Monday, November 12, 2018

SHOULD I BUY A CAR OR HAVE A COLONOSCOPY?


If you’re over 55, you should have had a colonoscopy. If you haven’t, call a gastroenterologist, because this could save your life; It did mine, but that’s another story. I had another colonoscopy (about a half dozen, so far) a few days ago, and I must tell you that it’s a very unpleasant experience, mainly from the mental anguish, anticipation and the discomfort of the “preparation” the previous day. I had a lot of time to think about my procedure and I started thinking about how this experience parallels that of buying a car. It’s something you must do and has a very good benefit, but you dread the process.

If you need further proof that buying cars is an unpleasant experience, just read the latest Gallup Poll entitled HONESTY AND ETHICS IN PROFESSIONS. The Gallup organization has been taking this poll every year since 1977. Car dealers have ranked last, or nearly last, in every poll…FORTY-TWO YEARS! For the latest full year poll in 2017, click on
https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx.

My newspaper columns and blog consist mainly of suggestions and inside information that can make your new or used car buying experience less of a fearful one. Some of the titles/subjects are “Always Get an Out the Door Price”, “Bait and Switch Advertising”, “Beware of Deceptive Internet Car Pricing”, “Beware of Direct Mail Car Advertising”, “Buying a Car When You Have a Credit Problem”, “Eight Steps to Ensure You Are Buying the Best Car for the Best Price”, “List Price and MSRP Might Not Be the Same”, “Negotiating to Buy a Car”, “Open Letter to Florida Car Dealers” (I, II, III, and IV), “Shop Your Financing and Trade”, “Should I Buy My Car at the End of the Lease?”, “Should I Lease or Buy my Next Car?”, “Should I Pay Cash or Finance My Next Car?”, “Should I Trade in My Old Car or Sell it Myself”, “Tell Your Car Dealer to be Nice”, “The Right Used Car is a Better Buy than a New Car”, “Translating Misleading Car Ads”, “What is the True Cost of that New Car?”, “What to do if You Are Treated Badly by a Car Dealer”, “When is a Car Sale Not a Car Sale?”, and “The Internet Price is the Lowest Price for a New Car”. You can read all my articles (hundreds) at www.EarlOnCars.com. You’ll find links there to listen to my live, weekly radio show (Saturdays 8-10 AM EST), my YouTube videos, Podcasts, Facebook, Twitter and a wealth of other information on “how not to get ripped off by a car dealer”.

Almost every one of these articles originated from readers of my column, callers to my radio show, and others’ experiences when buying cars from car dealers. I get a lot of calls from people who’ve never bought a car from me. They call to tell me of their bad experience with another dealer and, when I get several calls on the same subject, I write a column on it. People often call me asking for advice or assistance after they’ve already bought, which is “closing the barn door after the horse is gone.” On more than one occasion I’ve called car dealers asking them to consider undoing a wrong they have caused one of their customers. I must confess that my batting average on this effort is “below 300”. I won’t give up, however. One of my most recent calls was from a customer who was charged nearly a $1,000 in service work performed on her car when she had brought it in for a routine service that should have cost her less than $100. She called me for help and was forceful and diligent in following my advice. She got a complete refund on the “unasked for, unnecessary charges”.


One thing that amazes me about these weekly columns and my radio show is that I have been writing and airing for nearly 14 years is that no car dealer has ever called me to complain, or for any other reason. I’ve not been sued either. I think that says something about the truth of my articles. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that you can’t successfully sue somebody for libel or slander if they write or say the truth. I’m puzzled why not one single dealer would call me just out of curiosity. I don’t have a secretary and I don’t screen any of my calls…nor do any of my employees. They do know how successful my dealership is and how fast my sales are growing. They know that I’m selling a lot of their former customers. Many of these new customers tell me how they told the other dealers why they chose to take their business elsewhere. I believe that before too much longer we will see some changes in the way other car dealers do business even if they refuse to call me, as I have repeatedly invited them to do. Sooner or later they will understand that treating your customers with courtesy and integrity is just plain good business.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Wheel Misalignment...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 a 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 must 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 accurate on today’s cars. Nowadays, some older 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 align it, even if the measurements find it is perfectly in adjustment. Modern machines will quickly measure alignments, but some 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, www.TireKiller.com. 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. Therefore 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, October 29, 2018

CAR LEASING BOOBY TRAPS


(1) You owe the bank or leasing company for damage beyond “normal wear and tear” and excess mileage. The danger here is because many people return their car to the dealership after the lease expires without getting signed, written verification of what damage exists on the car and what mileage is on the odometer. Return lease cars commonly sit on the car dealer’s lot for weeks or even months before the bank or leasing company gets around to picking the car up to send it through the auction. Anybody might be driving that lease car in the interim. It could be an employee of the dealership. A returned lease car with a full tank of gas can be a big temptation. In many dealerships the accounting for returned lease cars is very sloppy. Remember, the car does not below to the dealership, but to the bank or leasing company. The dealer doesn’t even have insurance on this car. The insurance may even still be in your name. A return lease car can easily be stolen and no one would even notice. I have heard many horror stories of customers who received bills from their leasing company weeks after returning their lease car for thousands of dollars in damage and excess mileage that they say they were not responsible for. Your only protection is to be sure that a representative of the dealership fills out, with you, a complete return lease inspection form which notes all damage, the estimated cost of repair and the mileage. As an extra precaution, I recommend taking pictures of your lease return car to have on hand in case you're blamed for damage that occurs after you turn it in.

(2) A lease ad with a large down payment and short term. Most lease ads you see on TV or read in the newspaper have a large down payment hidden in the fine print. A down payment of $4,000 is typical. Ironically one of the biggest reasons people lease cars is to avoid laying out more cash. Dealers do this because a cash down payment on a lease is “leveraged” compared to a down payment on a purchase. A $4,000 down payment on a lease will reduce the monthly payment much more than on a purchase. Also, watch out for shorter lease terms such as 24 months compared to 36 or 48 which are normal. Remember, when buying a car, your monthly payments are paying for the “whole car”. When leasing, you are only paying for a small part of the car…the time you use it. A 24 month lease requires less of a down payment to lower the monthly payment than a 36 month lease or 48 month lease. You can actually lease a car for “zero dollars per month” if you put up a large enough down payment. The banks call this a “one-pay lease”. All you are doing is making all of your lease payment up front and, to a lesser extent; this is what you’re doing when a dealer sneaks in a large lease down payment in the fine print.

(3) Low mileage allowance. Be sure you know exactly how many miles are allowed in your lease contract. By restricting the number of miles you are allowed, the dealer can quote a lower monthly payment. I’ve seen lease ads with as low as a 7,500 annual mileage allowance and a 25 cent per mile penalty. Most people drive a lot more miles than this. If you missed this in the fine print and are a fairly typical driver who puts 15,000 miles a year on your car, you would get a surprise bill from the leasing company of $5,625 at the end of a 36 month lease!

