Undercover with a New Car Salesman
January 30, 2004 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Confessions of a Car Salesman Edmunds.com sent one of their writers to work at two car dealerships for a month or so at each to find out just how the stereotypically sleazoids learn to be so slick and annoying yet ultimately successful--at least most of you have bought a new car at least once, right? (Lengthy, not necessarily breathless prose can be shortcircuited if you skip to the lessons learned page.)
posted by billsaysthis (28 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I read this a few days ago, it's long (took me a couple hours while I was doing other work stuff) but totally worth reading.

The funny part is my last car buying experience was incredible, but I was one of the deadbeats referenced in the article. I called several dealers and talked only to fleet services guys, who gave me no-haggle prices over the phone. It was great to be able to skip all the slicksters in the front of the dealership.
posted by mathowie at 4:26 PM on January 30, 2004

Buying a car is a tremendous pain in the ass, this article helps highlight how to get around some of the tricks and pitfalls in dealing with the sharks at the lot.

Unrelated tangent, I had a customer service manager literally threaten to kick my ass once on a dealer show room floor. I bought a car from them, it broke, they refused to answer my calls so I gave them a final chance with the warning that my next call would be to the Better Business Bureau and, wouldn't you know it, they called back in under ten minutes. Jerks.
posted by fenriq at 4:44 PM on January 30, 2004

I bought a car from a guy I called Smilin' Fred. Totally slick, laughed at EVERY joke I made, even the most obscure, geeky ones that nobody with a decent upbringing could have gotten, and was constantly applying pressure just short of menace in order to get me to buy a shitty Kia. And it worked. And the car sucks. Ass. I intend to pull a Matt next time and take it to those bastards with the mighty power of the internet.
posted by Hildago at 4:52 PM on January 30, 2004

Interesting, and one of the reasons I decided long ago to never buy a car brand new. It easier to deal with a private party, and getting a used car checked out by a good mechanic can take a lot of the guesswork out of it. That, and by the time you get to a two or three year old car, much of the steepest depreciation has already taken place, so your investment doesn't lose so much value as soon as you drive it off the lot.
posted by Hackworth at 4:55 PM on January 30, 2004

See also the 1999 film Suckers, which describes pretty much exactly the same sales techniques. There are so many similarities that when I read this thing last week, I suspected for a moment that this guy skipped out on his assignment and just watched the movie.

(My car is a decade old, just about properly broken in now. If I were buying, I'd look for a 1990 Quattro.)
posted by sfenders at 5:19 PM on January 30, 2004

One thing I never understood about the car buying process is why people have such a hard time with it. For me, I've always had a keen sense of the cars I was seriously interested in and I would narrow my selection down to 2-3 vehicles at a maximum.

Then, I would walk into a dealership and ask for a test drive informing them clearly that I'm checking between three different vehicles.

Once my mind was then made up and I had selected a car I wanted, I would go back to that make's dealership after having done my 'edmunds homework' and ask: "Do you have a 2004 Jetta GLI in black with sunroof?" If yes, then: "Fine, the invoice on the vehicle is $23,414 and I'll give you $500 over that - take it or leave it."

If he says, "no" then I say: "thank you for your time." If he says yes I say: "here's my credit card."

Pretty simple, if you ask me. Any attitude or any squirmishness on his/her behalf and I simply say: "thank you, but I don't conduct business this way. Goodbye."

Moral of the story: do your homework before hand, have a realistic understanding of the demand for the particular model you are interested in buying, and then make certain that you stick to your guns and walk away when your expectations are not met. Moreover: Never EVER buy anything you don't want to buy - it's your money.
posted by tgrundke at 5:47 PM on January 30, 2004

tgrundke: I did the same thing when I bought my first car (still driving it) four years ago, at 21. $300 over invoice, with a printout from Edmunds. I knew the dealership made other money on the side even at invoice price, so I had no qualms holding my ground with a take it or leave it. They took it. I had brought my dad along in tow and I don't think I'd ever seen him prouder of me before or since.

Years later, I saw the way he negotiated. We had just finished eating a casual dinner out one night with nothing special planned when he quipped, "Why don't we stop by the dealership to buy a car for [insert sister-in-law]." He haggled the price down to where he wanted it but, after hitting a snag on financing, suddenly stood up and declared, "I'm going to pay for this car in cash." And over the protests about how the banks have closed for the night, he repeated, "Cash." On the spot, he opened up his briefcase and began taking out stacks of $100 bills, one stack at a time, until there was a pile on the table, and then he made up the difference with a pre-printed cashier's check. Everyone in the room was completely flabbergasted.

