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Friday, July 21, 2006

NEGOTIATING TO BUY A CAR

Buying a new or used car is one of the last bastions of the negotiated price. In some countries, negotiation is fairly commonplace in retail stores, but in America virtually all products are sold at a fixed price. Some of us are simply not comfortable negotiating and most of us are not very good at it.

As I have said in previous columns, the best way to buy a new or used car in on the Internet. You can do your research on which car is the best to suit your needs, get guidance on what kind of price you can expect to pay, and finally get quotes from several dealerships on that specific car. However, everybody is not “Internet savvy” and if you are not, you may find it necessary to walk into a car dealership and negotiate for the lowest price.

If you are not comfortable with negotiation, the best advice I can give you is to bring someone along with you who is. Car sales people and sales managers are trained experts in negotiation. This is how they make their living. Here are some tips for you if you decide that you want to negotiate the best price on a car.

(1) If you have a trade-in, keep that separate from the negotiation. Negotiate the best price on the car you are buying and then negotiate the best price you can get for your trade-in. Don’t fall for the old “over allowance” on your trade-in ruse. This is where the dealer makes up the price of car you are buying higher so that he can make you think you are getting more for your trade-in.
(2) Never buy a car on payments alone. Always negotiate the best price you can for the car you are buying and then calculate your best payment when you have negotiated for the best interest rate.
(3) Be sure you understand how the dealer arrived at his retail price. Federal law dictates that a Monroney label be affixed to every vehicle with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Many dealers mark that up with another label, often referred to as a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This markup can be several thousands of dollars.
(4) Expect the first price you are given to be substantially higher than what you can buy the car for. Sales people and sales managers are trained to “start high because you can always come down”. Don’t be afraid to offer substantially less than the initial asking price. You should look at just like the car salesman does, but the reverse…”start low because you can always go higher”. If the salesman excepts your first offer, you probably offered too much. In fact, shrewd car sales people are trained to always ask for more money, even if the offer is good one. This is because they don’t want to “scare off the customer” by telegraphing to the customer that he “left some money on the table”.
(5) If the sales person asks you for a deposit before he will begin negotiating, determine whether the deposit is refundable. Florida law requires a nonrefundable deposit be disclosed in writing on the receipt. If this is printed on your receipt, insist that this be waived in writing on your buyer’s order. If the dealer will not agree to this, be warned that he may be able to keep your deposit if you change your mind about buying the car.
(6) Be prepared for a lot of “back and forth” when the salesman takes your offer back to the manager. When you get close to finding a mutually acceptable price, the manager himself will often come to talk to you. Don’t be intimidated stick to your guns even when they tell you this is “positively, absolutely the lowest price”. Even if you think you do have the lowest price, a great strategy is to get up, walk out of the showroom, and get into your car to drive away. This will often precipitate an even better price. When you try this, the worst case scenario is that you really do drive home, but you can always return and buy the car the next day for the last price they quoted you. They may tell you that you have to buy today, but nine times out of ten that is a bluff. The only exception is when there are factory rebates and incentive expiring.
(7) The last day of the month really is a good time to buy a car. The salesman’s bonus money is maximized, the factory incentives are in effect, the managers are desperate to make their quotas, and it is the one time of the month when the buyer has the best edge in negotiation.

Caveat emptor “let the buyer beware” could have been written specifically for what you can expect when you walk into a car dealership to negotiate the best price. You are up against experts who negotiate for living. But, if you will follow my advice above, you should be able to hold your own and maybe even get a great deal.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

COPING WITH INSURANCE COMPANIES AND BODY SHOPS

I guess one of the worst things that can happen to us in our driving experience is to be involved in an accident. Hopefully there are no injuries, but we still have to cope with our insurance company and maybe the other party’s insurance company. We also have to select a body shop or accept the one recommended by our insurance company.

After you notify your insurance company of your accident, your first big decision is to select a body shop. This is every bit as important as selecting the right doctor or dentist, except they are working on your car, not your body or teeth. Most of the time your insurance company will recommend a body shop. Consider their recommendation, but also do your own due diligence. If you choose the body shop, that body shop is working for you and is your advocate, not your insurance company’s. Remember that your insurance company is the one paying for your repairs and one of their very important considerations is the cost of repairing your car. They, of course, are interested in a quality repair too, but cost is, at least, an equal consideration. Your number one concern should be quality, not cost. Your insurance company may tell you that it’s OK to have your car repaired at the body shop of your choice, but they “won’t guarantee the repairs”. A reputable body shop will guarantee their own repairs and you don’t need two guarantees. I strongly recommend that you give first consideration to a body shop owned by a franchised dealer of the make of your car. This body shop will have an advantage of faster availability of factory parts, more experience repairing your make and model, and the technicians will usually be better trained in repairing your make of car.

