A Car Buying Odyssey: part 5

From the editor’s desk of the Kicker

What Car buying can be like—the better way.

At the Kicker, we’re still reeling from the car shopping experience of K and her husband. They are an intelligent, likeable couple who did their best to buy a reliable car at a fair price, and reading over our own posts about their experience we can’t help but get emotional. Why was that process so difficult and stressful?

We invited K and her husband back to sit down with our staff for a follow up interview. We were amazed by their reflections on their experience and we know you’ll agree.

Editor: Obviously you’d needed car with more room for a car seat for quite some time, so what motivated you to buy a car write right now?

Hus: We took a simple trip to the beach for the weekend. We decided to drive K’s car for the fuel economy but when we loaded it with enough bags for the three of us and then installed the baby seat, there wasn’t enough room for the two of us to sit. I had to drive and I hated every mile all the way out and back. We take trips to Northern California a couple times a year and always end up barrowing a car and…it’s all just a big pain. We realized we needed to pull the trigger on a larger vehicle.

Editor: So would it be fair to say that you were emotional right out of the gate?

K: Yes, very much. That’s the first and only car I ever bought new, and we recently changed to a larger car seat. That was a factor also. But mainly that trip made it clear we needed a change.

Editor: So you’re first move was to go to your bank?

K: Pretty much. That’s where I went first and he went to a dealership to sit in cars.

Husband: I can screen out most cars just by sitting in them. I’m only tall from the waste up and I know most cars won’t fit me. Plus I hate the way car seats creep in tighter and tighter. If I have to ride in the passenger seat that’s a big deal for me.

Editor: So that’s why you didn’t start online?

K: Right, I wasn’t interested in searching online at all, even though; ironically I hate the idea of dealing with car salesmen.

Editor: Do you feel that your anxiety about interacting with dealership personal has gone up, down or about the same as a result of this experience?

K: It’s about the same. I mean I really like the woman we bought from, and none of the other salesmen really did anything I can point to, but I’d say that it was a rough, pressure filled experience. I don’t feel any better.

Husband: I’d say mine has gone up and down.

Editor: Okay? Follow up on that.

Husband: Well. I mean I’m burned from just having worked so hard to get the car we did, but I feel like now that it’s all over I kind of know what I should have done. It’s sort of a shame that we aren’t in the market for another car because I would do it way differently.

K: Are you kidding me. I’m glad it’s been more than a decade since I bought a car and I hope it’s another decade before I buy another. Unless I can buy a new 2015 Acura RDX. I’d do that if we suddenly had the money.

(Everyone laughed)

Editor: I can certainly understand that. But that’s an interesting point. Really that’s at the heart of the issue. Right? I mean I’ll wager that most people who go to buy a car are completely new to it and by the time they buy their next car they will have forgotten everything they learned.

K: Or it will have changed, I mean, when I bought my Honda they didn’t have “Internet prices” or craigslist and such.

Editor: Its interesting, K, that you should mention the 2015 RDX because the car finder service found you more than one of those.

K: Shut up! Seriously, I already wish we had paid more attention to those.

Husband: Yeah I really blew that. All of a sudden I was getting emails about cars from craigslist and I thought it was spam or something I’d set during my searches. So I deleted quite a few of them before I realized what it was. Then I thought people only posted private sales on Craigslist.

Editor: Actually most dealers have business accounts that allow them to advertise most of their inventory there.

Husband: Well I know that now. I ended up chatting with someone from the car finder and the reason they send directly from craigslist is to screen out spam and ads that almost everyone else uses. But I actually found out they’d sent me a car that was the same make and model as we ended up buying only it only with half the mileage and almost the same price. I mean, I think we did okay, but I missed a potential deal.

K: Well I hadn’t heard about that particular fact. (Looking at her husband)

Husband: Really? I feel like I must have mentioned it.

Editor: So you mentioned having learned from this experience, is that your biggest take away? “Use a car finder…”

Husband: Actually no. I mean that’s one of the big lessons, sure, but my main one would be do all your research before you go to the car lot. Figure it all out in advance. I hardly looked up anything. I mean I wish I’d googled, “how to negotiate,” I mean, SOMETHING. Anything.

K: Mine would be, “stick to the plan.” We agreed that we wouldn’t buy a used car without an independent inspection and we did. We got it in for an inspection the next day, and I think if it failed we’d have found a way out of the contract.

Editor: It’s pretty rare to get out of an as is contract, you might have had a rough time of that.

Husband: Oh, I’d have called the lender and showed them the car inspection. I bet if they refuse to pay for the car the dealership would take their car back.