I learned the meaning of "shooting daggers with ones eyes" that night from the F&I people at the dealership.
posted by DaShiv at 6:12 PM on January 30, 2004

"Fine, the invoice on the vehicle is $23,414 and I'll give you $500 over that - take it or leave it."

I find it difficult to haggle over price for anything, probably because I have a hard time thinking on my feet. But the method described above is great - no emotion, no quick decisions to be made - you have figured everything out beforehand in the comfort of your own living room.
posted by Triplanetary at 6:18 PM on January 30, 2004

I've only bought one car, but what I did instead of going to a dealership was spend literally four straight days websurfing painstakingly going through car and driver, consumer reports, government statistics on safety, private statistics on upkeep, kelly bluebook values for cost, services that look up the VIN for accident history, etc. and cross-referencing until I found a perfect match.

Then I went to one of those online sites (carsdirect maybe? can't remember) that lists all the cars a certain distance from you and punched in the three models I was looking for and took a look at what was available.

I went down to the Saturn dealership indicated, asked the salesman out front if I could see the car listed on the site, and then promptly told him to fuck off and go watch TV (which he actually did) while I spent two and a half hours (not counting test-drive) checking literally every last thing in, on, and especially under the car (suggestions from consumer reports and from my father who really really knows cars helped a ton here).

I wound up with a '98 Saturn SC1 (image) in nearly perfect condition (Saturns use polymer panels so there's almost never any body damage) with 70K miles on it for $5200. This rocks because the '98 Toyota Tercel - of which the SC1 is basically a clone (SC1 also has a nice Dodge-esque semi-sporty body slapped on and a much larger trunk) - is loads more due to the Toyota name. All that needed replacement were the tires and battery. Took the car across America in three days not a month after buying it and it held up perfectly - and has in the 6 months since.

I don't expect all my car searches in life will be this painless or successful, but I like to think that this is an example of going overboard with your homework paying off in spades.
posted by Ryvar at 6:32 PM on January 30, 2004

A few years ago I bought a new car. I went to two dealers and bought it from the second. The first dealer tried to screw me over. We agreed on a price for the vehicle and a price for my trade in. He ran the numbers through in the back room and came back with the financing which was theoretically at 5.9%. Then he leaves for a long time. I look over the sheet and realize that it doesn't look right. I rifle through his desk and find a calculator. Somewhere they managed to add in enough extra fees that I'd be paying an extra 200 a month.

Now my sister was buying a new car at the same time, same dealer. She was one room over from me and she's not as good as math. I just barged in and said come on, they're trying to cheat you, let's go someplace else.

Her salesman was in there with her, he was not very happy with me.

I went to a dealer a few miles away, the guy actually did both of our deals at the same time so I was present. He didn't try to screw us, gave me an excellent price for my trade in and for my sisters and we both bought our respective vehicles.
posted by substrate at 7:16 PM on January 30, 2004

Yeah, it works great. In fact you don't even have to go into the dealership -- just fax them your offer. I did that and because I knew about a dealer incentive, I actually got my last car for just below invoice -- split the incentive with the dealer.

This article was nothing new to me because I read a number of books while I was researching my car purchase last year. The most useful was definitely James Bragg's Car Buyer's and Leaser's Negotiating Bible. I also recommend doing your research on all the car Web sites, not just Edmunds -- in my situation, they all had the buyer rebate, but only one of them listed the dealer incentive I mentioned.

In my experience, the domestic car dealers are way pushier than the foreign car dealers. The VW dealer was so un-pushy that nobody even came out to offer me a test drive. The Ford dealer turned me over no fewer than four times and the last guy started filling out a credit app while chatting me up, even though I'd told each of the guys I'd talked to that I wasn't buying today. Oh yeah, they also took me on a ridiculously brief, completely scripted ("turn here") test drive that didn't even include any highway.

The dealer I ended up buying from was just about perfect: he gave me all the information I asked for, didn't really push, and acknowledged that I was going to go verify anything he told me on the Internet. As far as I could tell he did not lie even once. The sales manager was a little pushy, but when I showed I knew the tricks, he was smart enough to back off and just take what profit I was offering.

What's more, the day after I went home with the car, they called me back and told me they'd got a lower rate on the financing now that the bank was open! I double-checked the numbers on their new loan agreement, and damned if they didn't actually save me around $300 over the term of my loan. Certainly worth driving back in to sign again.
posted by kindall at 7:21 PM on January 30, 2004

kindall: I gotta say, though, the people at Saturn really treated my fiance and I like royalty - weren't pushy at all. When I went with my dad the last time he went to purchase a car at a domestic dealership (Mercury?) they were pretty awful.

