Monday, November 23, 2015

Buying a Car When You Have a Credit Problem

There are fewer things more sensitive or embarrassing than having to share your personal credit problems with a stranger. Having credit problems can also put many buyers in a weakened and defensive position when buying a car. Many people with bad, or too little, credit feel like the car dealer is somehow “doing them a favor” by selling them a car and getting them financed. Make no mistake about it. A car dealer is probably making more money selling a person with bad credit a car than one with good credit. If you have a credit problem, go about buying a car with the same care and due diligence as if you had the very best credit. Shop and compare your financing, your interest rate, and your trade-in allowance. Get at least three quotes on each of these.

Lenders who specialize in lending to those with bad credit are known as “special finance” for “subprime” lenders. Many of these lenders charge the dealer a large upfront fee, as much as $2,500. Legally, the dealer is not supposed to add this fee to the price of the car you buy but, in the real world, the price of the car is usually higher as the result of this fee. In addition to an upfront fee, the interest rates are very high from special finance lenders. Because they anticipate a much higher amount of repossession losses, they must make more on each transaction. Don’t automatically accept a dealer’s opinion that you must finance through such a lender. There are many conventional banks these days that loan to people with bad credit. Their interest rates are lower and they don’t charge large upfront fees.

There is much fraud in special finance lending. Credit applications are falsified to show more time on the job, higher incomes, etc. W-2 forms and check stubs are counterfeited. Buyer’s orders show accessories and equipment that do not really exist on the car. Hold checks or promissory notes are misrepresented as cash down payment. Co-signers signatures are forged. Confederates pose as employers, answering pay phones to verify employment. These falsifications are performed by finance managers, salesmen, brokers for special finance lenders (who are paid on commission) and the customers themselves. If you sign a credit application, be sure that you know all of the information on that application is accurate. Be sure that you understand and agree to all parts of the transaction including down payments, accessories on the car, etc. Never be a party to falsifying information to a lender to obtain a loan. This is a criminal offense.

Advertisements aimed at people with bad credit usually exaggerate with claims like, “We finance everyone”, “Wanted, good people with bad credit”, “No credit, no problem”, and, my favorite, “No credit application refused” (it doesn’t say your loan won’t be refused, just your application). My advice is to ignore these kinds of ads and these kinds of dealers. Their strategy is to take advantage of people with bad credit who they believe will buy any car, pay any amount of interest, and any profit to the dealers as long as the dealer can get them a loan.

It is common practice in Florida to encourage the car buyer to drive the car home immediately upon signing all of the papers. In some states like New York this is not permitted until all the car has been registered with the state in the new owner’s name. The reason for this immediate delivery (commonly referred to as the “spot delivery”) is to discourage and possibly even prevent the buyer from changing his mind. Taking possession of the car is a legal consideration making the purchase more binding. I recommend that you not rush the purchase or the delivery. For one thing you want to be sure that the car is exactly the way you want it…clean inside and out, all the accessories properly installed, no dings, dents or scratches, and that you have a complete understanding of how to operate all of the features of the vehicle.

I mention the risk of the “spot delivery” in this column on buying a car with bad credit because it can be especially harmful to someone whose credit is denied after the car has been delivered. You will most likely be required to sign a “Rescission Agreement” before you drive the car home. This is a legal document which requires you to return the car if your credit is denied. You will probably be told that your credit will be approved, but sometimes the dealer is wrong. The rescission agreement will have a charge for time and mileage that you have put on the car you are driving. Usually this is a very high charge from 25 cents per mile plus $50 per day and higher. It can take weeks for a special finance lender to rule on a credit application. If your credit is denied you could owe the dealer thousands of dollars which the down payment you made might not even cover.

As frightening as all of the above may sound, the one single thing you can do to prevent bad things from happening when you purchase a car is to choose your car dealer very carefully. How long has he been in business? What is his track record with the Better Business Bureau, the County Office for Consumer Affairs, and the Florida Attorney General’s Office? Ask friends, neighbors, or relatives who have dealt with this car dealer what their experiences have been like. Choosing a good dealer with integrity will resolve 95% of all your concerns.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Consumer Reports: Your Best Friend in Choosing a Car

If you don’t already subscribe to Consumer Reports, you should. I have been a subscriber for as long as I can remember. My wife, Nancy, and I rarely buy any product without consulting this great magazine. I also subscribe to Consumer Reports online edition which is even more current than the regular magazine. I recently received their annual auto issue, which no car buying family should be without. All libraries would have this on hand.