(4) The Lease Disposal Fee. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so deceptive. The bank is charging you an extra fee for leasing you the car and then hitting you again for taking the car back. They certainly incur a cost for doing the lease and for taking the lease back, but his is called business overhead expense and should be included in their price which is your lease payment. The motive behind all of this, of course, is the same motive behind the dealer fee…it allows the “illusion” of a lower price than you are actually paying.

(5) Higher Insurance Costs. Typically you are required by the bank or leasing company to carry more insurance on their lease car than you might normally buy if you purchased your car. Furthermore, the cost of the insurance is simply higher on lease cars. That may be because insurance companies know that people are not as careful driving a lease car [belonging to the bank] than they are their own car.

(6) Higher Credit Requirements. Another reason dealers advertise lease payments is that most of those who respond to the ad cannot qualify to lease a car and the dealer then tries to sell them the same car. Of course the payments are much higher, but the dealer accomplished his purpose…”he got you in the door”. If you have a Beacon score below 720, which most people do, you can forget about leasing that car for advertised payment. You may be able to lease it at a higher payment if you have a 680+ Beacon, but many people don’t and cannot lease a car at all.

(7) You mighty not get the Electric Vehicle Tax Credit. The IRS offers a tax incentive to buy an electric or hybrid car (this limited to a certain number of vehicles, so please check ahead to see if the electric or hybrid vehicle qualifies).  If you lease a hybrid instead of buying, the tax incentive does not go to you; it goes to the leasing company because they are the legal owner of the car. The leasing company may pass this along to you in the form of a lower leaser payment, but maybe not. Make sure to ask your dealer if the savings are being passed along to you if you're leasing an electrified vehicle.

(8) No Tax Advantage to Leasing. This is not really a “booby trap” but a lot of people lease cars thinking they can write of the lease payment faster than they can depreciate a car if they buy it. This is not so. Check with your accountant.

The only real advantage I see to leasing over buying is protecting yourself against, or even taking advantage of, unexpected depreciation of the vehicle. When a bank or leasing company establishes a lease payment for a particular model car, the single biggest variable is what that car is going to be worth at the end of the lease. They can’t know and they have to guess. If they guess high and the car is worth a lot less at the end of the lease, you have no obligation and the bank suffers a big loss when they sell it at the auction. This happens more often than you might think. If you had bought the car, you would be the one to worry about the expectedly low trade-in value when you bought your next car. On the other hand if the bank guesses that the value of your lease car is lower than what the market value really is, you have an option to purchase that car at this low price. Even if you don’t want to keep the car, you can buy the car at this below market option price, sell it to the dealer for the true higher value, and pocket the difference.

Monday, October 22, 2018

ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI: PLEASE ENFORCE FLORIDA’S LAWS REGULATING ADVERTISED CAR PRICE


Attorney General Bondi, as the top-ranking law enforcement officer of Florida, I ask you to investigate a sampling of new vehicle advertisements by Florida car dealers. These are readily available to you in Tallahassee, online from your home or office PC.

If your investigator indicates an interest in buying one of these advertised cars from that car dealer, they will discover that they cannot buy it at the advertised price “including all fees or charges that the customer must pay” according to Florida statute 501.976*.

You probably know me. I’ve been a car dealer in Florida for 50 years. In recent years I’ve evolved into a consumer advocate helping car buyers from being taken advantage of by car dealers. I’ve been doing a weekly radio show on this subject for 14 years. Each week we mystery shop a South Florida car dealer. http://www.mysteryshoppingreports.com is the link to my archives of these reports. Our typical report involves responding to an online, TV, direct mail, or newspaper advertisement. We send a mystery shopper in who pretends to want to buy the advertised vehicle at the advertised price. In virtually all mystery shops (over 500), there are additional charges including “non-governmental” fees added to the advertised price.

The last time I raised this issue with your AG predecessor, General McCollum, I was told that the AG’s office didn’t have a significant number of complaints from Florida car buyers on this issue. I sincerely believe the reason for this is that Florida car dealer have been ignoring this law for so long, the law has never been enforced, and that car buyers have become “used to being deceived”. They either don’t know about the law or feel that filing a complaint is not worth the effort.

You’ve done a great job controlling “Pill Mills”, pharmaceutical companies, and other threats to Florida consumers. Floridians spend more money on automobiles than anything except housing, and they need your protection from being over charged millions of dollars annually by hidden charges violating Florida Statute 501.976.

*The 2018 Florida Statutes


TITLE XXXIII

REGULATION OF TRADE, COMMERCE, INVESTMENTS AND SOLICITATIONS

CHAPTER 501 CONSUMER PROTECTION

501.976 Actionable, unfair, or deceptive acts or practices. —It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice, actionable under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, for a dealer to: 

(16) Advertise the price of a vehicle unless the vehicle is identified by year, make, model, and a commonly accepted trade, brand, or style name. The advertised price must include all fees or charges that the customer must pay, including freight or destination charge, dealer preparation charge, and charges for undercoating or rustproofing. State and local taxes, tags, registration fees, and title fees, unless otherwise required by local law or standard, need not be disclosed in the advertisement. When two or more dealers advertise jointly, with or without participation of the franchisor, the advertised price need not include fees and charges that are variable among the individual dealers cooperating in the advertisement, but the nature of all charges that are not included in the advertised price must be disclosed in the advertisement.

(17) Charge a customer for any predelivery service required by the manufacturer, distributor, or importer for which the dealer is reimbursed by the manufacturer, distributor, or importer.

(18) Charge a customer for any predelivery service without having printed on all documents that include a line item for predelivery service the following disclosure: “This charge represents costs and profit to the dealer for items such as inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles, and preparing documents related to the sale.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

How to Choose Your Car Dealer


If you’re lucky enough to have found a car dealership that treats you ethically, honestly and gives you fair prices on vehicles, maintenance, and repairs, congratulations. You’re in the minority. Buying, leasing, repairing, or maintaining a car is an unpleasant and stressful experience for most customers. For proof of this I cite the Gallup annual poll on Honest and Ethics in Professions, conducted every year since 1977. Car sales people rank at or near last for the previous 45 years. Check it outhttps://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx.

There’s a reason for car dealers lagging all other retailers in honesty, ethics, and transparency. Car dealers advertising and sales tactics are “frozen in time” from the last century. Other retailers have all had to evolve and improve to survive with the advent of the internet, Big Data, The Cloud, the knowledge explosion, Google, A.I., etc. All of this gave birth to the educated and demanding consumer of the 21st century. When the modern consumer is treated badly by a retailer, he chooses another retailer that will treat him nicely and fairly.

