Sunday, May 16, 2010

It's as bad as you always thought--car buyer be afraid, be very afraid

For the first time in over 2 years, I awoke this morning without a Nissan 350Z in the garage. I finally got up the courage to trade in that all-but-useless ego-pumping rocket toy for something nominally more practical, a Chevy Impala. It is a "pre-owned car" and of course, the buyer must always beware; I accepted that risk. What I was not prepared for was the degree to which they tried to screw me, which was unbelievable--worse, it was almost, dare I say it, evil. I'm not kidding. Let me explain.

Not A Complete Dummy.

First off, I did my homework. I scanned the papers and the internet for 3 months searching out the kinds of cars available, and the "sales" price versus the estimated value by net sites like Edmunds and Blue Book. Secondly, I lined up financing and did all the calculations so I knew what I could afford vs what value I could receive. The biggest variable was what to expect on the trade-in for the Z--internet estimates do not guarantee the dealership offer. For several reasons, I felt the time to act was now. I was leaning toward the same dealership we bought our last 2 cars from because, perhaps stupidly, I figured hey, they have to treat me right, I'm a repeat customer. Also being local, they could expect to see me again if I had a good experience and when I needed service. Heck, I might even get the "inside deal" like on "Seinfeld." I picked two vehicles off the internet to look at, and went there.

First Visit.

I admit, this should have been my first clue--none of the vehicles in the Used Lot had the prices in the window. Immediately I was suspicious--I mean come on. But I was armed with the internet prices the dealership had posted so I figured they could not duck their own numbers. Unfortunately, the internet lags reality and the primary vehicle my wife and I wanted was already sold. After getting a very non-specific estimate on the trade in value of the Z, I told them I would have to talk to the wife and regroup. I noted they didn't jump through their butts to try to shove something else down my throat, which I took as a symbol of good faith that I knew what I wanted and would be treated well when I came back.

Second Visit.

Sheila and I looked at 6 cars on the internet and picked two possibles, and three days later I went back. This time I took a free ride in the Impala, brought it home and showed Sheila. When I took it back, I said I liked it but Sheila was unsure. The salesman said "the wife has to be happy or there will be trouble down the line"--we both laughed and I said I'd be back the next day with a decision. Again I left without feeling pressured--I am definitely an "insider!"

Third Visit.

Sheila said OK to the Impala, so when I went back we immediately started the paperwork. In passing time, I told the salesman my target payment (let's call it X) and the reason I had to get a more functional car (Sheila's illness) and why the payments had to be near my goal (I can't work). Also that I couldn't do this if I didn't get close to the payoff on the Z, and lastly, that I had no money for a down payment (both because I don't have the cash!). I mean, these are the facts man, no bull, bottom line. I got knowing nods and mumbled assurances, and when the salesman went to the manager to get their offer, I was fairly sure it was all set. Mind you, at this point we had not mentioned the price of the Impala. I assumed their opening bid would be the internet price.

The Horror.

He returned with this offer: Monthly payments $X + $179, plus a down payment of $1500. And this is a good deal, he said. Completely dismissed everything I had told him. I was stunned--then I saw the price of the car--a full $5000 more than the internet price. And the Z trade-in was $1000 lower than the lowest internet estimate for a bare-bones Z, which mine is not. I calmly told him this was completely out of line, and he actually tried to convince me this was "the deal" and they couldn't do better. I asked him if he had internet on his computer, then showed him the internet price--that stopped him cold. All he could say was "they really need to tell us what they put on the website." Yeah, sure. I stood up and told him he was nowhere near what I could do and headed for the door--not dramatically, mind you, just convinced that I was wasting my time. He jumped up and asked me to wait while he told the manager about the internet price. When he came back, he said they could shave another $50 off the monthly price. Emphatically, I repeated everything I had said earlier about what I could realistically do, and was actually opening the door to leave when he got the Sales Manager to intervene.

The Sales Manager

Well, this guy was smooth, a whole lot more personable. He started by saying how much they had shaved off and couldn't we meet somewhere in the middle on good faith, etc., and I just said "whoa. It doesn't matter what you're telling me, I know what I can do," and I gave him the whole sob story. He must have seen my determination and said I was right, and he was going to meet my requirements. In fairness, he got me the payment I originally felt I could do--given the low end of the internet Z trade-in. I shudder to think what they would have done to me had I not been prepared. They knew I was a repeat customer, maybe they had computer notes saying "retired military, govt employee, lots of money, and so on," and just proceeded to highball me. I am still processing whether I will use them for servicing in the future.

In Closing

Years ago I test-drove a used van in Abilene TX; just happened to check all the pockets and cubbyholes and found an old registration. Uh-oh, the odometer noted on the paper, dated a year before, was 90k, while the odometer on the van was 35k--hint, time doesn't go backward and neither does an odometer. I pointed this out to the salesman, who feigned ignorance and distress, and announced he could never sell this vehicle and would immediately yadda yadda yadda. Yeah. I am absolutely convinced you will never get a "good deal" on a used car unless you buy from a private party or are in the business itself. It feels like the ultimate victimization, and must happen thousands of times every day. I didn't go private party because I was worried about selling a car I still owed so much on--I was worried about releasing the banks lien. Maybe I shouldn't have. My advice, if you want new, go with a buying service like AAA, Carsdirect or USAA; if used, do your homework and buy from real people.

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