Don’t be fooled by other magazines with similar names purporting to objectively analyze and recommend products. There is only one Consumer Reports. They do not accept any advertising and therefore are not beholding to any companies. They even go beyond this and will not allow a retailer or manufacturer to use the name Consumer Reports in their advertising. Even if Consumer Reports gives a product a great rating, that company cannot mention this in their advertising. If they do, they get sued by Consumer Reports. No other company goes this far and is this “squeaky clean”. J.D. Powers is a company that ranks and compares lots of products including cars, but they allow companies to use the JD Power name to advertise their products when they rated them good. You can understand why a consumer might be just a little more skeptical of J. D. Powers’ objectivity than Consumer Reports’.

I am not saying that Consumer Reports is infallible. They do make mistakes and they have been successfully sued by some companies that were affected by their mistakes in testing. But this is very rare. As a car dealer for almost half a century, I have not always liked what I read about all of the makes and models of cars I have sold, but I grudgingly had to admit that the reports were almost always accurate. In fact, the last issue of CR gave negative reviews to two models of the cars I now sell, Toyota. I have to confess that with some makes and model cars I have sold over the years, I was very thankful that the circulation of Consumer Reports is not very large. Their circulation is growing as consumers become more educated and sophisticated.

This annual auto issue should be a mandatory read before you buy your next used or new car. Here are some of the articles in this issue…Top Picks (the best new vehicles they have tested), Best and Worst (tells you the ones you definitely shouldn’t buy), Coming for 2016, Who Make The Best Cars (best manufacturers), Buy Better on the Web (The Internet is the best place to buy your next car), Reliability trends (repair histories on all makes and models), What’s Next in Auto Safety, and Used Cars, Best and Worst.

Consumer Reports also offers other car buying services like their “New Car Price Service” which discloses the actual cost to the dealers, rebate and incentive information, negotiating strategies, and their expert recommendations. They also offer a “Used Car Price Service” which provides an evaluation tool kit that helps you establish the right price for most used cars made from 2005 to 2015.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Is VW the Only Auto Manufacturer To Put Profit Before Integrity?

