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Monday, July 25, 2011

Out-of-Align Wheels: The Silent Killer

Estimates on the number of cars on the road right now that need an alignment range from as low as 25% to as high as 75%! Even if you have the best tires and vehicle that money can buy, all it takes is a little pothole or curb to cost you a new set of tires. This can cost you anywhere from $300 to over $1,000. If you live in an area with unpaved roads or lots of roads in need of repair and being repaired (Like South Florida) you’re especially vulnerable to potholes and other road obstacles that can knock your front and rear wheels out of alignment. One of my “favorite” ways to misalign my wheels is curbs…I can’t seem to avoid them when I’m parking, especially backing into a parallel parking place.

Most people know that if their car is pulling to the left or right, they need an alignment. Most also know that if they see wear on the edges of their tires, they may have an alignment problem (It could also be under inflated tires). But what most people don’t know is that your wheels can be badly out of alignment with no symptoms whatsoever. It’s like high blood pressure and that’s why I used the phrase “silent killer” in the title of this article. Some people can tell their blood pressure is high from headaches or dizziness, but most feel no difference. Most people learn that they have hypertension only when their doctor measures their blood pressure. Unfortunately many never find out until it’s too late.

Last year I had to replace a nearly new set of tires which had only about 5,000 miles on them (it cost me over $1,000) because all four of my wheels were out of alignment. There were no symptoms whatsoever. My car didn’t pull, my steering wheel was perfectly straight, and I saw no abnormal tire wear. I brought my car in for its routine 5,000 mile service and when my technician put it up on the lift to rotate and balance my wheels and tires, he found that the inside of all four of my tires was severely worn. When you have offsetting misalignment on opposing wheels, there is no pull and when the wear is only on the inside of the tire, it’s invisible until the car is up on a lift. I had my car aligned only a few months ago but I knocked it out of alignment again without even realizing it.

Aligning the four wheels of your car, like everything else, is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Cars shocks’ and suspensions are more complex today. When most cars had rear wheel drive, aligning was simple. Now we have mostly front wheel drive and even some all-wheel drive cars on the road. We no longer do just “front end” alignments we have to align all four wheels. In the “old days” service departments routinely checked the alignment for all cars that drove in. There was a simple machine built into the service drive that registered the measurements when you drove over the track. Some service department still use these dinosaurs but they are not naccurate on today’s cars. Nowadays, many alignment machines are so complex that it takes almost as long to measure your alignment as to adjust it. For this reason many service departments will charge you the same to measure your alignment as they do to actually align it even if the measurements find it is perfectly in adjustment. There are newer, very expensive machines that will quickly measure alignments but most service departments don’t have these.

There are three basic measurements that must be exactly right for your tires to be in align, castor, camber, and toe-in. This website links to a video that gives a very clear, easy to understand explanation of these measurements, The video was produced by the manufacturer, Hunter, who is the largest and best manufacturer of alignment machines in the world.

When you buy a new or used car, you should insist that the dealer check the alignment. A new car can be knocked out of alignment in many ways. Transporting the car to the dealer from the manufacturer and driving it on or off a ship, truck, or train can do it. A technician can do it during a pre-delivery road test or a car salesman or prospective customer might during a test drive. Remember that a demonstration drive in a new or used car won’t necessarily reveal any symptoms like a pull or abnormal tire wear. Many manufacturers will allow one alignment under warranty for a short time and mileage period (like 1 year or 20,000 miles), but some will only permit the dealer do check your alignment if you complain about a pull or abnormal tire wear. Manufacturers consider alignment a maintenance item that is your responsibility. This is why it’s important to be sure your new car is aligned when your car is still within the alignment warranty time and mileage.

