No Thanks….I’m just browsing (The plan: when you go to the dealer to buy a car)

(continuing our series on the Car-buying process…..) Hopefully, by the time you read this, you will have done the research necessary to take the first steps in the car-buying process that have you leaving your house. (Click HERE For a refresher on the three things to research: Your car; Your credit and Which bank you should go to for a loan)  Now you are ready to step foot in the dealership. But remember, what Consumer Courage calls the rule of the ‘stuck-withs.’ 

Let the one who is gonna be “stuck-with” the car be the most careful and ask the most questions

What a lot of people who are buying a car don’t realize is that the people who are going to be the happiest when you buy the car (the salesman, his boss, the dealership’s owner, the company that built the car) are going to be long gone, by the time you go to make your first payment.  That’s because they will all get paid as soon as you sign the contract.  And they keep their money – whether or not you like the car.  If the system was set up for those folks to get their money slowly (like if they got a small slice of every payment you sent to the bank), you could bet that they wouldn’t try to take advantage of you.  Only thing is – that’s not the case.  Once you’re gone, they can stop worrying about what you think; what you were expecting to get; or even what they said to you to get you to say ‘Yes.’

Can they actually lie to me?

They’re not supposed to – but, it’s been known to happen.  You would think that the law would protect you from being lied to, when you buy a car.  If you live in the great state of Ohio, you would be incorrect.  Ohio used to have a really nifty rule that was put in place by the Attorney General (not the current one, of course) that made it against the law for the car salesman to tell you one thing – and put something else in the contract. (for instance, they couldn’t tell you that your trade-in was worth $10,000 and put in the contract that it was only worth $5,000; or that your new car had a 100% warranty for 6 months, and then put in the contract that it was only for 30 days)  Then, all they had to do was distract you, until you were outta there and before you noticed that the contract said something entirely different.

In 2009 that all changed.  The Ohio Supreme Court decided what consumer advocates refer to as ‘The Spitzer case.’  (actually, it’s commonly referred to as the ‘Blankety-blank Spitzer case,’ but, this is a family show)  In Spitzer, the salesman told the buyer that his trade-in was worth a thousand dollars more than they put in the contract.  The buyer didn’t notice it, because he was “only thinking about whether I could afford the monthly payment or not.”

Editor’s car-salesman tactics reminder note: ‘Only talking about the monthly payment’ is sales-tactic 101.  Salesmen are taught that since most people really only care about whether they can afford the payment; keep the buyer focused on that and you can talk them into almost anything.    In fact, some dealers arm their salesforce with terminals that display the monthly payment with gigantic numbers, so that when they turn the screen toward you, while they are talking, you will be hypnotized by the ‘low payment number’ and forget that they are trying to make you sign a contract with all sorts of nasty terms. 

Just remember: if there is a term, a condition or a promise between you and the salesman or dealer that is verbal (and not actually IN the contract) it’s as if that term does not exist.  If the salesman says “I swear on the foul ball that I caught at the World Series game between the Indians and the Braves in 1995 that you will get free oil changes on this car forever, free tires and a 100% money-back guarantee if you don’t absolutely LOVE the car” and it’s not in the contract – the law says that it never happened.  If you care enough about whatever the salesman is telling you, simply ask: Could you please show me where that is in the contract you want me to sign?

It’s a three-day event

For many people, the whole car-buying process is so uncomfortable, they merely go to the dealership; take an hour to look through the lot and then go in and pick the blue one with the affordable payment.  Even if you’ve done the right amount of research, you should not be buying a car on the first day.  Realize that it should take at least a few days, from the time you walk in to the first dealership. 

    • First day: Scope out the car, lay down the law, find THAT vehicle.
    • Second day: make some calls; find THAT vehicle for THAT price.
    • Third day: Buy THAT vehicle.

First Day

The first day at the Dealership should be all about reconnaissance.  Tell them you’re just there to browse.  But, remember, you are on a detail-gathering mission.   You should be able to leave the dealership with three things (none of which is an actual car!) 

    • Find the one of your three favorite models that you are willing to buy;
    • Determine any extras that it comes with;
    • Find out how much the dealership wants you to pay
      • This one’s a little tricky.  All you want is a price, but you don’t intend to buy the car.   However, the salesman has been trained to distract you with a ton of other info, before talking about price.  Be firm, put on the brakes when they want to talk about your payment amount; how much you make at your job; whether you are going to buy black or blue floor mats and redirect him back to the price. 