You must know about this unprecedented crime by the world’s second largest auto manufacturer. It has been headline news for many weeks now, and the news keeps getting worse. Just in case you’re from “another planet”, Volkswagen cheated on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules for emissions in diesel engines. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they also cleverly installed software in their diesel cars that hid this fact from anybody testing emissions. VW, not only committed a crime but then committed a second crime to hide the first crime! Volkswagen fired their CEO and promoted the CEO of Porsche (owned by VW) to be the new CEO of VW. It has recently been discovered that the same crimes were committed by Porsche and Audi (also owned by VW). 
Now the focus is on the famous question, “Who knew what, and when did they know it?” Hopefully there will be a thorough investigation and VW will not get away with furnishing a few sacrificial lambs from middle management or engineering to “take the fall”. A crime this big and wide spread cannot have been known by only a few. As drastic as this may sound, I think there is a very real possibility that most of VW’s executives and many of the rank and file were privy to this dirty big secret. 
My reasoning for thinking this is that the entire auto industry has been amazed and skeptical for the past 3 years over how Volkswagen had designed and built a diesel engine that was so clean, powerful, and economical when no other manufacturer has come close. VW can brag all they want about “German Engineering”, but over the last 50 years American and Japanese engineering have become the standard. In fact, I’m astounded that no other manufacturer suspected and objected. It’s possible that the reason for this is that they knew how VW was accomplishing and getting away with this and planned on doing the same thing…or maybe they already were. The British newspaper, The Guardian wrote “The issue is a systemic one” across the industry quoting Nick Molden, whose company Emissions Analytics tested the cars. The Guardian revealed that diesel cars from Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, Volvo and Jeep all pumped out significantly more NOx in more realistic driving conditions.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that the same tricks have been used to manufacture gasolinepowered vehicles to meet emissions standards. As you probably know, the more stringent the EPA restriction on emissions, the more difficult it is for a manufacturer to produce a car with acceptable performance and fuel economy. Performance and fuel economy is what sells cars…low emissions play second fiddle. Also, the federal rules on fuel economy, “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” standards (CAFE) are extremely challenging and expensive for auto manufacturers. The federally mandated average fuel economy for all cars by 2025 is 54.5 miles per gallon. The fine for not meeting this standard is $55 for each mile per gallon missed times the total number of vehicles manufactured. Some manufacturers have been fined hundreds of millionsof dollars. BMW and Mercedes were fined $231M and $262M respectively!
Auto manufacturers are “caught between a rock and a hard place”. They must comply with EPA emission standards and CAFÉ fuel economy standards which are at odds with each other…the cleaner the emissions, the worse the fuel economy. If that isn’t enough, they must build a car that people want to buy and a car’s performance is the number one reason a person buys a car. Good fuel economy and low emissions are both detrimental to good performance. 
Survival is the #1 instinct in humans and corporations. If auto manufacturers believe the only way they can compete in the market place is to cheat on federal standards, there’s a good chance they will. Furthermore, if an auto manufacturer is trying to compete honestly but strongly suspects, or knows, that his competitors are cheating and getting away with it, he may feel he is left with no other recourse but to cheat as well. 
On a side note, I find this to be a primary motivation for car dealers who cheat their customers with unfair and deceptive advertising and sales practices. I know many well intentioned dealers who would much prefer to sell cars honestly, but believe they have no choice but to match their competitors’ bait and switch tactics to compete successfully.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Car Dealers Have Infringed on Your Right to Sue!

Did you know that when you bought your last car that you agreed to waive your constitutional right to sue the car dealer who sold you the car and have your complaint heard in a court of law by a jury of your peers?

You probably did not, because an “arbitration clause” was hidden in the fine print of your contract that you signed. Even worse, you also are prohibited from even taking that car dealer to arbitration unless you write a “demand letter” first!

What is “arbitration” anyway?

The average person does not understand what arbitration is, much less know that they agreed to substitute this process for their right to sue when they bought their last car. Arbitration allows an individual who is employed by an arbitration company to decide who is right in a dispute, you or the car dealer. Professional arbiters can be retired judges or anyone that the arbitration company decides is qualified. Because car dealers use the arbitration company often and because car dealers determine the compensation to these companies, there is a good chance that the arbitrators are inclined to side with “the hand that feeds it”.

You can’t even file for arbitration unless you write a “demand letter” to the dealer which must contain specific information as prescribed by Florida statute 501.98. This is a summary of that law:

“Florida Statutes require that, at least 30 days before bringing any claim against a motor vehicle dealer for an unfair or deceptive trade practice, a consumer must provide the dealer with a written demand letter detailing the name, address, and telephone number of the consumer, the name and address of the dealer; a description of the facts that serve as the basis for the claim; the amount of damages; and copies of any documents in the possession of the consumer which relate to the claim. Such notice must be delivered by the United States Postal Service or by a nationally recognized carrier, return receipt requested, to the address where the subject vehicle was purchased or leased or where the subject transaction occurred, or an address at which the dealer regularly conducts business.” If you would like to read the detail of this law, you can access it online at

If you hire a lawyer because you believe a car dealer has taken advantage of you, you’re not eligible for reimbursement of any legal fees unless you have sent the demand letter exactly as described above. This is why most lawyers are reluctant to assist you because they know that the fees they would normally be entitled to are at risk…both because of the arbitration requirement and the demand letter.