When the service department measures your alignment, be sure that they use the latest equipment. A modern alignment machine is computerized, measures all four wheels, requires that your car be elevated on the lift, and the technician must be fully trained. And they are very expensive, about $60,000 for a state-of-the-art machine. Many independent service departments and some dealers can’t afford these. You should ask for a copy of the computer printout showing the specific measurements before and after your alignment. You should have your alignment checked every time you bring your car in for service, approximately every 6 months or 5,000 miles. If you hit a curb, pothole or other obstacle in the road or notice abnormal wear on the edge of your tires, bring it in for an alignment check immediately.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Internet Price is the Lowest Price for a New Car

Ten years from now, I believe that at least 75% of all new cars will be purchased over the Internet. Right now it is less than 20%. The reason is simply that that Internet price is usually your lowest price and more and more car buyers are figuring that out every day. Dealers must give their best price to a prospect inquiring over the Internet because that dealer probably will have only that one chance to sell the car. If they try “the old negotiating game” the Internet prospect will simply choose the lowest price from several other quotes he gets. When my friends ask me to advise them on how to get the best price on a new car, I always tell them to use the Internet. If they ask me for the best price on my product, Toyota, I give them my Internet price.

I am not suggesting that you don’t visit your local dealer to see, touch, smell, and drive the new vehicles you are considering. This is very important. You can’t make a valid, final decision on which new vehicle is best for you by solely reading data and looking at pictures on the Internet, Consumer Reports, or any other source. Research of that nature is important, but you should finalize your decision with visits to the dealers to actually experience the vehicle.

Once you have made your final decision on the year, make, model, color, and accessories, you are ready to sit down at your PC and choose the dealer from whom you will buy this specific vehicle. If you are not handy with a PC, ask a friend or relative who is. First, go to the manufacturer’s Web site like,,, etc. You will be able to type in your zip code to find all of the dealers of that make within a given radius, usually about 40 miles, giving you 3 or 4 dealers. To expand the radius, choose another zip code further from yours. The dealers within your radius will show their Web site addresses. Click on their Web site and ask for a quote on the specific car you have selected. Most Web sites have a page for what is called a “quick quote”. You type in the year, make, model, color, and accessories. It will also ask you for your name, telephone number, address, if you have a trade (check “no”), whether you are ready to buy now (yes), and other questions. All you really need to fill out is year, make, model, and accessories and your email address. If you prefer not to be contacted by phone, don’t fill in the phone number. If they require it before you can submit your request, type in any 10 digits so that the Web page will allow you to. If you can’t find a “quick quote” page, just email your request to their Internet sales department.

Depending on your PC and typing skills this whole process should take less than half an hour. Think of all the time, gasoline, shoe leather, and especially aggravation you are saving compared to visiting as many dealerships in person. The time it will take to get back quotes varies from dealership to dealership. You may get some back within a few minutes, some will take a few hours, and some may take a day or two. Believe it or not, some might not respond at all. There are even a few dealers who will not quote a price on the Internet, but try to lure you into their store with false promises. Ignore them. I recommend that you get a minimum of 3 valid price quotes on your specific vehicle. It’s so easy to get quotes, why not get a half dozen or so? You are not necessarily even limited by driving distances. If the best price is from a dealer who is too far away, show that quote to a dealer nearer you and ask him if he will match it.

There are some things that you must be careful about. Be sure that that the price you get is an “out the door” price. That is a price which excludes only federal, state, and local fees and taxes which are usually just for tax and tag. Most dealers in Florida tack on a fee or fees of their own which are variously referred to as “dealer fee”, “delivery fee”, “documentary fee”, etc. This is illegal in many states, but not in Florida. These fees vary from around $500 to $900. Be sure that this fee which is just profit to the dealer is included in your “out the door” price. Also be absolutely certain that you are comparing “apples and apples”. When you select your low bid, double check that this dealer is quoting you on the same year, make, model, and accessories as the other dealers. A good double-check is to compare the MSRP. The MSRP, manufacturer’s suggested retail price, will be identical on identically equipped cars of the same model and year. Also, be sure that the car you have the price on will be there when you come in. Give them deposit on your credit card to hold the car for you.

Internet car buyers are the wave of the future. The retail car business is going through rapid changes and the old fashioned, price-haggling way of buying cars is slowly but surely becoming obsolete. If you haven’t already, now is the time to join the ranks of the smart, sophisticated car buyers.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Nobody Knows What Your Used Car Is Worth

A lot of people think that all used cars have a specific value and they can learn this by looking it up in the “Blue Book” or some other used car wholesale book. Nothing could be further from the truth. The wholesale books that dealers use and those that are available online to consumers have varying degrees of accuracy, but you can’t rely on a book tell you the best price at which you can sell or trade in your car. The most accurate book is the Manheim Auto Guide because it’s based on the latest wholesale auctions nationwide and it’s updated weekly and daily online. The least accurate book is the NADA guide which relies solely on surveys sent to dealers. The dealers exaggerate the wholesale value of their make to make it easier to take in trades.

All of the wholesale books, except NADA, are based on prices of cars sold at auction. However, you must understand that those prices don’t give you an accurate price that you should expect for your trade. A car sells at an auction for the price offered by the highest bidder if the seller chooses to accept that bid. I often don’t sell my used cars to the highest bidder that week because I might get a much higher price the next week. Lots of things affect the level of prices at a car auction…the weather, holidays, bribing the auctioneer and bribing the buyers. On a cold, rainy day when few dealers show up to buy or sell cars, prices are lower as well as shortly before and after holidays. Sometimes it happens that a buyer “greases the palm“ of the auctioneer so that he “doesn’t hear” (fast gavel) the higher bid from another dealer who bids higher than the dealer who has let the auctioneer know the price at which he wants to buy the car. Sometimes the sellers pay the buyers cash under the table to bid an unrealistically high price for their car. A car doesn’t even have to go through the auction block for the owner to believe it was “sold at the auction”. Buyers and sellers can make a deal before it goes “through the block”…very cozy, only one bidder. Why would they do that? Often the buyers and sellers are employed by the dealer who actually owns the car. The used car manager or wholesale buyer employed by the dealer might pay $2,000 too much for a car if he can earn $500 cash in his pocket from the seller. His boss, the dealer, is never the wiser. Let me hasten to add that the Manheim auctions are very careful to police these kinds of shenanigans and never encourage them. However, as in every large organization (Manheim is the auto auction in the world), there are a few rotten apples.

OK, then if the books are wrong and the auctions are wrong, then surely the car dealer must know the value of my trade-in….WRONG AGAIN. I have a little “test” on used car appraisal knowledge that I administer to my sales managers from time to time. By the way, my managers are among the most knowledgeable and competent anywhere. This isn’t just my opinion but that of all of their peers in this market. My test goes like this. Without prior notice I randomly select a car from among the 100 or so that come into my service department each day. I ask each of my 8 mangers individually to appraise this car for what they think the current wholesale market value is. They keep their appraisal secret from the others and write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to me. I’ve been doing this for 30 or more years and I’ve never had a variance in appraisals of less than $3,000. Some have been greater than $10,000! The reason I do this is to remind all of my mangers of exactly what I’m explaining in this article….Nobody knows the exact value of a used car. That’s important to my managers because under appraising a used car can cost us a sale. Over appraising a used car can cost us a wholesale loss at the auto auction. Therefore we always check and recheck our appraisals and go so far as to call other dealers and even put cars on Ebay. Another good reason not to accept only one dealer’s appraisal is that dealers will often knowingly undervalue your trade-ink, especially if you’ve negotiated a very low price for your new car. The dealer vernacular for his is “stealing the trade”.

Now that we’ve established that nobody has any idea what your trade-in is worth, what does that mean to you? It means you should stop worrying about getting an accurate appraisal because there’s no such thing. However, what you should positively insist on is getting the highest appraisal. In fact, you should hope that the guy who gave you the highest appraisal was very inaccurate and made a huge mistake that will cost his dealership a large wholesale loss at the auction. You accomplish this by never accepting only the appraisal by the car dealer from whom you’re buying your next car. Before you allow him to appraise your car, you should get at least two other bids from dealers of the make of car you are buying. For example, a Ford dealer will usually appraise a Ford for more than a Honda dealer because more people wanting to buy a used Ford will shop the larger selection at a Ford dealer. Deal directly with the used car department at these other dealerships. Tell the used car manager that you need to sell your car for cash and that you’re getting two more bids from two other dealers. If you have the time to get more than two more bids it’s even better. Another good place to get a bid on your used car is from CarMax, the largest retailer of used cars in the world. They buy lots of cars directly from owners even when they don’t buy a car from CarMax. Their prices are sometimes higher than dealers will offer you.

After you determine the highest bidder, if it’s not the dealer from whom you’re buying, give him the right of last refusal. If he can match the price from his competitor, you save the sales tax on the price of your trade.