It doesn’t work that way with car dealers because most of them don’t treat their customers ethically and honestly. Why? Because they are a “protected species”. Every car dealer has a contract with manufacturer that allows him to sell and service cars just about any way he chooses. The only exceptions to this are that the car dealer mustn’t commit a felony and must meet his minimum quota of sales. Every car dealer also has a protected market area, protected by state law and by the manufacturer’s franchise agreement. All fifty states have laws on the books to protect the car dealers from competition and from the manufacturers. In Florida, a car dealers franchise agreement is “perpetual” …it never expires. Car dealers and their lobbying organizations rank right up there with the NRA, Big Insurance and Big Auto influencing our legislators and regulators. If you’re a politician, you better treat car dealers right or you won’t be elected.

Finding a car dealer that will deal honestly with you and give you a fair price is tedious and time consuming, but it’s worth the effort:

1. Check out their consumer ratings on Google, Yelp, Dealer Rater, and the BBB. Don’t just look for the highest ratings but read the individual reviews. A 3-star rating with a thoughtful comment is often more informative than a 5-star. Five stars are suspicious because “nobody’s perfect” and 1 star can be biased in the other direction. If there are very few reviews, don’t put much weight in the score. You should find a dealer with at least 100 reviews.

2. Check out the dealer’s Facebook page and read the posts. Ask your friends on Facebook what they think about various car dealers. The social media is a powerful too, but you must be careful. Use Instagram and Twitter also. 

3. All car dealers are rated by their manufacturers for customer satisfaction, both in sales and service. Some manufacturers rank their dealers by the loyalty of their customer that return for sales and service. This is absolutely the best way to measure customer satisfaction…do most of the dealer’s customers come back to buy another car and to have their car serviced. Ask the dealer to see these scores; if they won’t show them to you, choose a different dealer.

4. For South Florida Car buyers, I’ve compiled a list of recommended and NOT recommended car dealers. You can check this out atwww.GoodDealerBadDealerList.com. Please be warned that you still must exercise caution buying from a “Good Dealer”. I grade these dealers “on the curve”. A more accurate title for the list would be “Better Dealer Worse Dealer List”. 
 
5.
I’ve been mystery shopping car dealers weekly in South Florida for the last 11 years. This is where we get most of the input to score the dealers we have on this list. If you’re considering buying a car from a South Florida dealer, there’s a good chance that I’ve sent in a mystery shopper. You can read these shopping reports athttp://www.mysteryshoppingreports.com.

6. Use a dealer approved by www.TrueCar.com or www.CostoAuto.com. These are the two best third-party car buying services. The dealers using True Car and Costco are certified and supposed to provide you with an honest, transparent price. Unfortunately, some of them don’t measure up and you should exercise caution even when dealing with a TrueCar or Costco certified dealer.

Finally, you should remember that good dealerships have some bad people working there and bad dealerships have some good ones. If you’ve done your research and chosen a dealership but are unhappy with a sales person or manager, ask for someone else to assist you. We’ve sometimes encountered sales people in our mystery shops that apologized for dishonest advertisements and warned the mystery shopper not to overpay on a car.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Hidden Charges in the Service Department



The last time you paid your bill for your car’s maintenance or repair, there was there was an extra, probably unnoticed charge at the bottom of the service invoice. This extra charge was not for the parts or labor performed on your car. If you noticed it at all, it was hidden at the bottom of the invoice near the line for sales tax.

This service charge is the “little brother” of the infamous Dealer Fee, the hidden PRICE INCREASE which is added to the bottom of the bill of sale when you buy a car. Just like the dealer fee, this service charge is not really a fee at all; rather, it's pure profit to the dealership or independent service facility. Just like the dealer fee, it too goes by many different names: "Sundry Supplies Fee", "Miscellaneous Fee", "Hazardous Waste Disposal Fee", "Waste Oil Disposal Fee", “Environmental Impact Fee”, etc. The “Waste Oil Disposal Fee” is particularly deceptive and dishonest because car dealers sell their waste oil to refiners for a tidy profit. Unfortunately, charging any arbitrary extra amount onto the price of auto service is completely legal in Florida! There is also no law requiring consistency in naming this extra charge or even in limiting the amount of that charge. If a car dealer wanted to name the fee CAR DEALER’S RETIREMENT FUND, it would be legal (and a lot more honest than Environmental Impact Fee).

The size of this bogus fee is calculated as a percentage of the total legitimate parts and service charge you incurred and varies from as little as 5% to 10% and higher. Typically, there is a self-imposed “cap” on this phony charge so that you don’t notice it when you pay your bill at the cashier. Caps also vary from about $25 to $50. Remember that most people service their cars about every 6 months or 5,000 miles and keep their cars 6.5 years. If your average “hidden charge for service” was $15, over the course of ownership you would pay $195 for work that was never performed on your car! The average dealer fee in Florida is over $1,000, but a car dealer makes his money on the bogus service charge with volume. A car dealer may sell a few cars each day, but he or she may service dozens. Therefore, a car dealer “steals” far more money from his service customer than he does his car buying customers.

Auto service companies and car dealers know that this is wrong and expect some of their customers (those that are alert enough to catch it) to react angrily. Calls from these customers are what inspired me to write this column. One caller that was a regular reader of my column and called me to ask what the “sundry supply fee” for about $30 at the bottom of his service invoice at Sunrise Ford in Fort Pierce was. I explained it to him. By reacting angrily and threatening to take his service business elsewhere, he was able to have his $30 refunded.

This is my recommendation to you: always inspect the service invoice before you pay. If there is any charge on the invoice that you cannot recognize, ask for a complete explanation. The explanation you are likely to hear is that these are for “miscellaneous” supplies and costs the dealer incurs in repairing the average car, probably not yours. They will talk about nuts and bolts, screws, fasteners, grease solvent, and maybe even “soap to wash the mechanic’s hands”. Of course, these are just normal overhead costs of doing business. They might just as well be charging you for their power and water bill or salary to their mechanics. You tell them that their costs of doing business should have been included in the price you were quoted for the labor and parts on your repair order, not sneakily tacked onto the bottom of the invoice when you were paying the cashier.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Ten Tips on Buying the Right Used Car

I sell new and used cars, but if I was not a car dealer and I needed to buy a car, I would buy a used one instead of a new. This is because a used car is a better value. You get more for your money due to avoiding the initial rapid depreciation of a new car.The price gap between used and new cars has increased to highest level in over a decade. I use the term “used car” in this article because I despise mumbo jumbo euphemisms like “pre-owned”. A used car is a used car is a used car.