What I’ve described is just one more reason why you should be extremely careful when you buy or lease a car. In the back of our minds most of us believe that when we are doing business with a car dealer, or anybody else, if we are taken advantage of we have the right to sue to force the company to make things right. This is not true with 99% of car dealers. You should realize this and be even more careful when you purchase a car. Access my blog for articles on every facet of doing business with a car dealer. There are hundreds of articles accessible in the archives of You will learn never to go car shopping alone, get all promises by the salesman in writing, spend at least two weeks researching the purchase of car, and always get at least 3 competitive bids on the car you’re buying, your trade-in, and your financing.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Dear fellow Florida car dealer, I started in the retail auto business in 1968, about 47 years ago, and I have seen a lot of changes in the way we dealers sell cars and the expectations of our customers. My remarks in this column are made sincerely and with a positive intent toward you and your customers. I am not trying to tell you how to run your business; I am suggesting a change that will reward both you and your customers.

Virtually every car dealer in Florida adds a charge to the price of the cars he sells, variously referred to as a “dealer fee”, “documentary fee”, “dealer prep fee”, electronic filing fee, and tag agency fee. This extra charge is printed on your buyer’s orders and is programmed into your computers. It has been regulated by capping the amount you can charge in most states including California. You charge this fee to every customer and it ranges from a few hundred dollars to over two thousand. Florida law requires that you disclose in writing on the buyer’s order that this charge represents profit to the dealer. Florida law also requires that you include this fee in all advertised prices. You don’t always do this and you get around the law by limiting the number of advertised vehicles (as few as one).

The argument that I hear from most car dealers when I raise this issue is that the dealer fee is fully disclosed to the buyer on the buyer’s order or invoice. But, most car buyers are totally unaware that they are paying this. Who reads all of the voluminous paperwork associated with buying a car? The few who notice it assume it is an “official” fee like state sales tax or license and registration fee. Those few astute buyers who do question the fee are told that your dealership must charge this fee on very car, which would not be true if you were to make the decision to not charge the dealer fee to anyone. These astute buyers are also told that all other car dealers charge similar fees. This is almost true, but, as you know, my dealership does not.

The reason you charge this fee is simply to increase the cost of the car and your profit in such a manner that it is not noticed by your customer. This is just plain wrong. Dealers will admit this to me in private conversations and some will confess that they have considered eliminating the fee as I have, but are afraid of the drastic effect to their bottom line. By being able to count on an extra $999 in profit that the customer is not aware of, or believes is an “official fee”, you can actually quote a price below cost and end up making a profit. Or, if the price you quote the customer does pay you a nice profit, you can increase that by several hundreds or thousands of dollars.

This “extra, unseen” profit is even better for you because you don’t pay your salesmen a commission on it. That’s being unfair to your employees as well as your customers. When the rare, astute buyer objects to the dealer fee, the law permits you to decrease the quoted price of the car by the amount of the dealer fee. This would have the same net effect of removing it. You often tell your customer that you must charge everyone a dealer fee if you charge just one. This is untrue. The salesman won’t lower the price by the amount of the dealer fee because he will lose a big part of his commission (typically 25%) on the decrease in his commissionable profit.

If you don’t know me, I should tell you that I don’t profess to be some “holier than thou” car dealer who was always perfect. Although, I never did anything illegal, when I look at some of my advertising and sales tactics 20+ years ago and more, I am not always proud. But, I have evolved as my customers have evolved. My customers’ expectations, level of education, and sophistication are much higher today. Your customers are no different. As I began treating my customers, and employees, better I discovered that they began treating me better. Yes, I used to charge a dealer fee ($495), and when I stopped charging it around 15 years ago, it was scary. But I did it because I could no longer, in good conscious, mislead my customers. Just because everybody else was doing the same thing did not make it right.

Now here is the good news. My profit per car did drop by about the amount of the dealer fee when I stopped charging it. But, when my customers realized that I was now giving them a fair shake and quoting the complete out-the-door price with no “surprises” the word spread. My volume began to rise rapidly. I’ve grown from one of the smallest volume car dealers in Palm Beach County to the largest volume car dealer between Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando. Sure, I’m making a few hundred dollars less per car, but I’m selling a lot more cars! I was, and am, selling a lot of your former customers. My bottom line is far better than it was when I was charging a dealer fee. You can do the same.