Editor: Sometimes a hail marry works…

K: I can be pretty convincing when I need to be. But the reason I should have stuck to the plan is because I barely slept that whole night. I could wait to find out if we’d bought a lemon or over paid or something.

Editor: Not to mention that you can use the report to justify a lower price. If you feel the condition doesn’t warrant the full price you’d have documentation to back it up.

K: On that topic, you’re a car person, uh, the reason we bought that car without a prior inspection is because they told us the price wasn’t good unless we did the deal that night. They made it seem like it was their financing or something. Was that just a ploy to make us buy right then, or is possibly true?

Editor: Hmm. Well it’s possible. However, I’d be more inclined to believe they were motivated like that if it was the end of the month, especially the last quarter of the year. That’s when there’s a big push to move inventory and earn out their dealer cash.

Husband: So you figure it was a tactic?

Editor: We talk to a lot of dealerships and I’ll tell you what we’ve found. Many are more honest than you’d think they are, but the system leans in their favor and they know it. They could be a part of the solution, but a lot of people make a lot of money running like it is. Just think of the experience level difference in this case. The average American buys a car every five years, they move multiple cars a day. Nine out of ten people who leave a car lot aren’t coming back. There is 90% chance if they don’t sell you something right then you’ll buy from someone else. They know that and they train specifically to overcome your objections. There’s going to be a lot of pressure to get you in a car—period.

Husband: So that’s why they all advertise that they have acres and acres of cars. So it seems likely that your dream car is there someplace.

K: But in the end they will fit you in a car whether it’s right for you or not.

Editor: Well some will, some won’t. That parts not some great conspiracy. Psychologically if they get close to right car for you, you’ll defend your decision to buy to avoid feelings of failure.

Husband: Ouch!

Editor: I’m not trying to say that’s what happened here. It’s very possible that the process of searching for a car refined and changed what you were looking for. However, you did start out looking for a cross-over and buy a sedan.

K: In shopping though we didn’t find a cross-over with fuel economy that was easy to get in and out of. Well, we found one. I’m not 100% sure why we didn’t just wait until one of those came along used for the right price.

Editor: Or you could have tried a dealership in Portland.

Husband: Well that was a function of our limited time to look. I don’t want to waste time fighting rush hour traffic just to find out the car they had online sold that morning or something.

Editor: So then why not send an inspector? I noticed you always brought the cars to your inspector, but the service you use will travel to any car in 75 miles.

K: I think we went about the search wrong from the beginning.

Husband: It’s starting to look like it.

Editor: Well that’s why we at the Kicker were sort of disappointed in your experience. We had in mind that we could chronical a car shopping experience that went so well, it would encourage others to shop with confidence. We hear a lot of horror stories which we’ve discounted as probably the exception. We followed your experience, which wasn’t horrible, I mean you folks found and bought a great car for a fair price in less than ten days. It’s certainly not aweful.

K: No.

Husband: I just feel like it could have been easier. Walk into any other retail place and say, “My bank says I can spend $20,000 with you today,” and they’re going to treat you like a king. That’s not how I’d describe any of the car lots we visited.

Editor: (chuckling) Right. I hear you. The experience should be entirely different. So what is the take away here?

Husband: Let’s brainstorm how someone should go about buying a car.

K: It doesn’t exist. You’d have to change the entire industry. You’d need a dealer with an enormous selection that you could look though online…

Editor: There is one of those. Advertises a lot. I won’t mention the name but it rhymes with Starmax…

K: They don’t allow prepurchase inspections.

Editor: Really?

Husband: No that’s one thing I’ll say about the local dealerships. Some hadn’t heard of it, but none of them said, no.

Editor: Yeah, in our experience when someone is willing to shell out the money for inspection they are pretty serious about buying. Inspectors we’ve spoken with have told us that an inspection nearly always leads to a sale.

Husband: That’s surprising.

Editor: It really just reduces the grey area about the value of the car. Dealers are ready to haggle a little over price, so if a buyer says, “give it a break job and new tires and I’ll buy it,” that’s pretty easy concession.

K: Back to the idea of what could someone do differently, I’d like to say that we did do somethings right. I think we were right to start at the bank. Otherwise I’d have had to take their word on what loan I’d qualify for. I mean in our negotiation the car price moved less than the interest rate.

Husband: Yeah I think I was so focused on choosing the right type of car that I went to the dealership too early in the process. Knowing now, how hard it is to get away from a lot, I wish there was a way to go there at the end of the process.

K: But we learned a lot by doing it.

Editor: One of the things I’d like to see is more competition between dealerships and private party sales. I’m really disappointed that your bank limited you to a dealership car. With third party inspection, a lender should feel comfortable making a loan on any car.

K: Well and they told me the reason was that they need that inspection packet from the dealership that shows that the car is worth buying.

