Monday, May 22, 2017

Dealing with the Dealer Fee: Earl Stewart’s User’s Guide


Hopefully by now, all but my newest readers know about the infamous “Dealer Fee”. If you don’t know, it’s a hidden price increase on the car you purchase disguised to look like a federal, state, or local tax or fee. It’s 100% profit to the dealer. “Dealer Fee” is the most common name for this disguised profit, but it goes by many names such as doc fee, dealer prep fee, service fee, administrative fee, electronic filing fee, e-filing fee, tag agency fee, pre-delivery fee, etc. The names are only limited by car dealers’ imaginations. Almost all car dealers in Florida charge a Dealer Fee. The dealer fees range from around $700 to as high as $2,000!

This is the Florida law that is supposed to regulate the Dealer Fee: “The advertised price must include all fees or charges that the customer must pay excluding state and local taxes.” The law also requires that the Dealer Fee must be disclosed to the buyer as follows: “This charge represents costs and profits to the dealer for items such as inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles and preparing documents related to the sale.”

This law is very weak and almost never enforced. When enforced, it isn’t enforced by the letter of the law; it is done so as to “accommodate” the car dealers. The law is “weak” because it requires only that the dealer fee be included in the “advertised” price. The word “advertised” is narrowly interpreted to mean a specific car shown in a newspaper, TV, radio, or online ad, but, what about when you get a price on the phone, online, or from the salesman? You don’t find out about the Dealer Fee until you’re in the business office signing a bunch of papers. The dealers get around advertisements very easily by including a “number” in the fine print. This number is their stocknumber that designates one specific car. When you respond to the ad, this car is no longer available (sales people are usually not paid a commission for selling the “ad car). The advertisement might say “many more identical cars are available.” It’s true that identical cars are available for sale, but they are not available for sale at the sale price because they are not the advertised stock number car. If you buy one of those “exact same cars” you will pay from $700 to $2,000 more.

The reason I’m told that the law is rarely enforced is that the Florida Attorney General’s office is understaffed and too busy enforcing other Florida laws. I’m also told that Florida car buyers don’t file very many complaints against car dealers for violating the Dealer Fee law. I don’t believe that there can be too many other infractions of the law that take more money annually from consumers than dealer fees take from car buyers. Just one car dealer selling 1,000 cars a year and charging a $1,000 dealer fee is taking a $1 million annually from car buyers. Most car dealers in South Florida well a lot more than 1,000 cars annually and many charge more than $1,000 dealer fee. I believe that the reason more complaints aren’t filed on the dealer fee is because most car buyers don’t know that they are being duped. They either don’t notice the fee or assume it’s an official federal or state fee. Dealer often tell their customers that all dealers charge it and that it’s required by law.

The Attorney General also “accommodates” the dealers by not interpreting the law the way it was intended. For example, the law says that the dealer fee must be included in the advertised price. The Florida Senate has ruled that the law requires that the fee be “included” rather than “specifically delineated.” But the Attorney General allows car dealers to advertise car prices without including their dealer fee in the price if they mention their dealer fee in the fine print. They also allow car dealers to simply state in the fine print that they have a Dealer Fee but not even mention the amount. To me they are simply allowing the car dealers to break the law.

Lastly, the required disclosure of the Dealer Fee on the vehicle buyer’s order or invoice is confusing, misleading, and incorrect: “This charge represents costs and profits to the dealer for items such as inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles and preparing documents related to the sale.” It should not say “costs” because any cost that you pass along to the customer in the price of a product is pure profit. A dealer can pass along his utility bills, sales commissions and advertising if he wants to and call it a “dealer fee”. It should not say “inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles” because all car dealers are reimbursed by the manufacturer for “inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles”.

So, what should you do when you are confronted by a car dealer with the “Dealer Fee”? Besides “LEAVE”, here are some suggestions that may help you:

  • Make it clear from the very beginning that all prices you discuss must be “out-the-door” prices. This way you don’t care if the dealer fee added up front because you will shop and compare their bottom line price with at least 3 competing car dealers. Ideally you should require that they include tax and tag in that price. If you don’t they might try to slip in something they call the “electronic filing fee” or “e filing fee” and trick you into believing that it’s part of the license tag and registration.
  • The dealer will often tell you that all car dealers charge Dealer Fees and that they are required by law to add the dealer fee on every car they sell. Simply tell them that you know this is not true and you can cite me and other car dealers like Mullinax Ford, OffLeaseOnly.com and Earl Stewart Toyota that do not charge a dealer fee. Print out a copy of this article, show it to them, and tell them that you know that there is no law that says he must charge you a dealer fee.
  • If you and the dealer understand that the out-the-door price is the price you will shop and compare with his competition, you don’t need to be concerned whether there is a dealer fee showing on the vehicle buyer’s order. To be competitive, the dealer can simply reduce the price by the amount of his Dealer Fee and the bottom line is what you are comparing.
  • Be aware that dealers usually do not pay their sales people a commission on the amount of their dealer fee. In fact, dealers often misinform their sales people just like they do their customers. The salesman who tells you that the all dealers charge Dealer Fees and that the law requires everyone pay a dealer fee may believe it. Sale people who understand that the Dealer Fee is simply profit to the dealer will be resentful of not being paid their 25% commission on it. A $1,000 dealer fee costs the salesman $250 in commission.
  • When you respond to an advertisement at a specific price for a specific model car, object when the dealer adds the dealer fee. Unfortunately, the law allows him the loophole of claiming that the ad car is a different stock number, but you might be able to shame him into taking off the dealer fee. If you raise a “big enough stink”, the dealer would be smart to take off the dealer fee than claim that technicality, especially if you were to advise the local TV station or newspaper.

