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Buying a Car and Keeping Your Self Respect

Updated on May 22, 2011

How Do You See Yourself as a Car Buyer?

How comfortable do you feel at a car dealership when you are looking for a new car?

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My wife and I recently set out to buy a car for the first time in several years. I’ve always thought something like that should be fun, but I guess it’s an indication of my character that I find buying expensive things nerve wracking. The thought of emptying out my bank account and adding a new monthly bill makes me yearn for that exceptionally enthusiastic toothache I had last year. The one that turned me into a lump of useless, oblivious, quivering pain. It wasn’t much fun, but it was better than buying a car.

When it comes to big ticket shopping, car buying is in a league by itself. I don’t even feel like real man anymore when I go car shopping. That’s because real men know things about cars. They know how to talk about cars—they even know that all of those engine parts under the hood have names other than do-hickey and thing-a-ma-jig. And they know how to kick the tires; in fact, they even know why to kick the tires.

But most importantly, real men know how to deal with car salesmen. Car salesmen are a special breed. Not only do they need to know all about cars, they also have to live with the knowledge that if they don’t sell enough cars they will starve to death. They don’t get paid just for showing suckers like me around the lot. They actually have to get you to commit, usually by signing about a hundred sheets of paper, the last of which is a down payment check for whatever amount of money you’ve been able to save since the last time you bought a car.

Buying a Car: It’s Not a Fair Fight

This whole process creates a dual problem for me. First, they know more than I do, so it’s not a fair fight. The things I know something about (baseball, old rock and roll, American literature) aren’t going to help me at all in this context. There isn’t any chance that Albert Pujols, Elvis, or John Steinbeck are going to come up in a conversation about sticker price, down payments, horsepower, and interest rates. Second, if I don’t buy a car from this guy today, how likely is it that he will starve to death tomorrow? It’s enough to make me go to great lengths to avoid the skinniest salesman at every dealership.

So here’s my advice about car buying: Give up trying to win a head to head battle with these guys. Just throw in the towel. You can’t make it on your own. The cars are too complicated and the salesmen are too slick. If you try to outfox them you will probably end driving off the lot in a car you didn’t want for a price you can’t afford. And don’t blame the salesman for your own ignorance. They mean well. They’re just doing what they’ve been trained to do. And they’re hungry.

But the fact is, sooner or later you’re going to have to buy a car again. And the odds are, you’re going to end up at a car dealership at some point in your search. Since I’ve already admitted that I don’t know much about cars and that I can be something of a wimp, I understand if you stop reading right now. But I think I can tell you a couple of things that will improve your chances of getting what you want and hanging on to your manhood (or womanhood) at the same time.

Arm Yourself with Research

First, don’t even think about setting foot on a car lot until you’ve already done some research from home. This is so easy these days that there’s really no excuse for being unprepared. I know it sounds obvious, but here’s why I really must insist on this step. As soon as a salesman approaches you, and it never takes very long, you will be able to tell him exactly what you are looking for. This puts you in control of the situation from the beginning. If you just say something nebulous like I’m looking for a car in the S17,000 to $18,000 range, you’ll be test driving a $25,000 before you can tell yourself how badly that sort of monthly payment would blow your budget. So get on the web and find out exactly what car you want before you ever leave the house. Kelley Blue Book and J. D. Power are good places to start.
Suppose you’re looking for a Honda Accord; when the salesman approaches you, don’t ask him to show you the Accords, smile and tell him to show you the Accords. Now you’re the boss. It feels good, believe me.

Show Them That You’re Serious, and in Control

Next, come to the dealership prepared to walk away without buying a car. In fact, don’t even bring any money with you. Leave your checkbook and your plastic at home. This is because you are not going to buy your new car today. You are not going to let anybody talk you into anything. Here’s what you’re going to do instead:

Keep in mind that the salesman is not the guy who is going to close the deal for you. Once you’ve seen something you like he’s going to hand you off, like a football, to somebody else, somebody like a finance manager who has been trained to get you to pay as much as you possibly can for your car. Instead of whipping out your checkbook and paying what they tell you to pay (which you can’t do anyway, because you left it at home under your mattress), you are going to give them a dollar amount that you know they can’t meet. Yes, you are going to lowball them—knowing that you’ll never be able to buy the car for this amount. This is just to set up what you do next.

The Car Buying Waltz—You have to Lead

They will make a big show out of saying that they are trying to sell you the car for this amount. They will probably disappear for a while, pretending to go somewhere and talk to some other person who will say no, we can’t sell it for that price. This way it isn’t their fault, they can blame it on the tightwad in the other office. They will have a new dollar figure on their offer sheet. But you’ll inwardly smile at that, knowing that the real tightwad is you, and you are in control. Next, you’ll show just how in control you are by saying that you really can’t pay that much for a car, but thank you very much, and have a nice day. Then, and this is the absolutely crucial step— get up and walk out. I’m serious. Get up and walk out. When they see that you are willing to walk away, everything changes.

After You Walk Away

Now, one of three things will happen. They really don’t want you to leave the dealership, so they may call out to you to hold on while they go check with someone else. Give them the benefit of the doubt and let them do so. They might come back with better news this time. If they actually let you leave, you can reasonably expect to get a call in the next day or so (at some point in this whole process they have gotten your name and phone number). During that phone conversation you’ll probably find that they have improved their offer through some sort of magical car finance tomfoolery. This happened to us several times during our car-buying odyssey. Of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll never hear from them again. That’s okay, you’ll both learn to live without each other, after a while. And there’s no law that says you can’t go back there and start negotiating at a different price, if you’re willing. They’ve already seen you leave once, so they’ll be less likely to mess with someone like you a second time around.

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