Obviously, a car that has been damaged and repaired is worth less than one that has not been repaired. Even with a quality repair, a late model car with substantial repairs could be worth thousands of dollar less when you trade it in. This sad fact is a very good reason you should be sure that your car is ruled a “total” by your insurance company if it meets their criteria. A car that will cost 70% of its current market value to repair is usually considered a total and your insurance company should replace your car, not repair it. If it’s a close call resulting in a decision to repair the vehicle, you should get a second opinion. This is the time when it’s good to have a body shop that you chose that is beholding to you and not your insurance company.

Your insurance policy will dictate the parts the insurance company may use in repairing your car. It is highly desirable to use OEM parts (parts manufactured by the company that built your car) as opposed to “after-market” parts often manufactured in Taiwan or another foreign county. These parts are copies of OEM parts and much cheaper than the genuine parts. They may not fit as well or have the correct tolerances. You should find out before you purchase your policy if it will provide for OEM parts. If your insurance company won’t authorize OEM parts, ask if you can pay the difference. It is worth the investment.

It is very difficult to forecast accurately the time it will take to complete a major repair. This is because there is usually hidden damage that is impossible to detect until the car has been disassembled. When hidden damage is detected, the body shop must call your insurance company’s adjustor to authorize supplemental work. This work may require parts that were not anticipated in the initial repair and they have to be ordered. There is no one to blame for this; it’s just a fact of collision repair. The bottom line is to expect delays when your car is having a major repair. A quality body shop will “under promise and over deliver” by building in some extra time to allow for the inevitable supplemental repairs.

Be sure you understand what degree of rental reimbursement coverage you have. It varies from policy to policy. Some policies have no rental car reimbursement whatsoever, some have partial, and some complete. In a major repair, you can be without your car for over a month.

In summary, choose your insurance company carefully and read your policy carefully before you commit. Choose your body shop just as carefully. You need a quality body shop owned by the franchised dealer for your make of car that will be an advocate for your interests, more than your insurance company’s.

“RED FLAGS” TO WATCH FOR WHEN BUYING A CAR

The “Big Sale Event”. If you look in today’s newspaper, you will find that most car dealers in your area are having a sale of some kind. It may be because of a current holiday, “too large an inventory” of cars, to “reduce their taxes”, “the manager is out of town”, or some other nefarious lure. Advertising 101 says that you should give the prospective buyer a “motive to act”. Unfortunately it doesn’t matter whether the motive is real or not. The fact is that most car dealers do not sell their cars for less during “sales events” than they do at any other time. I point this out so that you don’t rush your buying decision. If you don’t buy a car during the tight time constraints of a phony sales event, you can negotiate just as good a price the next day. The exceptions to this are legitimate rebates offered by the manufacturer. These often expire at the end of the month which is one reason why the “last day of the month” really can be the best time to buy a car”.
“The Price I’m giving you is only good for today”. If a salesman or sales manager tells you that, it is probably only a tactic to push you into buying the car. The only exception would be the expiration of a factory rebate. Once again, this is simply a tactic to push you into buying before you have a chance to do your comparative price shopping.
“Take the car home tonight and see how you like it”. Driving the car you are considering buying home can be a good thing. It will give you a lot better idea about how the car performs, etc. However, there are two reasons the car salesman offers this. One is that you must leave the vehicle you might be trading in with the car dealer. This means that you cannot shop prices with other dealers. The second reason is the psychological impact of parking that new car in your driveway where your family and neighbors can see it. The slang expression for this is “the puppy dog”. If you were to take home a little puppy from the pet store, you and your children would fall in love with her and could not return her the next day.
“You must give me a deposit before I can give you a price”. This has to be one of the most insulting ways that some car salesmen have of intimidating a prospective buyer. It’s amazing how many people actually succumb to this which allows the salesman an element of control….you can’t leave until they give you your money back. If confronted with this ultimatum, simply walk away.
“Are you ready to buy a car today”? Often times, if you say no to this question, the salesman will tell you to come back when you are ready to buy. He will tell you to shop around and come back with your best price so that he can beat it. The salesman is afraid that, if he does give you his best price, you will go somewhere else and that salesman will beat it. Of course, that is the whole idea of competition and that is exactly what you want to do. If the salesman is afraid to give you a price because his competitor will beat it, it must not be the best price!
“Make me an offer and I will take it to my manager for approval”. This is a very common tactic which you have probably already encountered. It is not unethical. It is simply part of negotiating. I point this out so that you are fully aware that this is part of the negotiating game. Be aware, that no matter what price you offer, the manager will ask you for more money. Even if you offered a high price that would be a very large profit for the dealer, the manager would ask you for more money. The psychology behind this is that if you suddenly accepted the offer, you may frighten the customer by thinking he had offered too much (which he would have). When you negotiate, you must be well versed on what is a good price for that car. Start out below the best price you think you can buy it for. If you cannot negotiate a price close to your best price, get up and leave. Continue this process with another car dealer.
The “really big” discount”. The other day a friend showed me direct mail advertising piece from a new car dealer with a coupon good for $2,000 discount on any car in his inventory. This is very common for newspaper and TV ads too. Federal law requires new cars to have a price sticker on the window named the Monroney label. A discount from this suggested retail price gives you a fair basis for comparison. Unfortunately, most car dealers today, increase the suggested retail price substantially with the use of an addendum to the Monroney sticker often referred to as a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This “adjustment” can be several thousands of dollars. Be sure you know what the asking price is for the car when you have been offered a “big discount”.