I hate to be cheesy and say something like 'they really ARE a different kind of car company', but the truth is that such has been my experience, and my next car will definitely be a Saturn ION.
posted by Ryvar at 8:02 PM on January 30, 2004

Very sadly, in my illness I forget to credit the estimable MeFite/SpoFite grum as the source of this wonderment.
posted by billsaysthis at 8:11 PM on January 30, 2004

Thanks trharlan. Actually, I was thinking of one of these, the original Quattro. '90 was the last year they made them, I think. But I'm not likely to need new wheels for another few years, and will probably change my mind before then.
posted by sfenders at 8:31 PM on January 30, 2004

I did my homework before purchasing my first car a year and a half ago, and although I did most of what the article suggests, knew exactly how much I would pay, and went in with an attitude similar to tgrundke's, it was still incredibly difficult. I shopped around and knew what I was going to pay, but the range of salespeople and specific cars (with different features) made things a lot more challenging.

But mostly it was just hard to deal with people in such a generally negative and confrontational environment. I had one guy literally scream at me when I walked away, to which I thought, "Yes, now that you've screamed at me, I'll give you thousands of dollars." Even thought I knew he was an assmagnet and I wouldn't be buying from him, his tractor beam worked for too long.

Perhaps it's my confrontation-averse disposition, but I ended up resenting the whole process, even though I paid exactly what I wanted to pay (the Edmunds true market price). Every time I see or hear a car dealership ad today, I still get annoyed and sometimes even yell "liars!" at them. I'm not looking forward to repeating the process ever again.
posted by realityblurred at 9:20 PM on January 30, 2004

Bottom line, if you want to save money, save your time and their time, by spending as little time in person with the salesman.

If you're buying a new car, find the car you like and order it by phone. If it's a used car, research, find one you like and then shop for one in your area - visit it once, or twice and make an offer on the phone.

Time is money, 50 bucks over cost feels better to them if they've only spent 20 minutes or so on you, not hours.

This is my experience. I've bought 3 new cars around invoice and 2 used cars well below retail and private sales (near trade-in).

My first experience buying a car on a lot was at a vw dealer. No salesman came out to meet me. I thought that was cool, "low pressure"! But a father and son drove in on the lot, a salesman immediately came out and asked if he could help them - yelling right past me. Needless to say I left, with my fresh-out-of-college-new-job-wallet full of $ in hand.
posted by tomplus2 at 9:28 PM on January 30, 2004

Right you are. For some reason, I thought 20v referred to the V8 model.

Hope you like to turn your own wrenches.

Sure thing. I miss my old car, with its occasional unscheduled stops to swap in a spare alternator or something.
posted by sfenders at 9:58 PM on January 30, 2004

Last year, I had a job which required me to spend a good portion of my time onsite at an auto dealer. It was one of the singularly most fascinating, revolting experiences of my life. The way they "put people into a car" even when they knew the financing would ultimately collapse was instructive. There were dozens of cars "sold" each week that would be "taken back" within a month or two and for all I knew, recycled as ostensibly new cars, never technically owned by anyone else. The store (and salesman) got a commission kickback from the manufacturer to cover their costs, kept an 'application fee' portion of the deposit (set, I believe, by state law), and the sucker got a bad credit mark to drive around in. These were people they knew from the beginning couldn't afford the vehicle, or would get their loan rejected!

The hunger of the lower-ranked sales staff was palpable, and the low-traffic winter days were depressing for all concerned. I realized that "car salesman" is a job that's one step above "telemarketing" for some people, a paycheck away from bankruptcy. Several had other jobs or side businesses, even their own ersatz "dealerships" sans "parking lot". For the good ones, of course, the gravy train was at full steam, as they got the best referrals, chummiest assistance, and sweetheart deals. One of these operations -- serving a lower-class demographic, largely black -- was something to behold, more like a customs processing facility than a genteel "car dealer". The very level of activity, of course, was part of the process itself, putting buyers off balance and encouraging a rush to judgement. At a higher-end facility, where any yuppie would be happy to spend an afternoon (and in fact I ran into a former boss there, considering a new Avalanche with all the trimmings), quiet and persistent mollification was the order of the day. In any of these, as a classic xNTP geek, I recognized my inherent social abilities were far outclassed -- even by the certified fuckups. Lord knows I'd rather troubleshoot the most frustrating server problem, any day, than have to outflank a customer's every objection to completing a sale.