Why am I writing this letter? I’m not going to tell you that I think of myself as the new Marshall that has come to “clean up Dodge”. In fact, I am well aware that this letter is to some extent self-serving. Lots of people will read this letter to you and learn why they should buy a car from me, not you. And, I am also aware that most dealers who read this will either get angry and ignore it or not have the courage to follow my lead. But maybe you will be the exception. If you have any interest in following my lead, call me anytime. I don’t have a secretary and I don’t screen any of my phone calls. I would love to chat with you about this.

Sincerely, Earl Stewart

Monday, September 14, 2015

Car Salesmen Don't Look Like Car Salesmen Anymore

Many of my readers know that I send mystery shoppers weekly to car dealerships around South Florida so that I can learn how they are selling, leasing and servicing cars. I do this for two reasons. The first is that this is a common practice for all businesses to learn how their competition operates and to have the competitive edge you really need to know how your competitors do business. The second reason is that I feature a mystery shopping report on my weekly radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars that airs between 4 and 6  every Tuesday afternoon. I've done hundreds of these mystery shops and I've noticed an interesting trend over the years.

Back in the day, car salesmen looked and sounded like what many people consider the stereotype for a car salesman. You know what I mean, gold chains, diamond pinkie ring, sunglasses, loud shirt, and white shoes. As car buyers became more educated, sophisticated, and demanding, it didn't take car dealers long to realize that they had to dress their car salesmen in a nicer fashion, “lipstick on a pig”, But even though they looked nicer, they sounded and acted pretty much the same.

With the advent of the Internet, Google in particular, today’s consumer has made a quantum leap in knowledge, education and sophistication. Today’s buyer of virtually everything is far more demanding and far less tolerant of deceptive advertising and sales tactics.

The most recent shift I've seen in car dealers’ efforts to make their salesmen seem less threatening is in who they hire and how they train their salesmen to behave. More and more car dealers are hiring younger sales people, and fewer older, experienced salesmen. These dealers want their sales people to treat their customers with courtesy and respect and gain their confidence. We've all heard the terms con man and con-artist. We also know the verb, to con. To con somebody means to steal from them as in Bernie Madoff. Did you know that “con” is short for confidence? A successful con man is good at gaining the confidence of his victim. The con man’s appearance and how he sounds play a critical role in this. I often hear people who were taken advantage of and stolen from say, “He looked and sounded like such a nice person”. Think about that for a minute. How successful could a crook be who looked and sounded like one?

The important thing to remember is that it’s usually not the car salesman who is responsible for the deception. Certainly he cannot be held accountable for the deceptive and often illegal advertising. In fact, many car sales people hate the advertising that brings prospective customers into the car dealership by false and misleading promises. Especially in today’s economy, many people work in car dealerships because they can’t find a job anywhere else. Imagine how embarrassing it must be to salesman, new to the car business, when he must try to explain away a bait and switch advertisement. How can you tell a prospective customer that the “sale car” on the showroom floor costs several thousands of dollars more than the one advertised on TV? In my mystery shops, it’s becoming more and more common for the salesman to “nicely” tell my shopper when she asks to see the advertised car that they can’t really buy the car for that price and to apologize for the deceptive ad! These sales people will say right up front that the ad is just to get you to come in so that they can try to sell you a car at higher price.

Also, the salesman is often an innocent victim when it comes to the deceptive sales practices. Many car dealers use attractive, friendly sounding sales people to lure the fly into the web. It’s been proven in studies that customers put more stock in the individual they deal with at a store than the store itself. If that salesman can capture your trust and especially if he can make you like him, the car dealership is 90% closer to closing the sale.

Today’s sales people are really more “greeters” than sales people. Many car sales people today are not privy to the cost or even the selling price of the cars they “sell”. The true cost of the car is known only by the sales managers who are also known as closers and team leaders. These managers are also the only ones authorized to quote a price. They also appraise your trade-in. The interest rates you pay and the warranties, maintenance plans, GAP insurance, etc. that you buy are all handled by mangers.

