease contract). It doesn't do you much good to get a great deal on a lease if your annual mileage exceeds the maximum allowable - at which point you could get whacked with additional charges. It's always best to over-estimate your annual mileage when it comes to lease contracts.


* "Free" maintenance ...


Like "kids eat free," there's no such thing. You just pay another way. Typically, you pay more for the car. But the dealer makes you feel better about it by "throwing in" free oil changes for the first couple of years. Which costs him almost nothing - but can end up costing you a lot.

* Take delivery from available dealer inventory -


This one's easy to miss because it seems innocuous. But then you get to the dealership and find out he's only got three of the model you're interested in - all of them high-trim models and loaded with options you don't want - or stripped, without the equipment you do want. Ordinarily, you can order the exact car you want - equipped the way you want it. But if the offer (for the deal advertised) is contingent on taking delivery from available dealer inventory, that means you have to take what he's got - or forget the deal.


* "Vehicle shown may contain optional equipment available at additional cost..."



In other words, what you see (in the ad) may not be what you get (at the dealer). Be sure the car you want - with the equipment and options you want - is in fact available under the terms of the offer. A great deal on a car you don't want - or which hasn't got the equipment/features you need - isn't much of a bargain.

* "Bonus cash offered on eligible vehicles must be financed or leased through (the automaker's captive finance arm)... "


This means that in order to get the offered cash back/rebate, you must finance the vehicle through the automaker's captive finance company (Ford Credit, GMAC, etc.) rather than a credit union or private bank - which could be a net money loser for you. You may also not be able to get the cash back if you pay cash for the vehicle. Basically, the automaker is looking to recoup the "cash back" by making money from you via interest payments.


Throw it in the Woods?