(1) Never buy a used car without a CarFax or AutoCheck report. The dealer should provide you with one at no charge because any dealer worth his salt runs one of these two reports on every used car he trades in or buys to protect him. Simply don’t buy a used car from anybody that does not give you this report. CarFax reports now have, not only the information about collision damage, floods damage, previous odometer reading, and title issues, (all obtained from insurance records) but also the mechanical repair history (obtained from dealer records). The CarFax report also shows outstanding safety recalls, but I also recommend that you double check this with the NHTSA, National Highway Traffic Safety Association at www.SaferCar.org. In my experience, CarFax and AutoCheck miss safety recalls about 30% of the time. Unfortunately, there is no law requiring car dealers to even disclose an unfixed safety recall and most dealers are willingly selling their customers cars with dangerous safety recall like Takata airbags.

(2) Have your car inspected by an independent mechanic. Insist on having the used car you are thinking about buying inspected by your mechanic, not affiliated with the dealer. This should cost you no more than $150 and will be money well spent. The mechanic should look, not only for mechanical issues, but body and flood damage. If the mechanic finds some minor things that need fixing, insist that the dealer take care of these and include it in the price he already quoted you. If the dealer won’t allow this, don’t buy from him.

(3) Consult www.ConsumerReports.org , www.TrueCar.com,www.CostcoAuto.com, www.KBB.com, and www.Edmunds.com. These sources have complete information on the safety, reliability, maintenance cost, and even what a fair price is to pay for any used car. Consumer Reports lists the “Best and Worst Used Cars”. This is great guide and don’t ever buy a used car that’s on the “worst list”.

(4) A Certified Used Car is only as good as the dealer who sold it to you. Most manufacturers don’t even require that the dealer fix open safety recalls to call the car “Certified”. All manufacturers sponsor “certified” used cars of their make. The main reason for this is that they like to sell the dealer warranties that the dealer then marks up and sells to you. A secondary reason the manufacturers do this is to enhance the resale value of their make car. This helps them sell more new cars because of the higher trade in value and the higher residual values on cars they lease enhance their profits. You can buy a warranty for a used car even if it’s not certified, but in a certified used car it’s usually included in the price (which makes the price higher). One good thing about manufacturers’ certified programs is that sometimes the manufacturer will offer you lower financing rates. Certified used cars require that the dealer inspect all critical parts of the car and fill out a checklist that is anywhere from 75 to 150 items. That’s all well and good but how carefully is this inspection being done and by whom? You should ask to see a copy of the check list and ask about the qualification of the mechanic who performed and signed the inspection. All too often, the dealer assigns the lowest priced mechanic he has to perform these checks. It’s questionable whether he even performs all of them. A red flag is if you notice a straight line drawn through all the check boxes instead of them being checked off individually.

(5) Money Back Guarantee. A lot of dealers advertise that if you change your mind about the car you bought you can bring it back and exchange it for another. This is a worthless guarantee. You can be sure that they will pick the car and the price of the car they will exchange it for and will end up making an additional profit. CarMax has a reasonable guarantee which refunds all your money within five days with restriction that the car is returned in the same condition that it was sold. CarMax is a good place to buy a used car. My biggest problem with CarMax is that readily sell used cars with dangerous safety recalls, like the Takata airbag. CarMax, GM, Sonic Automotive and the FTC were recently sued by CARS, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety over this issue. The case is currently on appeal.

(6) Contact the previous owner of the car. The previous owner of the used car should be happy to talk to you. Insist that the seller provide you with his telephone number. If the dealer sold the car to that owner as a new or used car and serviced it, ask if you can see the service file.

(7) Test drive the car just as you will be driving it later. Simply taking the car for a spin around the block with the salesman is not enough. I recommend that you drive the car in the manner and places that you will be driving it when you own it. Take it out on the expressway if you do a lot of higher speed driving. You should drive the car for at least a few hours at all the same speeds, conditions, and on the same roads that you normally experience. Park the car, back it up, and take a friend for ride to get their opinion. You don’t want to have any surprises when you bring it home for keeps.

(8) The Internet is the best place to shop for your used car. www.AutoTrader.com lists virtually every used car offered by every car dealership in the USA. Most dealers today display all their used car inventory right on AutoTrader and their website along with the prices. These prices are close to the real price you will pay. The dealer knows that he won’t get many responses if he overprices his used cars. Shopping on the Internet give you ample opportunity to compare the same or similar used cars with lots of different dealers. As always, call the dealer before you come in to confirm the Internet price is an out-the-door price without a dealer fee, doc fee, dealer prep, electronic filing fee, and dealer installed accessories.

(9) Commit all of the dealer’s promises to writing. Take notes of everything the salesman and sales manager promise you such as “we’ll fix that CD player if you’ll bring your car in next week” or “if you ever have a problem with the car we’ll give you a free loaner when you come in for service”. Make those notes part of the buyer’s order and be sure that a manager signs it. It’s also a good idea to always shop with a friend. In a “He said she said” situation, two people trump one.

(10) Get at least three bids on financing. Know what your lowest interest rate is for the year, make, and model car you’re buying. Get quotes from your bank or credit union and at least one other bank in addition to the rate your dealer offers you. If you do use your dealer’s financing, be sure you know and understand everything that’s included in your finance contract. You will be offered products like warranties, GAP insurance, maintenance, road hazard insurance, etc. It’s illegal for a dealer to tie your acceptance for financing or interest rate to your buying a warranty or any other product.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Open Letter to Florida Car Dealers:



I wrote this letter to Florida car dealers almost over decade ago and, so far, I’ve received no replies…at least from car dealers. But I’ve received thousands of replies from car buyers thanking me for taking a stand against the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practice of dealer fees. I thought that I’d give it another try.




SUBJECT: ELIMINATE THE DEALER FEE

Dear Fellow Florida Car Dealer, 

I started in the retail auto business in 1968, about 50 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’m not trying to tell you how to run your business; I’m suggesting a change that will reward both you and your customers.

Every car dealer in Florida (except me) adds charges to the price of the cars he sells, variously referred to as a “dealer fee”, “documentary fee”, “dealer prep fee”, electronic filing fee, notary fee, closing fee, tag agency fee, e-filing fee, etc. This extra charge is printed on your buyer’s orders and is programmed into your computers. It is regulated in many states including California. You charge this fee to every customer and it ranges from a few hundred dollars to several 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 usually do this, and you get around the law by limiting the number of advertised vehicles (as few as one). You also disclose only in the fine print that there is a dealer fee, but don’t include in the price. You don’t even disclose the amount of the fee. You usually have multiple dealer fees by different names.