I hope that these suggestions help you and I hope that you will file a complaint with the Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi. If enough consumers (who are also voters) let our elected officials know how they feel about the Dealer Fee, it will bring positive results.

Monday, May 15, 2017

10 Costs Comprising the TOTAL PRICE of a Car

Understanding and calculating the TOTAL PRICE of a car is very complicated and time consuming. The average price of a new car is about $40,000, but when you add all the other costs associated with the car and multiply this by all the cars you will buy in your lifetime, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. This means that you should make the effort and take the time to fully understand the Total Price of the next car you buy.

Car dealers and car manufacturers advertise car prices that are only a small fraction of the true cost of the car. When you’re comparing advertised prices from different dealers and different makes and models of cars, you have virtually no valid information on making the right purchase decision. Dealers almost always advertise a price that is substantially lower than you can buy their car. If they don’t do this, their competitor will, and they will lose the sale.

Manufacturers almost never advertise the other costs associated with their cars, unless the car happens to have a low cost in that category. For example, Subaru has a low cost of depreciation, but you’ll never see a Chrysler ad about depreciation cost. The fine print in every manufacturer’s ad stipulates that the dealers can add dealer installed accessories and dealer fees.

Below I’ve listed all the costs totaling the TRUE TOTAL COST of the cars you buy.

(1) Selling price of car

(2) Trade-in allowance

(3) Interest cost of financing

(4) Finance “products”.

(5) Depreciation

(6) Insurance

(7) Maintenance

(8) Repairs

(9) Dealer Installed Accessories

(10) Dealer Fees

Selling Price of Car. Determine the lowest selling price of the car you want to buy as follows: Check with these two 3rd party car buying services, www.TrueCar.com and https://www.costcoauto.com. Then take the lowest price of the two and shop it with at least three dealers on the exact same make, model, accessories and MSRP as the car you priced with TrueCar and Costco.

Trade-in Allowance. Keep the sale of your trade-in separate from your purchase transaction. The dealer you buy your car from will try to pay you less for your trade-in than it’s worth; or he will delude you into believing he’s giving you a good price by overcharging you on the car you’re buying. Get purchase offers on your trade-in from the used car departments at three dealers who sell the make of car you are driving. Make an appointment with the used car manager and simply explain that you want to sell your car, but make it clear you aren’t buying another. Also, tell him you are getting competing bids from two other dealers. When you make the final decision on the dealer you will purchase your car from, offer him the right to match or beat your best price offer. Remember that Florida and other states offer you sales tax exemption on the amount of your trade-in allowance.

Interest Cost of Financing. Car dealers make more money financing cars and selling warranties and other “finance products” than they do on the actual sale of the car. Check with your bank and credit union. Credit unions offer lower rates than most banks. You can join some credit unions for a relatively modest annual fee. Also, consider the dealer’s interest rate if it is a subsidized low rate offered by the manufacturer of the car.

Finance Products. There’s pressure by the federal agency, the CFPB, Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, on car dealers about charging exorbitant interest rates to minorities. Many dealers have resorted to shifting their finance profits to products and services added into the retail installment sales contract. Oftentimes these products and services aren’t properly disclosed to the buyer. Carefully read your installment sales contract before you sign it to be sure that there are no warranties, prepaid maintenance agreements, road hazard insurance, roadside assistance, LoJack, or anything else added to the finance cost of your car that you haven’t agreed to buy.

Depreciation. All different makes and models of cars depreciate at different rates. The differences are substantial and can amount to thousands of dollars. The selling price of a Subaru and a Chrysler can be the same, but the Chrysler will depreciate thousands more than the Subaru. You can research depreciation online at www.ConsumerReports.com, www.Kbb.com, www.Edmunds.com, and www.ALG.com.

Maintenance. The cost of maintenance for cars has dropped precipitously in the past ten years. Cars are built better and require far less maintenance, like oil changes, than ever before. The cost is so low that most manufacturers are offering free maintenance in first 2 or 3 years of ownership. However, if you keep your car longer, the cost of maintenance naturally increases. Consumer Reports is, by far, your best source of information on maintenance and repairs of all makes of used and new cars.