The bottom line is that it’s not the rude, aggressive car salesman you need to be afraid of. There are very few of those around anymore. The car dealers have wised up and you will be dealing with young, attractive, non-threatening, and polite sales people today. In many cases, they know very little about the unfair and deceptive sales and advertising. What little they do know makes them feel bad but they need the job and want to put food on the table for their family. As much as you like this salesman or saleslady, don’t give him or her your trust when it comes getting a fair price, trade-in allowance, lease payment, or interest rate. That nice, smiling sales person is the dealer’s pawn and is “just following orders”. Verify all of the numbers your new friend gives you by competitively shopping and comparing at least two other car dealers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Lemon Law: Your Nuclear Option

Lemon laws are state laws which give rights to purchasers of new vehicles if they find that they have bought a car with a defect that cannot be fixed in a timely fashion by the dealer or the manufacturer. Every states lemon law is somewhat different but they all have a lot in common and are aimed at the same result. Most car buyers have misconceptions of the lemon law. These are some the most common ones: The car owners think they are going against their car dealer when they are really going against their car’s manufacturer. If you prevail it costs the car dealer nothing. The manufacturer pays. The law applies only to cars purchased as new, not used. If you win a lemon law dispute, the manufacturer or dealer does not simply replace your car with a brand new on. The amount of credit you win toward a replacement vehicle is arrived at by deducting a charge for the usage of your lemon car based on time and mileage.
The complete lemon law process is a difficult and time consuming task for all concerned…you, the car dealer, and the manufacturer. It’s difficult for you because the law requires specific and extensive documentation. You must have allowed your dealer to try to fix the problem at least three times and you must have detailed written documentation of this. You must be sure that your complaint is clearly spelled out by the dealer on your repair order and that his failure to fix it is also a matter of written record. After three times, you must notify the manufacturer by certified letter that you are invoking the lemon law. Now the manufacturer has one last chance to fix your car. At this time, the manufacturer may take your car to another dealer who he feels is more competent in repairing your car. If the fourth attempt to fix your car fails, your case is assigned to a board of arbitrators. Their ruling is final. This entire process usually takes a very long time. A time of several months is not uncommon. Meanwhile, you’re saddled with a car that has a problem nobody can fix. 
When you formally invoke the lemon law with your certified letter, you sever all communications with the manufacturer other than formal, legal communications as dictated by the law. The manufacturer considers you a legal adversary and their attorneys consider anything they say to you as something that can be used against them in the arbitration. At this point they are legally barred from fixing your car or talking to you about fixing your car. 
All of the above is why I advise that you use the lemon law only as a last resort…the nuclear option. Put emotion aside and focus on what your purpose should be which is to have a car that you can drive without the problem that has been driving your crazy since you bought it. Your priority should not be to punish the dealer because as I already said, he suffers nothing from your winning a lemon law decision. You are punishing the manufacturer to some extent, but this is “business as usual” to all manufacturers who fight (and usually win) thousands of lemon laws annually. What I’m suggesting is that you might want to consider giving the dealer and manufacturer a little more time to fix your car after the first three attempts. If they look like they are sincere and trying hard, it could save you a lot of time driving your broken car (not to mention the mental anguish) compared to waiting months for the lemon law process to work itself out. 
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tell the dealer and manufacturer that you will invoke the lemon law if you have no other choice. You definitely should do that. You should let both the dealer and the manufacturer know in no uncertain terms that you have meticulous documentation of their failed efforts to fix your car, you have familiarized yourself completely with the specifics of your state’s lemon law, and you will not hesitate to invoke it if you are left no other choice. This will instill a sense of urgency to fix your car ASAP if it’s within their abilities. The reason is the dealer and the manufacturer want to keep you as a customer. In fact, the dealer may stretch to give you a better deal on a new car to replace yours than you would ever otherwise have gotten. He can’t do that once the lemon law has been invoked because he would be trading in a “lemon”. A “legal lemon” has the same stigma as a flood car or totaled car that has been rebuilt. The manufacturer not only wants to keep you as a customer but wants to avoid the cost of arbitration (the manufacturer is responsible for all of the costs), the cost of disposing of a lemon, and the cost of the damage to their reputation by chalking up another lemon laws loss in the record books. For more information about the lemon law, Florida residents can call the lemon law hotline,800 321-5366 or you can click this link: