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.

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