The best protection from all of the above is to find a car dealer that you can trust. Ask your friends about their experiences with dealers and call the Better Business Bureau and the County Office of Consumer Affairs. All things being equal choose the dealership that has been in business a long time and an owner or general manager who will make himself accessible to you and all of his customers.

Monday, July 03, 2006

What to do if you are Treated Badly by a Car Dealer

Hopefully the sales or service experience with your car dealer went well. But, sometimes they don’t. Now what? The advice I give you applies to all business transactions, not just car dealerships.

Your first step should be to communicate your complaint ASAP to the General Manager or, preferably, the owner. Be sure that you are talking to the real owner or the real general manger. A General Manager is over all employees in the entire company. A general “sales” manager is not a General Manager. If you can’t reach the owner (Many car dealerships are either publicly owned or owned by absentee owners), ask to see the General Manager. Often times the owner or General Manager is not aware of everything that goes on with all of their customers and employees. They might have new employee that should not have been hired or received inadequate training. Or, they may simply have a “rotten apple” that should not be working there. The ease and speed with which you can meet and speak to a General Manager or an owner is a pretty good measure of the integrity of the company as whole. If the owner or General Manager cares enough about her customers to allow total access, it is probably a very good place to do business. In fact, it is a good idea to find this out before you do business.

If you cannot reach the owner or General Manager, contact the manufacturer who franchises the dealership. Car dealers have a contract with the manufacturer called a franchise agreement and this contractual agreement requires that they treat their customers with courtesy, efficiency and integrity. Most manufacturers have a customer hotline that allows you to call and register a complaint directly. The owner or General Manager of the dealership will be made aware of your complaint. As you might guess, the manufacturer has quite of bit of clout with their dealer. If a dealer does not live up to his side of the contract, his franchise could be canceled or not renewed.

The third step I recommend, if numbers one and two don’t work, is to contact a consumer agency like The Better Business Bureau or the County Office of Consumer Affairs. These agencies will send your complaint to the dealership and request a written reply. No car dealership or business wants an unanswered complaint in the file of a governmental or private consumer agency.

Your last resort is to contact an attorney. I list this last because hiring an attorney just about eliminates the possibility that you can quickly, amicably and inexpensively resolve your differences with the car dealer. Be very careful which attorney you choose. Try to choose one that is primarily interested in helping you and not in generating large fees for himself. Under the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, an attorney is entitled to his fees and costs from the defendant in a lawsuit if he wins. These fees can be much larger than the amount of your claim, motivating an unethical attorney to spend more time than is needed and dragging out a case to generate more fees than are necessary. This can be very dangerous for you because the car dealer’s attorney’s fees run roughly parallel to your lawyer’s and you can be held liable for those if you lose the case.

Hopefully you never have to resort to the final step of hiring a lawyer. In trying steps one, two, and three try to present your complaint as concisely and politely as possible. You have every right to be angry when you are taken advantage of, but try to let your anger subside before you speak to or write to someone about your problem. We all react negatively to someone who is profane, raises his voice, or is sarcastic. Your goal of communicating and resolving your complaint is best reached by communicating clearly, politely and concisely.