The best part of all this, though, was when I overheard a phone conversation with my own boss. [This is a man who negotiated a superb multi-book deal for his yellow pages listing by turning off the furnace and spending most of the time the hapless sales gal was there focusing on putting up an outdoor sign in a mild blizzard. Another time, he escalated a minor issue with a check up to the highest-level banker he could reach, solely to turn the conversation, "casually", to co-op marketing.] The auto dealer's sales manager, ticked off at their arrangement, details unknown to me, called him "a slippery guy". I assume he considered it a compliment -- but it made my day, and I smugly decided I was going to quit at my first opportunity.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 PM on January 30, 2004

Sounds to me like the best way to make a deal is to bring in a few fresh hundreds. Rip them in half, give one half set to the sales guy and tell him "You run me that car at near invoice, and you can have the other half of these."

The sales guys only want money, why not just give them their pay directly and screw the manager? He's not doing anything anyways...
posted by shepd at 2:17 AM on January 31, 2004

I still don't understand why someone would buy a car brand new when you can buy a year-old model for thousands less, many times with little more than the original factory miles still on it. And all these year-old's are usually still covered under the original warranty.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:04 AM on January 31, 2004

C_D: Not to mention that a year-old car has been through its shakedown cruise, so to speak.
posted by alumshubby at 6:20 AM on January 31, 2004

Y'know, this article came out about 2 years ago and at the time, we didn't even know which of our editors had written it (I work at Edmunds, btw). It's crazy stuff. The editor who wrote "Confessions" has a series of "10 Steps" articles that, I think, are worth your time, as well. (Buying a car, Selling, Leasing, etc.)

And that's all I'll say, because I feel like a pimp. (: (Though, I will say, this recent flurry of linking 'round the web to "Confessions" has the geeks on the web team [incl. me] well, geeked out.)
posted by sarajflemming at 7:04 AM on January 31, 2004 [3 favorites]

Question for any savvy Canadian car buyers in the crowd:

Edmunds seems to provide USD info...I assume that the invoice prices in Canada might vary beyond actual exchange. Can anyone suggest a similar site for Canadian consumers? Other books/tips, etc for those north of the 49th parallel?

And, I have to say, I am filled with admiration for many of you...I fear I would not have the nerve to be so adamant, and in charge of the negotiations! You have given me hope though....
posted by Richat at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2004

Dammit...I figured I had missed out on the whole discussion...Now everyone is busy discussing what 8 year olds think of Jimi Hendrix.
Ah well..maybe I will pay more attention next time and I won't miss it all...
posted by Richat at 7:50 PM on January 31, 2004

This was really interesting.

I have a 1997 Saturn SC1, which I bought at the end of that model year. The Saturn dealership was the only one where I felt comfortable going in by myself, as opposed to going in with my dad. (Although he did come with me when I actually purchased the car, I went in alone to look.) I love my car.

On the other hand, there's a Ford dealership near me that I will never, ever buy a car from. When my then-boyfriend went there to go in and look at cars, the salesperson refused to show him anything until he filled out a credit app and passed the credit check! Needless to say, we got out of there. This same dealership screwed over a friend of mine on her car...charged her for ABS when her car does not have them.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:45 PM on January 31, 2004

This was a great post. billsaysthis - thanks.

The web has taken all the pain out of car buying for me. Before that, it was an enormous hassle to do the research.

Plus, the Honda dealer that I went to is a no-haggle dealership. I had researched the hell out of things and was girded for a fight, but they offered me almost exactly what I expected on my trade in and my desired purchase price.

I have done that "pay cash" thing before, but with furniture. A friend of mine worked in retail and he rarely paid full price for anything. Some years ago, I was buying some furniture, and he coached me into getting a great price. The couch I wanted had a price of $1100 and I offered $750. The salesman was dismissive of me, acted like I was nuts, and offered to take $100 off. I said I'd have to leave and go elsewhere, which was too bad because I had the $750 cold cash with me, and then I took it out the money and flashed it. He got the manager and I got the couch.

It takes some cojones because it goes against our way of doing business, and it doesn't always work, but if it's an independent retail outlet selling goods that are known for high mark-up (jewelry, furniture), it's worth a try.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:43 PM on February 1, 2004

An entertaining (rather than educational) book on the subject is Lawrence Donegan's "California Dreaming" about a Scot (Lawrence) working as a Californian second-hand car dealer.

Pretty lightweight, but enjoyable.
posted by Blue Stone at 3:43 AM on February 2, 2004

As far as big-budget items go, no seller ever wants you to pay cash for it. Every car dealership out there hopes to get people suckered into financing plans/loans, so that they not only make money from the sale, but also from _selling_ you the financing.

Loans are a product, just like the car. When you are financing, you are buying two things.

posted by Witold at 10:52 AM on February 2, 2004

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