Repairs. Repairs are usually mentioned together with maintenance, but I separate them because, even though repairs are required less frequently like maintenance, the actual cost of repairs are very high. This is because today’s cars consist of very high tech and complex computer systems which are often manufactured in modules. Repairs often involve the replacement of an entire computer module (not just a few parts), costing thousands of dollars. One again, I refer you to Consumer Reports for detailed information on repair costs. Their annual April Auto Issue is “worth its weight in gold” as source of buying information.

Dealer Installed Accessories. JUST SAY NO! With rare exceptions, all accessories installed by dealers on their cars before they are sold are vastly overpriced and have very little value or utility. Dealer installed accessories exist so that the dealer can add profit to the sale of the car above the advertised price. Examples of these overpriced accessories are Nitrogen in tires, LoJack, pinstripes, roadside assistance, and paint sealant.

Dealer Fees. Last, but certainly not least, are car dealers’ dirtiest little secret. Dealer fee is a generic name for all the bogus fees that dealers add to the advertised price of their cars. The thing they have in common is the word “fee” because it resonates as an “official” local, state, or federal fee. A few of the “creative” names for dealer fees are Electronic Filing Fee, Tag Agency Fee, Notary Fee, Handling Fee, Administrative Fee, Dealer Prep Fee, and Dealer Service Fee. The way to spot a real fee from a bogus fee is by determining if the dealer charged you sales tax on that amount. THERE IS NO STATE SALES TAX CHARGED ON GOVERNMENT FEES.

Monday, May 01, 2017

FREE LIFETIME ENGINE/POWER-TRAIN WARRANTIES ARE PHONEY-BALONEY, WORTHLESS COME-ONS

Car dealers will do almost anything to “get you in-the-door” to sell you a car, and one of their favorite tricks is a “free lifetime warranty” with every car they sell. I haven’t written about this before because I didn’t think anybody would believe a car dealer would give then anything of value free, but I was wrong!

I was recently shown a survey of South Florida car owners. The survey asked which features and benefits associated with the purchase of a car they considered to be the most valuable. To my amazement and disbelief, the number one and two items were free, lifetime engine and power-train warranties!

For clarification, the engine is part of the powertrain. the main components that generate power and deliver it to the road surface. This includes the engine, transmission, drive shaft, differentials, and the final drive (drive wheels). Essentially, these are all thelubricated parts of your vehicle. These parts are very important, and they are also very reliable and not likely to fail if properly maintained.

All engine/powertrain warranties, free or otherwise, have requirements that they be maintained, at least per the manufacturers’ recommendations. Many free warranties also have conditions that they be maintained even more frequently than the manufacturer requires. Most non-manufacturer engine and powertrain warranties (and all free nonmanufacturer) EXCLUDE SEALS AND GASKETS* which are the only parts that might wear out during any reasonable length of time. Some of these phony warranties have requirements that all maintenance and repairs be made at the dealership you bought the car from; some have requirements that you use a specific brand of oil. All of them require that you have detailed, written evidence of every single required maintenance that the fine print in the warranty requires. There are also other exclusions (“CYA” for the warranty seller) regarding how you use your car…do you tow a trailer, drive commercially, etc. A good tip for you regarding warranties, free or not, is to read the fine print which tells you what the warranty DOES NOT COVER. This is usually on the last page in fine print but what it does cover is on the front page in large, bold print.

Because there is virtually no warranty cost to auto manufacturers from repairing engine and powertrains that have been properly maintained, they offer much longer, higher mileage coverage on the engine/powertrain than the rest of the car. Hyundai and Mitsubishi warrantee their engine/powertrains for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Acura warrantees theirs for 7 years or 70,000 and most other manufacturers for 4 or 5 years and 50,000 miles. Remember that the manufacturers do cover gaskets and seals on their warranties, but the car dealers offering the free warranties do not. The only things that can fail on a well-maintained engine or powertrain are the seals and gaskets. If the manufacturer did not cover these, they would offer a lifetime warranty too.

When you see one of these car dealer advertisements offering you a FREE engine or powertrain warranty, ask him how much of adiscount from the advertised price he will give you if you decline the warranty; and/or ask him to show you proof of any warranty repairs his dealership has ever made on an engine or powertrain covered by their free warranty. I think we both know the answer to these questions…you won’t get a dime’s discount on the car and they’ve never spent a nickel on warranty repairs. The bottom line is that a free engine/powertrain warranty is just like free advice…it’s not worth anything.

*CORRECTION: It has come to my attention that not all of these warranties exclude seals and gaskets. In particular, Bev Smith Toyota and West Palm Beach Nissan both offer free lifetime powertrain warranties that do cover seals and gaskets.