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 his buyer’s order. But, most car buyers are totally unaware that they are paying this. Who reads all 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 is not true. 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 price 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 admit 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 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 hundred 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 right thing to do would be 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. The salesman won’t permit this because he will lose his commission (typically 25%) on the decrease in his commissionable gross 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 many years ago, it was scary. But I did it because I could no longer, in good conscience, 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. Sure, I was making a few hundred dollars less per car, but I was 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! Currently I’m the largest volume single point car dealer between Orlando and Coconut Creek (near Ft. Lauderdale). That’s not bad for a little dealership in Lake Park, FL (population 9,000).

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’m 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 and not you. And, I’m 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. My cell phone number is 561 358-1474.

Sincerely,

Earl Stewart

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Lunch with Bob Woodward


“Most Important Threat to the United States and the World”

I spent several hours with the renowned Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, a few years ago. My wife, Nancy, and I and six other Toyota dealers met at the “Newseum” in Washington D.C. and had lunch together at the Capital Grille next door. This once in a lifetime experience was my reward for being one of the top Toyota dealers in the USA, measured by sales and customer satisfaction.

You might be too young to remember the Watergate national scandal. Bob Woodward and another young reporter at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, were the reporters that broke the most important political story of the 20th century which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Bob Woodward has written several books, won the Pulitzer prize, and is generally regarded as the #1 investigative reporter and political author in the world. Even if you were too young to remember that, you’ve recently heard of him with his latest book, Fear, Trump in the White House. I’ve downloaded and just begun to read it.

Now what on Earth can my conversations with Bob Woodward have to do with car dealerships? I’m glad you asked! As you know, I’ve been on a crusade for many years to make the dealer fee illegal in Florida. In addition to the dealer fee issue, I write a weekly newspaper column, a blog [www.EarlStewartOnCars.com], and host a weekly radio show [JVC radio WSVU; 95.9, 106.9 FM & 960 AM 8-10 AM EST Saturday] campaigning for truth, ethics, and legality in advertising and selling cars.

The main reason my message is so slow to reach the public is the refusal or reluctance of the great majority of the media to report the story. In fact, 2 years ago, I was previously on another radio station, Seaview 900 AM. The local car dealers threatened the station owner that they would stop advertising on 900 AM if they didn’t “fire Earl Stewart”. I was fired and off the air for over year until JVC Broadcasting bought Seaview and the new owners, Vic Canales and Matt Goldapper, hired me back. I salute and thank these gentlemen for their courage and journalistic ethics.

Why won’t many TV and radio stations and newspapers (fading from importance in the digital age) report rampant, unfair and deceptive selling and advertising practices by many car dealers in Florida? It’s all about the money. Car dealers are responsible for about 20% of total retail sales. As a group, they’re often the largest single buyer of advertising in the media. When the media runs a negative news or editorial piece about car dealers, they risk losing that advertising revenue. Newspapers are going out of business daily. Many of our largest newspapers, the NY Times for example, are teetering on bankruptcy and local newspapers (Palm Beach Post in my market) are even more severely affected.

During my lunch with Bob Woodward, he asked each of us what we considered the single most important threat to the United States and the world. My answer was “radicals inciting terrorism and the threat of a new world order”. Another Toyota dealer was afraid of “hyperinflation brought on by this Administration’s out of control spending”. After hearing all our greatest fears, Bob Woodward told us his greatest fear affecting the USA and the world. He fears that the media is failing to fulfill its vital role to report all the news fearlessly, completely, honestly, and ethically. We Americans take a lot of things for granted and I’m afraid that a free, open, and honest media keeping our government and corporations honest is one of them. Most of the world doesn’t have a free press and it’s no coincidence that those parts of the world without it also don’t have freedom.

Newspapers like the Hometown News, Florida Weekly and radio stations like WSVU should be admired and respected for having the journalistic ethics and courage to allow me to express my opinions about unfair and deceptive trade practices in the retail car business. My local newspaper, the Palm Beach Post, is not so inclined. For fear of losing the advertising business of local car dealers, they refuse to run any news or Op Ed article with my name in it. This is not just my “opinion”. PB Post reporters have said “off the record” that they cannot get permission from their editors to do stories about my company or me. I know one former PB Post reporter who quit his job for this very reason. When I finally realized that the PB Post had put a “black out” on any news about me or my company, I met personally with the former publisher, Doug Franklin at the time, and he privately confirmed that he could not risk losing car dealer advertisers by reporting my views or even running positive news articles about me. I do have to give him credit for being candid about this. He equates the financial survival of the Palm Beach Post with maintaining sufficient advertising revenue. Survival is our strongest instinct. It’s a very rare person or company that will put ethics ahead of survival. Would you? Ironically, the Palm Beach Post and most newspapers have lost car dealers and most other advertisers to digital and TV. “Selling out” their journalistic ethics didn’t work in the long run.

So, there you have it. What do you think is the greatest threat to the USA and the rest of the world? I’m inclined to agree with Bob Woodward. Who is going to keep our politicians, Wall Street, corporations [including car dealers] honest and ethical if they know that nobody will ever learn about their shenanigans in the media?

Monday, September 10, 2018

Buy a New Car Without Getting Ripped Off Ten Tips from a Recovering Car Dealer


1. Use a trusted third buyer buying service. The top three are , True Car (www.TrueCar.com ), Consumer Reports (https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/car-prices-build-buy-service/index.htm), and Costco (https://CostcoAuto.com ) The one caveat is to be sure to deal directly with the TrueCar, Costco, and Consumer Reports designated individuals in the their “certified dealerships” and NEVER vary from the specific car you selected or price quoted by TrueCar, Costco, or Consumer Reports. NEVER pay any additional fees unless they are GOVERNMENT fees for sales tax and the license plate.

2. Ignore all car dealer and car manufacturer advertisements. Almost without exception, it’s impossible to buy or lease a new car for the advertised price. Either it’s simply untrue or there’s something hidden (usually in the fine print) that makes the car much more expensive than advertised. Do your own research online. TrueCar.com, Edmunds.com, and Kbb.com (Kelly Blue Book) are accurate sources of information for fair selling prices.

3. Always get three “bids” for your trade-in. Car dealers love to buy cars directly from owners for their used car lots. Their vernacular is “over-the-curb”. Shop the value of your trade-in with three car dealers of the same make as your trade-in. Make an appointment with the used car manager and tell him you don’t want to buy another car. Explain that you’re “down-sizing and just want to sell your car. Be sure that he knows that you’re getting two more bids from two other dealers. If you’re near a CarMax, that’s a good place to get a bid.

4. Check with your bank and/or credit union. You’ll get a better interest rate and terms than the dealer will likely give you. The exception is with manufacturer offered interest rates, but you often must forego a cash rebate for this. Your best bet may be to take the manufacturer’s cash rebate with a slightly higher interest rate from your bank or credit union.