Husband: That’s ridiculous. The reason we insisted on our own inspectors was because they (the dealership) do that inspection for themselves. They have to screen out the cars they take in to see if they can make money on the vehicle, but then they turn around and act like they’ve done me this favor. Look at all the cars we didn’t try to sell you. Big whoop. I don’t care about those cars I care about this one. The tires passed your inspection. Okay, can you tell me the criteria by which you determined that? No, you can’t.

Editor: That’s true. Well, we’ve taken up enough of your time. I think we can safely say that there’s a lot that goes into having the optimum car shopping experience. I don’t know that anyone does it “right,” so I certainly don’t want you two to feel like you messed up. Just, in talking it over with our writers we thought, there’s got to be a better way.

K: I still say that the ideal way doesn’t exist. I mean, really. Let’s talk about it. I want to be able to go to one place one the internet and do it all. I’d put in my financials and while the lenders are competing for who’s going to give me the best terms I enter my current car in and they start determining if I should trade it in or sell it private party. Then I schedule an inspection and if my “trade in” passes then the site helps me sell it, while I figure out what I want to replace it with. I should be able to scan the inventory of every dealer and private sale in a 50 mile radius or something. Then I could have it inspected. I mean I shouldn’t have to set foot on the lot until I’m going to buy the car.

Husband: I still think I’s need to go sit in cars in order to narrow down what I want.

K: Well you are better at telling them, “I’m not going to buy, I’m leaving.”

Husband: Well I thought so, but they got me. All they had to do was say, we’ll give you what you want if you buy tonight and they next thing you know we’re buying a car without even an inspection. I’m just glad it turned out okay. It could have gone very wrong.

Editor: So you’d actually recommend starting with getting your current car inspected to establish the value?

K: Yes.

Husband: Absolutely. Then the bank, and to be fair we did a lot of shopping for the car but we didn’t personally look around for the best interest rate. We just went through our usual bank.

Editor So step two is the bank. Then what?

K: Then you need to narrow it down to what car is really going to work for you, and then shop around online for the right deal. We were more willing to compromise on what car we wanted than on our total price.

Husband: Actually, step 0.5, before any of that is to go shopping when you aren’t desperate for a car and the dealers are motivated to sell. Like you said, the end of the month when you’re not desperate.

K: Definitely send the inspector around to whatever car is a serious contender. And another thing we did well was negotiate a bulk rate with our inspection service. We ultimately got a discount on all the inspections after the first one. That really helped.

Editor: Well, I think that’s some pretty good advice. I just hope people take it seriously.

A Car Buying Odyssey: part 4


K and her husband needed to buy a new car that fit their young family. After 6 long days, 5 dealerships, 7 car lots and two close calls they finally bought a car from a dealership. The negotiations look long into the night and couple felt they one every major point they wanted. The car had higher mileage than desired and no navigation or backup camera, but met all the other criteria they were looking for. They got the interest rate they wanted, the price they wanted, the trade in for their vehicle they wanted, and the monthly payment they needed. However, they felt that they’d compromised by agreeing to buy under the pressure of time constraint and because they didn’t have time to get it inspected.

Because they were taking a big gamble they couple is now awaiting the result of their inspection.

Part 1 link

Part 2 link

Part 3 link

Part 4 link

The fallout:

The next morning, K’s husband flexed his schedule to allow him to take the car for inspection. He enjoyed the drive over, but sat nervously in the inspector’s office while they went through the car from top to bottom.

The inspector noted evidence that the car had been a fender bender of some kind. The repairs made it difficult to spot which made it not a real concern. There was condensation in the mirror lights indicating the seals had dried out. There wasn’t any way to know how if that was an easy fix or not, but that wasn’t a really big deal to the couple. The engine, interior, and performance testing came back with very good scores.

The vehicle history made no mention of an accident, but the inspector indicated that accidents go unreported often. The only prior owner of the car had been a rental company which is why the car had such high mileage. The inspector echoed what K and her husband had been told by several people in the auto industry, that rental agencies maintain their fleets well and that shouldn’t really detract from the overall value of the car.

The inspector did find a one inch cut in the sidewall of a tire, which may or may not be a safety concern. Because the depth of the gouge was uncertain that impacted the value estimate by the cost of one tire. However, the car checked out great and received a “Very Good” rating.

Final analysis:

When K received the news via text from her husband she was visibly relieved. They value range on the car was somewhere between $17,600 and $18,300. Since the couple had negotiated the price to $17,999 and gotten the trade-in value and financing they wanted, they felt like they’d received a fair deal.

Taken as a whole they rated their experience as an A for results, and an F for experience. In short, they were exhausted and stressed. Getting a Sedan was a second choice since it didn’t have the amount of cargo space and baby seat room they hoped for, but it did have great fuel economy. All and all the couple felt they’d learned a lot about what to do next time, but they still wanted a better way to car shop.

From the staff here at the Kicker, we agree. We took on following this couple’s car shopping experience with the stated goal of taking the mystery and worry out of car shopping. Instead we found validation for the typical car shopper’s anxiety. Especially if you compare car shopping to house shopping.

If you’re thinking about buying a car soon, here’s some tips (inspired by ABCnews.go.com) to help you succeed.

  1. Never, ever, buy a used car without an inspection. Most private party sellers don’t really know if there’s something going mechanically wrong with their car and car dealerships inspect cars upon intake to determine if they want to sell the car at their lot or wholesale it at an auction. The vehicle history is often out of date. You need the current condition verified by someone who works for you.
  2. Calculate what you can afford to spend on a car including payment, insurance, gas and maintenance. It should be less than 20% of your total monthly spending.
  3. The age old debate between buying new and used is harder to call than in the past. After cash for clunkers, used cars have been running high and auto makers have reduced cost to compete for the increased need. Used cars still give more bang for your buck, but new cars have better warranty and can have lower interest.
  4. Don’t start at the dealership, research the cars you might want online. Pay attention to reviews, as well as features, and use MSRP as the price until you’ve settled on the car you want.
  5. Take the monthly amount you can spend and subtract 5%, then multiply by 60 or 72 to figure out what you can afford. When you’ve narrowed down the list use a site like Edmonds.com to establish the maintenance cost of that type of vehicle, and factor that in. You can also get more accurate numbers by figuring miles you already drive a week and calling your insurance agent for a quote.
  6. com offers calculators to help you figure interest. Shop around for the best interest rate so that you have something to compare a dealership off against. A dealership will consider your trade-in value or down payment, the interest rate on their financing and the final price of the car fluidly, so you can reduce the number of variables you’re dealing with at the time of purchase by arranging for your own financing in advance. Credit unions most often beat banks when financing cars.
  7. Use an interest rate vs rebate calculator to help you decide which option is best in your situation. A Trick to be on guard for is a dealership that offers a great interest rate (if approved) only to come back with a higher interest rate claiming you didn’t qualify for the lower rate.
  8. The prices to have in hand when shopping are Invoice price and MSRP on new cars, and wholesale price and dealer’s asking price on used vehicles. Begin negotiation by establishing the price for the vehicle you want before any discounts or rebates are applied. The dealer needs to make money, but both parties should be able to agree on the fair price for that car in that condition.
  9. Ask the dealer if you are eligible for military, student, or credit union membership discounts. KBB.com or Edmonds may have information about Dealer incentives manufacturers are offering dealers on the new car you’ve selected you can ask the dealer to split that incentive with you. Another place dealerships make money is selling you a service contract. The minimum markup on a service contract is $1,000 dollars and some dealerships don’t know that they can force that number lower. Refuse to pay the full price for a service contract. You don’t need to pay interest on $1,500 of pure profit for the dealer.
  10. Be very wary of “Internet” prices when researching. These are loss leader prices that dealerships use to get you onto the lot. The price in the window will be a couple thousand dollars more. If you found the car advertised for less—that’s the price of the car.
  11. Car dealerships will start talking about your trade in right away, especially if you drive it into the lot. After establishing the price of the new car, and all rebates, you can talk about your trade in. Do your research in advance and know what your car is worth. Don’t settle for a wholesale price on your trade in, KBB and Edmonds will help you establish your trade-ins value. You should also consider having your current car inspected to verify the current condition. It may be better to private sale your car and use cash for a down payment.
  12. Say no to any extras your dealership offers. You can research them online, apart from the pressure of car buying, and then go back later. Most dealerships are happy to let you buy things afterward.
  13. Plan on keeping your car for at least 5 years. K and her husband lugged their baby seat with them to all six days of shopping because it needed to fit into the back seat of any car they considered. They also installed it several times, as some cars are difficult to install.

However, the Kicker would like to challenge the automotive industry, which hasn’t really revolutionized car shopping since Henry Ford used the assembly line to make car affordable. We challenge you to come up with a better experience for your customers. We’re not talking about friendlier sales people, or letting customers take cars home for a day. We’re talking about something radical, like paperwork that can be finished in 15 minutes or complete customization even on used cars. Who knows what you could come up with if you really thought about customer experience instead of pushing sales. That’s our challenge to the automotive industry. We can do better.

A Car Buying Odyssey: part 4

Recap of the search so far:

K and her husband need to replace her small car with one that fits a car seat. For more information on their criteria please visit previous articles in this series (link). Having visited 4 car lots on 4 separate occasions (some of them multiple times) the couple decided to widen their search to mid-sized sedans and do more online searches. However, they learn that their pre-qualified bank loan won’t allow private sales.

Day 6:

Thus, Monday began Day 5 of shopping. K spent her first break checking the net for cars, and text her husband links. Her husband took the day off work, and dutifully chased down leads. He even checked on cars by auto makers that he had owned before and decided never to own again.

That day, he added two more dealerships they hadn’t been to before and test drove three more cars. What he didn’t do was check private party sellers found for him by the car finding service. Many of those deals were, at face value, better than what the dealerships were offering.

The evening of day 6, the couple sat down over dinner to talk over their options. K’s husband had found one car that interested him, but the dealership only had new models which weren’t in the budget. The couple decided to revisit the dealership they felt most comfortable with and locate a used sedan that met the highest number of their criteria. They simply couldn’t afford the time to keep looking.

Since they didn’t have childcare at the moment, they looked online for the car they wanted to check out and then went to test drive it one at a time after the baby went to bed. The found a car that had nearly everything they wanted accept navigation on the dealerships website and texted their favorite sales lady to verify that it was still in inventory. When their daughter went to bed, K’s husband drove his car over to test drive the vehicle.

The plan was to test drive to their home, a few blocks away, and then switch so that K could drive back and then return in her husband’s car. If they both liked the car then her husband would arrange to have it inspected the next morning. Of course, battle plans never survive first contact…and neither do car shopping plans.

When things went sideways…again:

The sales lady was ready with “the numbers” when K’s husband arrived. They were willing to offer 3.99% interest through their financing and give $4,500 trade in for K’s car, but the amount was higher than listed on the internet. Furthermore, the dealership could only offer this deal tonight.

By the time K’s husband got to the dealership it was 7:30 pm. The dealership closed at 8 pm and that’s when the couple liked to go to bed. K’s husband pointed out that the price was different and that they were serious about using their own financing. The sales manager agreed to lower the price to match the internet, but when they quoted the payment the numbers didn’t seem right. So he agreed to drive the car home and let K test drive it before they rejected it. The sales lady, the sales manager, and the finance manager agreed to stay open late.

When K’s husband presented the deal to her she felt like they were putting a gun to her head. She pointed out that they’d agreed not to buy a used car without an inspection. She didn’t like being told that she only got the price advertised online if she agreed to use their financing at a higher rate and if they agreed to the deal tonight.

The couple decided that K’s husband would return the car and explain that they resented being pressured by the time constraint and not being allowed to use their own financing. When he returned the car, he added that the car was definitely worth the online price of $18,000 but not the full price the dealership wanted. The sales lady tried to explain that they had agreed to lower the price but K’s husband said that was conditional on using dealership financing and the only way they would agree to buy the car was if they got the internet price and were able to use their own financing.

The sales lady and the finance manager both insisted that the couple’s bank couldn’t give them the fixed rate 3% on 72 month loan (2.25% on a 60 month loan) that the couple had prequalified for. The dealership’s position was that banks only offered such rates for the first two years and then raised the rate to 8% or 9%. Tired and upset, K’s husband stormed out.

Round three:

While K’s husband drove home, the sales lady texted K to apologize for upsetting them. She stated that she and her coworkers had felt that they had finally succeeded in meeting all the criteria the couple established. They’d beat the 3% financing number, agreed to the trade-in value, and lowered the price to match the advertised price.

When K’d husband returned home the couple talked it over. K’s husband felt like the monthly payment quoted to him didn’t match all those concessions. When K pushed back about the monthly payment the sales lady said they’d decided to lower the price which would lower the payment but hadn’t had a chance to tell her husband that before he stormed out.

The couple talked and prayed about it. They were exhausted and didn’t want to make any snap decisions, but they were now sensing that the dealership wanted to sell them this car even more than they wanted to buy it. They decided to negotiate hard over text before making any final decision, but that they would be willing to buy that night if their demands were met.

By 9:15 pm, the dealership agreed to 1.99% financing, internet price, and gave the couple the amount they asked for their trade-in. K got dressed again and went out to sign paperwork. The couple had mixed emotions despite having achieved their demands. They weren’t comfortable with having made a rushed, pressured decision, especially since they hadn’t been able to get the car inspected. They’d pushed, and at one point had the sales manager agree to fix anything their inspector found wrong with the car—in writing—but when K showed up to sign paperwork they back peddled and restricted their liability to motor and transmission.

By 11 pm a weary K returned, exhausted and unsure, but with a new vehicle. The couple went to bed knowing that the following day they’d take the car for inspection and find out if they’d just made an $18,000 mistake. Stay tuned for part 5 and the exciting conclusion to “the car buying odyssey.”

A Car Buying Odyssey: part 3

Recap so far:

K and her husband needed a car that accommodated their child safety seat and stroller better. They don’t want to take on two car payments so they need to replace just K’s vehicle, a small “paid off” Honda, with something roomier that both of them are comfortable driving. K wants leather interior and navigation, her husband wants a sun roof and good fuel economy.

Thus far the couple has spent 3 days shopping hit 3 dealerships, 4 car lots, and eliminated all but one SUV, which turned out to have extensive corrosion throughout the car.

Shopping Day 4:

Returning to the sales lady they liked the most, K and her husband expanded their search to include larger sedans and wagons. After test driving several cars, they found a Subaru with low mileage that drove nicely but at a price over what they wanted to spend. K’s husband suggested that if they were going to go a few thousand over budget they should reconsider getting a new car.

The dealership had a wider selection of new cars, and the idea of getting a bumper to bumper warranty attracted the couple. The dealership also believed they could beat Ks’ bank’s interest rate (3%). So the couple quickly settled on a new car they loved that fit their needs. And that’s when things went sideways again.

The couple settled in for the long negotiation, with possible changing negotiators and high pressure. That didn’t happen. They were actually able to work with the same sales person all the way through. She did have to run the deal past a superior, which is where things went wrong.

K had already noticed that when she located a car online they listed an “internet price.” The MSRP appeared on the car window, several thousand dollars more, but there was a sale price that more closely matched the internet price. The explanation for the reduced price was manufacturer incentives that changed periodically. This seemed reasonable to the couple, but they were shocked when the paperwork came back…
* based on the MSRP
* reflecting only some of the incentives
* gave a small amount for her trade in
* showed a $5,000 additional cash down payment
* and had a much higher interest rate quoted (5.99%)

The couple had stated that they knew what their trade in was worth and if the dealership couldn’t offer that, they’d sell the car themselves and provide a $5,000 down payment. The dealership’s explanation was that you either got the lower price or the low interest rate. The dealership improved their initial value of the trade in, but the couple was out of time and rather than make a rushed decision or prolonged negotiation they walked away from the deal.

Exhausted and frustrated, the busy couple went home to talk over their options. They found several new and used vehicles of the same make and model they’d loved, with a better price and at that same dealership. They simply ran out of time and energy before they really explored their options once they widened their search to include larger sedans.

Day 5:

K’s anxiety over the purchase process had returned though. Her husband didn’t share her concern and felt they should state their conditions and if they dealership could meet them then they’d buy—if not they’d walk away again.

The couple revisited the first dealership and located a cross over version of the car the “under water” car. It was larger, nicer and both of them fit behind the wheel. However, K’s husband saw the fuel economy (15 city, 20 highway) and ruled it out. One of the big limiting factors of their new car was that it needed to be a daily driver for K.

K’s husband began searching online and also enlisted the services of a “free car finder.” The online search yielded some great possibilities but it turned out that K’s bank would only loan on a car through a dealership. In the Kicker’s opinion the bank simply needed to require a third party inspection to verify the current value of the vehicle, but…

The Next Step:

Being open to sedans provided a whole new set of options and being restricted to dealerships required the couple to come up with some improved way to search for cars. They decided K would search for cars online but at dealerships on her breaks from work and her husband would take long lunches to visit cars she found and screen them out.

Recap of cars tested and rejected by the couple:

(The couple ruled out all truck and small cars because they didn’t feel they fit their needs.)

(K’s husband ruled out all GMC because he used to own stock in the company.)

(K’s husband ruled out all minivans because he refuses to drive one.)

(K ruled out any red car, because she hates the color.)


Escape – K’s Husband didn’t fit

Edge – K didn’t fit

Transit Connect – Too expensive

Flex – too expensive

Explorer – too expensive


Tucson – K’s Husband didn’t fit

Santa Fe – K’s Husband didn’t fit


Outlander – K didn’t fit

Outlander sport – K’s Husband didn’t fit


Xterra – terrible fuel economy

Armada – terrible fuel economy

Murano – all around okay, but a little too expensive, not great fuel economy, not really comfortable to drive

Maxima – too expensive but would have to find the right used one

Altima – too expensive but would have to find the right used one


Forester – too expensive but would love to find the right used one


MDX – Terrible fuel economy

RDX – expensive but would love to find the right used one


Rav4 – all around okay, but a little too expensive, not great fuel economy, not really comfortable to drive

Venza – Sat in but didn’t test drive, may have worked but would have to find the right used one

* all results are the opinions of two ordinary car buyers and reflect only their experience

A Car Buying Odyssey: part 2

Welcome to part 2 of “a Car Buying Odyssey.” Last time we met K and her husband—a pair of typical automotive customers who needed to replace their small car with one that better fit a car seat and stroller. Due to the difference in their height, the couple spent one whole shopping day without finding a car that both of them fit in comfortably.

On day two they managed to find one they needed to learn more about, so they took it for an inspection.

The Customers Assessment:

When K and her husband drove the car they found the engine peppy and the handling excellent. The automatic key had a dead battery and the navigation/radio needed a code to unlock. The couple could see quite a few scratches on the back bumper and the front fender and a foggy headlight. It also looked like it needed detailed, but the sales person said the car hadn’t been through their own inspection/repair process yet and many things would be done before the car was actually sold.

Based upon their own inspection the couple were guardedly excited that they’d found a winner.

Inspection on Car #1:

K and her husband are up front about knowing very little about cars. While they’d like to be able to take a friend expert with them, they already have time constraints due to work and childcare. The best option for them in their situation is to have the car inspected by a professional.

Their instinct was to look for an ASC certified mechanic, but in researching the topic K became convinced that a mechanic wasn’t really trained to verify a car’s value. They can tell you what is wrong with a car and what it costs to fix it, what she wanted was someone to go bumper to bumper and verify that they car was really worth what the dealership felt it was worth.

So K found an inspection specialist and her husband drove the car over for an hour long journey through the rabbit hole.

The Vehicle History:

The inspector ran started by running the VIN # through different history recording services, Experian Autocheck, and Car fax.

At first blush it looked pretty good. The odometer reading was verified. Two previous owners and no accidents. The title was clean and the car rated as worth almost $800 more than typical retail for its age.

However, reading between the lines a story began to emerge. In the year of 2014 the car had only been driven 2,000 miles almost all of which occurred before June. In fact in the next 9 months the car was driven roughly 8 miles.

The two owners didn’t count times it was sold at auction, only the two actual lean holders. Eight odometer miles and four auctions later it wound up in the Pacific Northwest at a dealership awaiting inspection.

Vehicle Auctions:

Despite getting a lot of cars through trade-ins, auctions are an important part of the car business. Most dealerships have their own inspection and criteria about what cars they want to sell from their own lots. When a car comes in as a trade in and doesn’t match the dealerships standards that car is sent to auction, where it joins with bank repos, rental cars etc. Most dealerships also supplement their inventory by buying promising cars at auction.

Auction bidders are given some pictures of the vehicles to be auctioned, the VIN number, and the mileage. On auction day they can look through windows but are not allowed to look under the car or hood. If a bidder wins a car and decides that the car is not worth owning they can attempt arbitration which is expensive and difficult or they can simply put the car back up for auction. So a car like this one, that’s been making the rounds at auction, is suspect.

While this process might seem frightening to customers, it’s the dealerships who are most victimized by it, and it’s a brownie point in their favor that they do screen out the lemons to the best of their ability.

Outside The Vehicle:

The scrapes on the bumper were superficial, but the front passenger quarter panel had been hit hard enough to move it in relationship to the hood. The small clamp that should have secured it in place had been lost and replaced with a zip tie. Such things are common and don’t indicate a large impact. The rubber inside the well was half missing and appeared worn away as though the tire had spun and heated the rubber until it broke away.

Inside the Car:

Under the steering wheel, a panel hung down and some of the electronics had been rewired using gold connectors. The inside of the door-latches showed some corrosion out of line with the age of the vehicle. The carpet and upholstery appeared brand new. The navigation and radio code were located and programmed in which verified that they did work.

However, the seat-belt showed signs of having been in a wreck, and the glove compartment was loose in a way that could only be from someone’s knees ramming into it. There were also water spots on the dashboard clock, but when the inspector attempted to wipe them away he found the hard water spots to be on the backside of the plastic face. How water got behind the clock face was not easy to explain.

Under the Hood:

When the hood went up the picture began to take shape. Rust and corrosion coated every metal part up to the underside of the hood. The inspector said that since the car came from back east, some corrosion could be expected, but what they found under the hood couldn’t be explained by salt water being splashed up into the engine compartment from wet roads. This car had to have sat in a saltwater environment up to its dashboard level. In fact there were pieces of gravel with tar on them up in the air intake filter.

Under the Car:

The rust of corrosion continued. The single most interesting find was the chicken wire that held the catalytic converter tight to the frame.

Putting the Pieces Together:

Feeling a little like detectives, K and her husband set down with their inspection report and the internet. There were tornados in Pennsylvania in in July of 2014. Could that explain the body damage? The last service had been at a transmission specialist, was the transmission the reason dealerships had turned it back in for sale? Hurricane Sandy happened in 2013, perhaps the car was involved in some flooding and the owner kept driving it for a year? Maybe it was traded in without being aware of the issues this car would surely have and soon?

When K and her Husband finally gave up and turned in for the night they were disappointed to have missed out on what they really hoped would be a good car, but glad to have saved almost $17,000 dollars.

Shopping Day 3:

After returning the car and explaining their concerns the dealership was understandably horrified by the number of issues with the car. They reiterated that they’d not had a chance to perform their own inspection and promised they could ultimately find K her dream car.

Since K really liked the sales person, the couple agreed to continue their search at the auto group. They spent another two hours test driving cars, but nothing drove, looked or felt like “the underwater car.”

The couple remains determined to continue their search for a vehicle despite being discouraged. They have decided to make some changes to the search that they hope will yield more options. Tune in for the third installment of “A Car Buying Odyssey” to find out if this couple ever finds a car that works, or if they encounter more scary vehicles.

A Car Buying Odyssey: part 1

From the editor’s desk, Andy Bunch

Here at the Kicker we know writing and we love cars, all cars. We love them so much that it pains us to hear the fear and trepidation many car buyers have when it’s time to replace their vehicle. One of our goals, along with improving road safety for everyone, is demystifying the automotive industry

With the permission of all parties, the Kicker began following a typical car buyer as she shopped for a new (to her) vehicle. What began as a simple article on a typical buyer’s experience quickly evolved into a car buying odyssey, full of twists and turns that truly sound stranger than fiction.

The Need for a New Car:

An important first step in car buying is clarifying why you need it. There’s nothing wrong with getting a new car because you can afford it, but the more you clarify your needs the better you’ll be able to focus your search.

Meet K, our car shopper. K describes her past car buying experiences as turning out okay. She can’t point to a particular source for her anxiety but admits that she did feel bullied at points during past buying experiences. This time her life situation has changed. She’s married and has a baby. The small car she bought new from a dealer 12 years ago doesn’t fit a car seat, at least not if anyone wants to sit in the front seat while it’s installed. So she’s going to have to take on a car payment again for the first time in almost ten years.

The Must Haves in a Car:

K’s size requirements come down to two things. 1) enough room to fit a car seat behind either car with leg room remaining in front. 2) A big enough trunk to accommodate a large stroller without having to strain in order to put it in or take it out.

K’s desires in a car come down to three things. 1) Leather interior (Easier to wipe clean) 2) Sun roof. 3) Not red.

Ways to shop:

K doesn’t want to deal with “car salespeople,” but feels more hesitant to shop online due to her lack of mechanical knowledge. When asked about using a car finding service, she replied, “I don’t see the difference, I mean, I can search for cars online, I just don’t want to.”

Challenges to Shopping:

K and her husband are both very busy, but feel it’s important to get a car that both can comfortably drive. So to save time they’ve chosen to shop together. This means leaving their daughter with a relative for a couple hours after work. Since their daughter, age 1, is in bed by 7 pm every night this leaves only an hour or two to search car lots if they want to see her at all each night.

K’s husband is taller, especially sitting down, and doesn’t find most car’s comfortable to drive. He doubts that they’ll ever find a car that fits both their needs.


K feels more comfortable going through her bank for a loan and secured financing before she began shopping. She also hopes that this will shorten or reduce stress during the purchase phase. The couple qualified for around $20,000 at 3%, which they hope to stretch by trading in K’s current car.

The Search, Day 1:

With two large dealerships near their house, the couple set out after work to check out models they’d seen online. They were surprised to learn that none of those models were as attractive in person.

K and her husband had run into a common challenge. Selecting the right car is an emotional process and it’s much easier to examine statistics on the internet. K didn’t see any cars in her price range that attracted her at the first dealership and her husband couldn’t physically fit into any of the cars at the second dealership. To be fair, he’d have probably fit into some of the trucks or larger SUV’s but the couple wanted to remain conscious of fuel economy.

On the bright side, the employees at both lots were friendly, easy to work with, and didn’t try to force a car to fit the couple just to make a sale.

The Search, Day 2:

A couple days later, K and her husband drove to another two dealerships. These were further from home but still in town. They didn’t want to have to drive to Portland just to buy a car, since childcare constrained their time.

These two dealerships were part of an auto group, which allowed one employee to show them cars from several lots. K really hit it off with the sales lady who helped the couple search. This time the couple actually test drove a couple cars and ultimately found one they wanted to get to know better.

The dealership allowed the couple to take to vehicle home so they could get back to their daughter and have the car examined. K’s husband had the car inspected by an independent specialist and the story took a twist. See part two to continue the story.

Link to Part 2