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Monday, December 30, 2013

Beware the Phony Monroney

This blog post originally ran five years ago. It’s important that I run it again today because violation of this Federal law, especially its intent, which is to inform car buyers of the official retail price suggested by the car manufacturer, is rampant by most car dealers. The US Senator who drafted this law, Mike Monroney, said this about his law, “The dealer who is honest about the so-called ‘list price’ cannot compete with the one who ‘packs’ several hundred dollars extra into it so he can pretend to give you more on the trade-in.” Senator Monroney said this in 1958 and the only thing that has changed is that dishonest dealers are now charging severalthousand dollars extra. As I write this, the national average price of a gallon of gas is over $4 and climbing. Car dealers are marking up fuel efficient cars, especially, hybrids by thousands of dollars. They add  their dealer window sticker, identical in style to the Monroney label right next to it so that it’s virtually indistinguishable. Then, to add insult to injury, they remove the both labels before delivery which is illegal. 

“Phony Monroney” should not be confused with “Boney Maroney” (I got a gal named Boney Maroney. She’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni). That song was first recorded by Larry Williams during my high school years, 1956-1958. You will appreciate this lame attempt at humor only if you are about my age, 73.

The Monroney label is the window sticker that is mandated by federal law to be affixed to every new vehicle sold in the United States up until the time the new owner takes delivery. The name, Monroney, derives from Senator Michael Monroney’s law passed by Congress in 1958. Prior to the proposal of this bill, there was often a large discrepancy between the showroom price and the actual price of a new vehicle.  The fact was that existing price tags did not tell the full story.  Most customer-quoted prices were for "stripped-down" models and did not include additions for preparation charges, freight charges, federal, state, and local taxes, or optional factory-installed equipment requested by the purchaser. These hidden charges were used by some dealers to increase the selling price while giving the new vehicle buyer an inflated idea of their trade-in allowance.  This price confusion led to a slump in auto sales during the early 1950's.  Senator Monroney's bill was designed to prevent the abuse of the new vehicle list prices, but would not, however, prevent dealers and buyers from bargaining over vehicle prices.

Well, as you might expect, car dealers have figured out a way to evade this very good law. An alarmingly large number of dealers use a label that is designed to look almost identical to the official Monroney label. It has the same coloring, fonts, type size and layout. This “phony Monroney” is affixed right next to the genuine article. Unless you really look close and read all of the fine print, you will have no idea that you are looking at a counterfeit Monroney label. This phony Monroney includes extra charges to artificially inflate the manufacturer’s suggested list price, MSRP.

One of the most egregious of these charges is an addition of pure markup just for profit which has a variety of names. Some of these are “Market Adjustment”, “Additional Dealer Markup”, “Adjusted Market Value”, “ADM”, “Market Adjustment Addendum” and “Market Value Adjustment”. This is simply an amount that the dealer adds to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. It is virtually always used in high-demand, low supply cars. I have seen these labels with charges as much as $10,000 added to the MSRP. Additions of $1,500 to $3,995 are common. Dealers also use the counterfeit labels to price dealer-installed accessories, which are OK, as long as the accessories are not marked up higher than the manufacturer marks them up.

When customers confuse the phony Monroney with the real one, this distorts their point of reference for comparing prices between different dealerships. One manufacturer’s Monroney labels are consistent. A 2014 Honda Accord with the same factory accessories will have the same MSRP at every Honda dealership you visit. But if dealers fool you into thinking their label is part of the Monroney, you are not comparing “apples and apples”.  This can adversely affect a good buying decision in a number of ways. Some buyers focus mainly on how big a trade-in allowance they can get for their old car. If one dealer has the same car marked up $3,000 more than another dealer, he can offer you $3,000 more for your trade and still make the same profit as the other dealer. Some buyers focus on how big a discount they get from “sticker”. It’s easy to give a higher discount if you have artificially inflated the MSRP by thousands of dollars.

My advice to you is carefully inspect the sticker on the new car you are contemplating buying. Read it completely and especially the fine print. If there is a second label on the car, it is possible that it is fair. This would be for purposes of adding an item, installed by the dealer like floor mats or stripes, priced the same as the manufacturer charges. If that second label includes a markup over MSRP for no reason other than profit for the dealer, make sure that you adjust for that number in your comparisons for discounts and trade-in allowance. Some dealers also add a second markup to these labels and that is the infamous “dealer fee” also sometimes called “doc fee” and “dealer prep”. Some dealers do not put this on the phony Monroney but print it on their buyer’s orders and program it into their computers.

Monday, December 16, 2013


If you look down at the bottom of virtually every car advertisement in your local newspaper, you will see some fine print. Sometimes you literally cannot read the print because it is so small. The disclaimers you read below were taken from today’s PB Post. I didn’t make any of these up. Basically what these disclaimers do is to totally negate the validity of all of the prices and payments the car dealers are advertising. The prices and payments are always much higher when you factor in the almost invisible fine print.

Combining a very short lease term with a high down payment. Nothing sells cars like low monthly payments. A car dealer can make a monthly lease payment as low as he wants by both reducing the number of months of the lease and increasing the down payment. I’m looking at an ad in the PB Post right now advertising an SUV for $19,999 or just $199 per month. In the fine print it says 27 month lease and $3,000 down plus a $799 dealer fee.

"Plus dealer installed options" The price you see advertised in the paper is not the full price. This loophole allows the dealer to tack on thousands of dollars in overpriced accessories to the price that was advertised. Dealers often charge well over one thousand dollars for floor mats, adhesive pin stripes, and flimsy plastic door edge guards.