5. Always compare out-the-door prices. You’ll NEVER get an out-the-door price from a car dealer unless you demand it and then you still might not get it. An out-the-door price is the amount you can hand the dealer a check for and drive the car “out-the-door” to your home with. Every other price you see advertised or quoted is plus a lot more money. Usually you never see the true out-the-door price until you’re in the “business office” aka F&I and “the box” signing stacks of papers spit out by the computer. Typical hidden additions to the price you think you can buy the car for are dealer fees by many different names like tag agency fee, electronic filing fee, dealer services fee, doc fee, notary and closing fee, administrative fee…and “the beat goes on”. Names for aliases for dealer fees are limited only by the dealer’s imagination. I recently mystery shopped a car dealer who claimed he had no dealer fee, but he had an “electronic filing fee and tag agency” fees…both phony fees that are pure profit to the dealer. But wait, there’s more…DEALER INSTALLED ACCESSORIES. Most car dealers add these to the price you pay. Some examples are nitrogen in the tires, plastic pin stripes, “protection packages” including paint sealant, roadside assistance, etc, window tint, and anything else the dealer can buy cheap and overcharge you for.

6. Consult Consumer’s Report before you choose the new car you will buy. Consumer Reports in the most reliable source of information you can access in choosing your next car. Their annual auto issue is priceless…always have in in your library. You don’t have to buy the safest, most fuel efficient, lowest maintenance and repair car with the highest resale value, but at least you will know which cars they are. Then you can choose the one you want.

7. Deal strictly online with car dealers, anonymously. There’s no good reason to visit a dealership and talk to a car salesman other than to test-drive the car you’ve selected and to pick it up after you’ve bought it. Dealing online you won’t be hounded by phone calls from a hoard of car salesmen (don’t give them your number or give them a phony one). Create a new, free address from Google or Microsoft. All dealers have “Internet departments” now. Those sales people are authorized to quote lower prices than the regular “floor salesmen”. Dealer will always give you a lower written price online than they will quote you face-to-face because they know, if it’s too high, they may never hear from you again.

8. Never drive the new car home until you know your credit has been approved. You will be cajoled to drive the car home as soon as you sign the papers. The salesman has two reasons. (1) You will “fall in love with the car”, brag to all you neighbor about the good deal you got, and your family will fall in love with it too. Even in you find some “surprises” in the reams of paperwork you brought home, you’re unlikely to “return the puppy to the pet store”. That’s why they call this practice “puppy-dogging”. (2) Often dealers send credit applications to multiple banks for approval (called shot-gunning). If you have marginal credit, you’re likely to get an approval with “exceptions”. These usually entail higher interest, more down payment, and shorter terms. Customers are far more inclined to agree to this after they’ve taken their puppy home and shown it to all their friends and neighbors.

9. Have a friend accompany you in the Finance Office. Dealer have a large menu of “products” they will try to sell you after you’ve bought the car. The best rule of thumb is to buy none of these until you you’ve had time to study and understand their value. Some examples are extended warranties, maintenance plans, GAP insurance, road hazard insurance, lost key insurance, paintless dent repair, emergency road service, etc. Sometimes one or more of these products is added to your payment without your knowledge or you may be told that “the lender requires that you buy an extended warranty”. This is never true. Having a witness with you is some protection against this.

10. You do not have to bring your car back to the dealer you bought from for service. Buy the car from the dealer that gives you the best price and bring your car for service to the dealer that gives you the best service. You can even bring your car to an independent service company for maintenance or repairs if they aren’t warranty items. Be sure to keep a good record of all repairs and maintenance and use the manufacturer’s owner’s manual a your guide for what maintenance must be done.

*Copies of Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer are available online at https://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Recovering-Dealer-Earl-Stewart/dp/0985729511. 100% of the proceeds are donated to Big Dog Ranch Rescue, www.BDRR.org.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Holdback or Holdup?

If A Car Dealer Show You His “Invoice” …He’s Lying


Back in 1968 when I first went into the retail car business with my father, I can remember asking him, “What is holdback?” I was learning the business and had been studying the invoices on new Pontiacs that General Motors sent us when they shipped a new car that we had ordered. We had to pay the invoice immediately when it was issued, sometimes even before the car arrived at our dealership. In most cases, it was our bank or GMAC who paid GM and we borrowed the money from them to pay for the car. 

My father’s answer to my question about holdback was that it was an increase in the amount of the invoice that we paid General Motors which was not really part of the price of the car. It was just an extra amount added to the real price of the car and included in the invoice. At that time, it was 2% of the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail), so if a new Pontiac Bonneville had an MSRP of $10,000 and a true cost of $9,000, the factory invoice would be $9,200. I asked my father, “When do we get the $200 back?” He said, “At the end of the year”. I asked him if they paid us interest on our money and I can remember him laughing loudly and saying no.

Of course my next question was why they do that. He told me that the reason they gave him was to “help dealers sell their cars for more money” so that they didn’t go broke. He said that because they didn’t get their holdback money for such a long period of time, they began to think of their invoice as being the actual cost of the car. General Motors felt that many dealers were such poor businessmen that they might sell their cars so cheaply that they would go out of business. Now, because GM was kind enough to hold back hundreds of thousands of dollars of the dealers’ money (and pay them no interest on it) but return the money to them once a year, they could help the dealers make a bigger profit and maintain adequate working capital.

At that time, I thought this was the biggest bunch of boloney I had ever heard and I was sure that this was a scheme by the manufacturers to keep a free float of millions of dollars of their dealers’ money under the guise of helping the dealers. I asked my father why the dealers didn’t strongly object to this and he said that most dealers actually “liked” the idea of holdback. When I heard that, I thought that maybe GM and the manufacturers were right about the dealers not being smart enough to sell their cars for a reasonable profit.

It took me a few more years in the business before I understood what was really going on with holdback. It was a “no brainer” as to why the manufacturers liked it, but at last I understood its attraction to us dealers. Because we had to pay an extra amount over the true price of the car and not see that money for up to a year, we began to think of the invoice as the true price, even though it was inflated by hundreds of dollars. Because all manufacturers added holdback to all dealers’ invoices, the net effect was to raise the price of all cars to all buyers by the amount of this holdback. I know this is a dirty word, but it’s price fixing on the grandest scale. This might have been something that Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, and Walter Chrysler concocted while playing golf at Bloomfield Hills Country Club outside of Detroit.

Another neat thing about holdback for us dealers is being able to tell our customers that we are only charging them “X dollars” over invoice; or we can tell them that we will sell them this car at invoice with no profit to us at all! (There’s a sucker born every minute) Dealers often have “invoice sales” with copies of the invoice pasted on the car windows. Who doesn’t believe that an invoice is the cost of the car? The truth is in the semantic skullduggery …” Mr. Customer, I solemnly swear to you that this is the exact price that I paid the factory for this car. In fact, here’s a copy of the invoice.” That’s what the dealer “paid” the factory all right, but it’s not what he paid the factory after he got his holdback check in the mail…or, let’s call a spade a spade, his KICK-BACK.