This is also the point where you want to go for a test drive, while you are trying to get the salesman to commit to an actual price for the car and the list of options that it comes with.   Every dealership should be willing to give you a detailed invoice for the car which shows you everything the car comes with and how much they want you to pay for those things.  Is it the ‘sport’ package? Are there power windows/doors? Are there anti-lock brakes? Passenger air-bags?…..There are a ton of details about the bells & whistles that this particular car has that you’ll forget, the minute you leave the dealership.  (and just to be clear – you are leaving the dealership without a car!)  Take your time and write down as much as you can.

Second Day  (More Homework) 

On this day, you will take the detailed list of amenities that the car has and call other dealerships.  Describe the make/model/features, etc. and see how much they will take (quote the price you got from the dealer you went to) and see what they say.  If they agree to give you the same make/model at a lower price, ask them one important question: “What’s the VIN # on that car?”  Asking for the VIN will prevent the salesman from thinking “I’ll say yes to anything, just to get them in here.”  If they can’t give you a VIN, they are only pretending that they have the car you want – it’s as simple as that.  If they switch models and offer you a better price on a model that you would have considered at the first dealership, that’s OK.  (Remember: you’re not married to a particular model)  Just make sure that you get the VIN for the car they are talking about.

Third Day

When you are ready to buy – only buy the car.  This sounds silly, I know. What you are saying NO to is the extras that make the salesman a sweet commission.  Practice saying ‘no thanks’ a thousand times, before you show up to sign a contract to purchase a vehicle.  Why?  Because they are going to try to sell you everything in the showroom that isn’t nailed down – that’s why.    Here are the Ground Rules for the day you visit the dealer and are ready to sign a contract:

    • Do NOT Buy anything else besides the car;
    • Never talk in terms of a payment plan; Never negotiate payment amounts; Never talk about anything besides what you will be paying them to buy a car;
    • Be prepared to walk out;
    • All promises that you are told MUST be written in the contract.

Quick Quiz: The dealer makes most of their money on the price of the vehicle – True or False?

(Hint: the answer is ‘False’)

That’s right, the dealer will make most of their money selling you an extended warranty, floor mats, undercoating, seal-coating, credit-insurance, the loan to finance the purchase of the car, tinted windows, fuzzy dice and anything else they can convince you that you need.   Where does this occur? – In that little room in the back of the dealership, where they take you after you agree to buy a specific car at a specific price with the salesman. What they would like you to believe is that you are in the clear once you agree on a price and that the visit with the Finance and Insurance rep is just window-dressing.  (“We just have some standard paperwork for you to fill out” should register in your mind as something like “put up your hands and let us go through your purse”)  The Reality is that the dealer makes most of their money on the financing they can talk you into, the fees they can pack into your loan and the extra garbage they can convince you to pay for. 

What’s the strategy here? Your new mantra is “No thanks.  I’m only buying the car” 

A few other things to keep in mind

    • Never talk in terms of a payment plan; Never negotiate payment amounts; Never talk about anything besides what you will be paying them to buy a car.
      • Imagine if you went to buy a TV and asked about reception, whether the TV was HD and how many channels you could get and the salesman replied with the phrase “Let’s look at your monthly payment.” Or “Never mind that stuff, what if I could reduce your payment to $50 a month, from $60?” You would think he’s nuts.  So, don’t fall for this when looking at a car.  Any talk about the terms of the payment amounts is just an attempt to trick you into spending more money. 
    •  Be prepared to walk out
      • If you feel like the salesman is trying to push you too hard; if he seems like he is ignoring you; if you feel even a little creeped out – say ‘Thank You’ and walk out.  Don’t slam your hand on the desk, or make a production out of it.  Just leave.  NOT buying the car is the single only weapon that you have to protect yourself – use it. If he calls you back and changes his behavior, great.  If not…was he really going to work with you, anyway?  There’s plenty of dealerships in your city. 
    • Dealings w/the Dealer
      • There are a few terms that have become meaningless in the car-dealership world. When you see them, don’t let them convince you of anything.   If the salesman crows that this car is “Certified Pre-owned,” just look at him and smile.  Does the car have a sticker that says “MSRP?”  That’s wonderful.  Just remember, that sticker was created, designed and filled in by the company that built the car.  If they wanted, they could say that the MSRP is a nickel. 

Take your time when you go to buy a car.  You’re going to spend a lot of time sitting inside it, trusting it with your life and writing checks to cover the cost.  You might as well get yourself a good deal.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who once convinced his wife to walk out of a dealership – only to have the salesman ignore him.  So, he had to settle for another car)