"Advertised offer good on select in-stock vehicles only" Dealers often advertise just one car at a price below their cost. They don’t pay the salesman a commission if he sells that vehicle. The chances of that car being available for you to buy are “slim and none”. Even if the car was still there, the salesman would do everything in his power to sell you a different car that he could earn a commission on.

"Owner Loyalty Rebate". Manufacturers offer special cash rebates to current owners of their car. These rebates are not available to you if you don’t currently own that particular make of car. For example, if you own a Honda, and want to buy a Toyota, you don’t qualify for a Toyota loyalty rebate. That price you see advertised won’t be available. Other exclusionary rebates are College Graduate rebates and Military rebates. These are great for recent graduates and service men and women, but do not apply to the majority of consumers. It is also very common to see dealers combine all three: loyalty, college graduate and military rebates, making it virtually impossible for any consumer to take advantage of.

"Price …plus, tax, tag, and fees". The red flag word here is “fees”. The fees these dealers refer to is a “dealer fee” which is synonymous for dealer profit. Most people think it’s a federal or state tax of some kind. It’s nothing more than more money for the dealer that is not disclosed in the price of the car.

"Offers expire date of publication or may be cancelled at any time without notice". This simply means that the prices, payments, etc. you have read have no validity whatsoever. The prices are not good tomorrow, but they aren’t even any good today because the dealer can cancel the offer without notice.

"Not responsible for typographical errors". This is just one more way for a dealer to explain why they can’t sell you the car for the advertised price…We don’t have to honor that price because it was a “typographical error”.

"Vehicle Art for illustrations only". This means that that car you are looking at with the really great looking wheels might not have those wheels on the one you buy. Or, maybe it doesn’t even have those alloy wheels you see in the picture.

"Minimum trade based on dealer list price". The dealer list price is not the same thing as the manufacturer’s suggest price. Dealers add markups to the Monroney label also known as MSRP or manufacturer’s suggested retail price. They label this markup (often on a sticker designed to imitate the official federal Monroney label). Dealer markups of $3,000 and much more are common on such “counterfeit Monroney” labels. In this case, the dealer has marked up the MSRP far enough so that he can offer a minimum $10,000 trade-in allowance.
“$4,000 Trade Equity Required” This is another deceptive way to advertise a super low car payment. How many of us have $4,000 in equity in our trades? Certainly not the majority of consumers!

My advice to you is to ignore all car dealers’ newspaper advertising. Most car ads are designed to “get you in the door” so that they can sell you some other car than the one advertised so that they can make more money. If you must respond to a dealer’s newspaper ad, please be sure you break out your magnifying glass and carefully read the fine print.

Monday, December 09, 2013

What is the “true” cost of that new car?

It is almost impossible for you to determine the true cost of a new car. This might sound crazy, but many dealers don’t know the true cost of their cars. The manufacturers and distributors invoice their dealers for an amount when they ship them a car that is almost always several hundreds of dollars more than the true cost. It’s fair to say that in virtually every case the “invoice” for a new car is much higher than the true cost. By true cost, I am referring to cost as defined by GAAP, generally accepted accounting principals.

You probably have heard about “holdback”. That is an amount of money added into the invoice of a car ranging from 1% to 3% of the MSRP which is returned to the dealer after he has paid the invoice. Some manufacturers include the cost of regional advertising in the invoice which offsets the dealer’s advertising costs. Another fairly common charge included in invoices is “floor plan assistance”. This goes to offset the dealer’s cost of financing the new cars in his inventory. Another is “PDI” or pre-delivery expense which reimbursed the dealer for preparing the car for delivery to you. I could name several more, depending on the manufacturer or distributor. Some of these monies that are returned to the dealer are not shown as profit on his financial statement and some are. Technically a dealer could say that the cost he showed you reflected all of the profit (by definition of his financial statement), but the fact would remain that more money would come to back to him after he sold you the car. To me, that’s called profit.

Besides holdbacks and reimbursements for expenses, you must contend with customer and dealer incentives when trying to figure out the cost of that new car. You will probably be aware of the customer incentives, but not the dealer incentives. Most dealers prefer and lobby the manufacturers for dealer rather than customer incentives just for that reason. Also, performance incentives are paid to dealers for selling a certain number of cars during a given time frame. These usually expire at the end of a month and are one reason why it really is smart to buy a new car on the last day of the month.

Last but not least, remember the “dealer fee”, “dealer prep fee”, “doc fee”, “dealer inspection fee”, etc. which is added to the price you were quoted by the salesman.. It is printed on the buyer’s order and is lumped into the real fees such as Florida sales tax and tag and registration fees. Most dealers in Florida (it is illegal in many states) charge this fee which ranges from $500 to $1,000. If you are making your buying decision on your perceived cost of the car, even if you were right, here is up to $1,000 more in profit to the dealer.

Hopefully you can now understand why it is virtually impossible to precisely know the cost of the new car you are contemplating buying. Most often the salesman and sales manager is not completely versed on the cost either. Checking the cost on a good Internet site like or is about the best you can do. Consumer Reports is another good source. One reason that Internet sites don’t always have the right invoice price is that different distributors for cars invoice their dealers at different prices.

Do not make a decision to buy a car because the dealer has agreed to sell it to you for “X dollars above his cost/invoice”. This statement is virtually meaningless. As I have advised you in an earlier column, you can only be assured of getting the best price by shopping several dealers for the exact same car and getting an “out the door” price plus tax and tag only.