You might be thinking, so we’re talking about $200 more or less on a $10,000 car. Who cares? Don’t forget, that was almost 50 years ago. Holdbacks have expanded considerably and now instead of several hundred dollars we’re talking several thousand. Also, dealers no longer must wait a year to get their hold back money back. Now they get it back monthly. Manufacturers even changed the names of these monies they hold back. These are innocuous names so that, if you see them on the invoice, you will have no suspicion…names like floorplan assistance, advertising, PDI, Administrative or DAP. Of course, there are also cash rebates to dealers that don’t even show on the invoice. I estimate the average car invoice today includes $3,000 to $4,000 in hidden holdbacks to the dealer. Holdbacks are also applied to factory or distributor accessories like “protection packages” [wax, undercoat, window etch, roadside assistance], floor mats, window tint, etc.

The bottom line is that you should never rely on the dealer’s factory invoice to determine the price you are willing to pay for a car. And be especially suspicions when the dealer quotes you a price of “X dollars over invoice” or shows you the invoice. You’ve heard the old joke, “How can you tell when a politician is lying?” Answer: When his lips are moving. “How can you tell when a car dealer is lying?” Answer: When he shows you the invoice.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Common Deceptions by Car Dealers... Check out the Gallup Annual Poll; Honesty & Ethics in Professions






I get a lot of heat from the Florida Auto Dealers Associations (FADA), auto manufacturers, and most car dealers because I say “bad things” about the way they do business. In my own defense, I’m just one voice among most Americans that feel that the majority of car dealers are unethical and dishonest. The Gallup poll on “Honesty and Ethics in Professions” has been conducted every year since 1977 (40+ years) and car dealers have never ranked above 4th from the bottom. Last year they were next to last, just below Congressman and above Lobbyists. All other retailers except car dealers have “gotten smart’ to match the intelligence and high demands of the 21st Century American consumer, but car dealers are still selling cars the way they did in 1950.

The “Big Sale Event”. If you look online or on TV, you’ll 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 good only 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 incentive. Once again, this is simply a tactic to push you into buying before you have a chance to do your comparative price shopping.

“I can’t give you my best price, but if you bring me another dealer’s price, I guarantee I’ll beat it”. Car dealers are afraid to give you their best price because they fear other dealers will beat if by a few dollars and they’ll lose the business. Guess what! That’s called “the free market place” and that’s the way all other businesses are conducted. The only retailer that won’t give you a final, out-the-door price is the car dealer. They’re still selling cars like they were sold in the middle of the 20th century. Can you imagine walking into Target or Macy’s and asking for the price of dress or a TV set and the sales person tells you can’t have it unless you buy it right now?

“Take the car home tonight and see how you like it”. Driving the car, you’re 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. This same tactic is used when a customer has questionable credit. This is referred to as the “spot delivery” and the dealer will have you sign a form known as a “Rescission Agreement”. You might not even realize that you’ve signed it. It says that you must return the car immediately if the bank rejects your credit application. If you don’t comply, there are huge financial penalties.

I’ll hold the car for you, but you must give me a cash deposit. Deposits in Florida are nonrefundable only if that is stated in writing on the receipt for the deposit. Always get a written receipt and not just handwritten on the salesman’s business card. Read the receipt and be sure that it does not say in the fine print that refunds are nonrefundable. It’s a good idea to give them your credit card for the receipt instead of cash or even a check. You can always protest the charge with your credit card company if the car dealers tries to unfairly keep your deposit.


“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’s not unethical. It’s 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 You can obtain fair prices for all cars online with Kelly Blue Book (KBB.com), Consumer Reports, TrueCar.com, and Edmunds.com.

The “really big” discount”. Recently, a friend showed me direct mail advertising piece from a new car dealer with a coupon good for $3,000 discount on any car in his inventory. This is very common for online, direct mail, 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”.

I’ll sell you the car for $100 over my cost. The salesman will show you the invoice of the car and add $100. The invoice price of a car is NOT THE TRUE COST. The dealer invoice contains thousands of dollars in hidden rebates, holdbacks, advertising kick-backs. The manufacturers are colluding with the dealers in this deception to raise the advertised and actual selling price of cars. Any car dealer would be delighted if he could sell every car at the factory invoice amount…he’d make a fortune.

The best protection from all 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. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult thing to do. I recommend two third-party buying services, www.TrueCar.com and www.CostcoAuto.com. You must pay a fee to become a Costco member, but there’s no charge for TrueCar. You can also buy through Consumer Reports; they use TrueCar as dealer and pricing source. If you buy directly from a dealer, you better off to negotiate the price completely online. Remain anonymous so that you won’t be harangued by car salesmen. Use a different email address and don’t give them your real phone number.

Monday, August 20, 2018

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 generic name for this disguised profit, but it goes by many names such as doc fee, dealer prep fee, services 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 $600 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 virtually never enforced. When enforced, it isn’t enforced by the letter of the law; it is done 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 one specific car shown in an online, Facebook, TV, radio, or print ad. But what about getting 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 stock number 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 sell 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. The Florida Auto Dealers Association (FADA) is the powerful lobbying arm for Florida car dealers. It’s almost impossible for a Florida Attorney General to be elected without the support of car dealers and the FADA.



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:



(1) 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 it’s part of the license tag and registration.



(2) 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 CarMax who 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.



(3) As long as 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.



(4) 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.



(5) 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.

(6) www.TrueCar.com is the one third party buying source which requires its certified dealers to give you a final price excluding only GOVERNMENT fees only…sales tax and license plate/registration. This prohibits the dealer from adding dealer fees and dealer installed accessories. Consumer Reports, American Express, USAA, GEICO, and other blue-chip companies use TrueCar.

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. You can download a complaint form for the Florida Attorney General’s Office at www.FloridaCarDealerComplaints.com.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Hold the Owners or CEOs of Car Dealerships Accountable











Congress passed a law a few years ago that really “shook up” publicly owned companies. It’s called Sarbanes-Oxley, named after the Congressmen who sponsored the bill. Basically, this law says that the CEO and other high echelon management of a public owned company cannot get off the hook from wrong doings because he or she claims they didn't know what their employees were doing. I believe the same rules should apply to all businesses, even if their stock is not publicly held. The boss should always be held accountable for the actions of his employees and this should apply especially for car dealerships.




Most of the employees that customers meet in a car dealership are paid on commission. Those employees get a percentage of the profit that the company makes on the transaction. Car sales people, service sales people (also called service advisors or assistant service managers), parts sales people, and the mechanical technicians who work on your car are mostly all paid on commission. This method of pay tilts the relationship between the customer and employee in somewhat of an adversarial manner. The employee wants the profit to be as high as possible but the customer wants it to be low. In a car dealership that has talented, fully engaged, and ethical management, this potentially adversarial relationship is kept in a fair balance. Without the oversight of upper and middle management and careful hiring practices, some employees will exploit a customer to increase his commission.




What brought the subject of this column to mind was a call I received yesterday from a 78 year old widow from Ft. Pierce. She called to thank me for writing my column and to tell me that she wished she had read some of my columns before she bought her 2005 used Mazda. This was the first car she had bought on her own. Her husband had always taken on this responsibility. She paid the dealership a huge profit on her purchase. She was sold a maintenance package that she believed cost only $25 but it really was $2,500. She was rushed to sign the papers at night because the dealership was closing. In the morning, when she realized the mistake, she drove back to the dealership and asked to back out the sale but was told it was too late. She was told she had signed all the papers and that they had already sold her trade-in even though she had not given them the title. When she asked to speak to the General Manager, three different employees identified themselves as the General Manager. I get a lot of sad calls like this.




The owner of that dealership should know what’s going on. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt by saying that he doesn’t know because if he does know it’s even worse. The owner should look at the big picture and the long term view of his business. You can take advantage of customers and benefit in the short run, but you eventually “pay the piper” when your bad reputation spreads far enough. Most of the bad things I hear about car dealers from their customers are not illegal things. They are simply unethical and not the way one human being should treat another. Refusing to refund the money of an elderly, widow after she realized that she had been taken advantage of is not illegal, but it sure “stinks”. Jim Press is the top executive for Toyota over all of North America and he is also the only non-Japanese to occupy a place on Toyota’s board of directors. He was quoted in the book, The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker, as saying “It’s what you do for a customer when you don’t owe him anything that is the true measure of character. It’s like sticking up for somebody who can’t defend himself”. I really like this quote and I have it engraved on a plaque which I give out each month to the employee who wins the “Above and Beyond Award”. This award goes to our employee who does something for her customer above and beyond what the customer would have expected.



If you have a bad dealing with your car dealership, do your best to contact the owner. This is impossible with publicly held dealerships like AutoNation and United Auto Group, but you should be able to talk to their General Managers. If it’s privately owned dealership, don’t give up until you see the owner.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Follow-up Letter to Florida Law Enforcement



Dear Florida law enforcement officers,

After hearing feedback from the readers of this blog, newspaper columns, and my radio show, I’m amending my original letter to you (shown below).

I agree with my critics that tell me I should not make Florida motorists suffer because of the apathy and abdication of duty by Florida legislators. I asked you, our law enforcement officers that patrol Florida roads, in my original letter below, to ticket those driving cars with dangerous safety recalls. My reasoning behind this request was to get the attention of the legislators that have been ignoring this danger to Florida motorists. I reasoned that the outrage by motorists, most of whom also VOTE, would frighten our legislators into the action they should have taken two years ago…MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO SELL A VEHICLE WITH A DANGEROUS SAFETY RECALL.

However, I see no reason why every Florida motorist shouldn’t be advised by the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles (FLDHSMV) if their car has an unfixed dangerous safety recall. This can be done simply by computer. The FLDHSMV has the name, address and VIN number of every Florida driver. By running this information through the database of the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), every Florida motorist driving a dangerous car can be notified by certified return receipt mail within a few days. All Florida drivers should then be required to show proof of that the safety recall has been fixed before the state will renew their license and registration.

Earl Stewart 


Since Modified as Shown Above ↑
Open Letter to all Florida Law Enforcement Officers Ticket all vehicles with open safety recalls:


Dear Florida law enforcement officer,

If you’re with the Florida Highway Patrol, County Sheriff’s Department, or local city police, you’re empowered by Florida law to issue citations and warnings to unsafe vehicles on Florida’s roads. You typically exercise this duty by citing drivers of vehicles with faulty tail, brake, and head lights, unsafe tires, or even a noncompliant license plate frame.

My suggestion to you is to prioritize citing drivers of vehicles with dangerous safety recalls, especially Takata airbags. There are more deaths and injuries from defective Takata airbags in Florida than all the other 49 states. This is because of Florida’s above average heat and humidity which causes the airbag inflator to EXLODE, sending shrapnel throughout the inside of the vehicle, killing and maiming passengers. Furthermore, SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT of the cars on the roads with safety recalls have never been repaired. Most of these dangerous cars are older and are being driven by a 2nd, 3rd, 4th or later owners. The manufacturers of these cars are unable to contact most of these endangered drivers because of old, inaccurate addresses. There’s also the apathy of many drivers to take the time to bring their car in for repair. Lastly, thousands of vehicles on the road, especially those with defective Takata airbags, have NO FIX AVAILABLE. The huge Takata airbag recall demand has exceeded the manufacturers’ capacity to build the airbag inflators. Some vehicle owners are waiting over a year for a replacement airbag.

Your squad cars are equipped with sophisticated computers which can cross-reference the license plate number of any vehicle on the roads and display the VIN, vehicle identification number, aka serial number. You have direct access to the National Highway Traffic Association’s (NHTSA) database (www.SaferCar.gov) This source, with the VIN, tells you if the car you’re driving behind has an unfixed Takata air bag or any other dangerous safety recall. The NHTSA data base will also tell you IF there is a fix available for this recall.

I suggest that you first issue a warning to all drivers of vehicles with unfixed safety recalls, giving them 7 days to have the vehicle repaired; if they fail to comply, issue a suspension of their driver’s license. If the NHTSA database tells you that the safety recall has no fix available, you should require the driver to drive immediately to the nearest dealership of his vehicle’s make and rent a car or receive a free loaner.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I’m going directly to you, our Florida law enforcement officers, because our governor, legislators, and regulators have all let us down. Clearly, it should be illegal to sell a car with a dangerous safety recall, but our governor and lawmakers will not act. At the very least, it should be required that the buyer of a car with a dangerous safety recall be advised prior to sale, this has not been done either. Therefore, thousands of used cars with dangerous safety recalls are being sold to unsuspecting Floridians daily.

I believe you have the authority and the responsibility to take dangerous vehicles off the road and you can exercise this authority under our existing laws without waiting any longer for the politicians and regulators to act. Furthermore, I believe your action will put the pressure on the politicians, regulators, auto manufacturers and car dealers to do the right thing. The legislators and regulators have “sat on their hands” because of the huge lobbying efforts by auto manufacturers, car dealers, and their associations. Once the drivers of Florida, most of whom are also VOTERS, begin to be pulled over by law enforcement and warned or have their license suspended, you will see our politicians and regulators suddenly begin to do the right thing.

Thanks very much for considering my suggestion,



Earl Stewart