Monday, April 16, 2018

Never Go Car Shopping Alone

I receive phone calls, texts, and emails from car buyers who have usually “already bought a car”. The “horse is out of the barn” and they want me to give them advice on how to get it back. Most of these car buyers went car shopping and bought their car alone. Most of the complaints involve verbal promises by the sales person, not committed to writing. Bringing at least one other person when you’re car shopping doesn’t negate the importance of getting all promises in writing, but substantially lowers the chances of a car salesman trying to pull a fast one. The salesman and his manager know that, in court, two people’s word trumps that of one.

A woman wrote me a letter in response to one of my columns. Her husband had recently passed away and this was the first car she had bought on her own. The dealer did not have the model car with the accessories she wanted and was unable to locate one at another dealership. She did not want to decide without seeing the actual car she wanted to buy but the salesman and manger talked her into signing a buyer’s order, assuring her that she was under no obligation to buy. They also included two accessories that she did not want because they said that “the manufacturer required it”. I’ve heard of distributors ordering cars with certain accessories from the manufacturer which essentially makes them “standard”, but never “$250 floor mats” which was one of the accessories she mentioned. I get a lot of emails, phone calls, and letters from people who made a bad deal in their car purchase and want to know how they can get out of it. This is one of the less egregious, but I chose it because it was a simpler and shorter example.

There is strength in numbers when shopping and negotiating to buy a car. In fact, this applies to any serious decision in life. You might be the sharpest, shrewdest negotiator on the block, but your odds of striking a better deal and not get taken advantage of are enhanced when you have others on your side. Personally, I make a habit of always having at least one partner when I am engaged in a serious, adversarial decision-making process. When meeting with those on the other side, I make it a point to arrive with at least as many people as they have present. One reason is the psychological factor. When you are in an office by yourself with two or three others, it can be intimidating. Another reason is that you always have people on your side to corroborate what was said. If a salesman or a sales manager makes a verbal promise that can be corroborated by a friend or two, it is far less likely to be broken. It will also hold up in court, if it must come to that. Of course, the better solution is to see that all promises are committed to writing.

Buying a car, especially a new car, is more often than not, an emotional decision. Having a friend or two with you can help you make more of an analytical, logical decision. Another point of view is always useful when making an important decision. Also, having one or two friends with you slows down the process to a level more easily absorbed and understood by you. A friend will often think of a question you should have asked but forgot.

Ideally you should bring someone with you who is skilled in negotiation and experienced in buying cars. However, if you don’t know someone like that, somebody is better than nobody.

Please understand that asking a friends, family member, or associates to join you in the purchasing of a car is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it’s a sign of intelligence and a sign of understanding how to stack the deck in your favor in a negotiation.

By the way, most car dealers are unhappy when prospective customers bring in advisors and friends. Naturally they feel that way because they recognize their chances of making a fast, very profitable sale are diminished.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Buying a Car When You Have Bad Credit

There are fewer things more sensitive or embarrassing than having to share your personal credit problems with a stranger. Having credit problems can also put many buyers in a weakened and defensive position when buying a car. Many people with bad, or too little credit feel like the car dealer is somehow “doing them a favor” by selling them a car and getting them financed. Some car dealers will lead you to believe that your credit is worse than it is to put you on the defensive. If they can make you believe that they’re doing you a favor by getting you financed, you’re less likely to complain about the price of the car, the interest rate, and even the type of car you buy.

Make no mistake about it. A car dealer is probably making more money selling a car to a person with bad credit a car than one with good credit. If you have a credit problem, go about buying a car with the same care and due diligence as if you had the very best credit. Shop and compare your financing, your interest rate, and your trade-in allowance. Get at least three quotes on each of these.

Lenders who specialize in lending to those with bad credit are known as “special finance” lenders. Many of these lenders charge the dealer a large upfront fee, as much as $2,500. Legally, the dealer is not supposed to add this fee to the price of the car you buy but, in the real world, the price of the car is usually higher as the result of this fee. Dealer also add high priced but worthless warranties to the price of the cars with the excuse that the lender requires it. This is a lie: it’s illegal for lenders to require a warranty to finance a car. In addition to an upfront fee, the interest rates are very high from special finance lenders. Because they anticipate a much higher amount of repossession losses, they must make more on each transaction. Don’t automatically accept a dealer’s opinion that you must finance through such a lender. There are many conventional banks, credit unions and auto manufacturer lenders these days that loan to people with bad credit. Their interest rates are lower and they don’t charge large upfront fees.

There is much fraud in special finance lending. Credit applications are falsified to show more time on the job, higher incomes, etc. W-2 forms and check stubs are counterfeited. Buyer’s orders show accessories and equipment that do not really exist on the car. Hold checks or promissory notes are misrepresented as cash down payment. Co-signers signatures are forged. Confederates pose as employers, answering cell phones or pay phones to verify employment. These falsifications are performed by finance managers, salesmen, brokers for special finance lenders (who are paid on commission) and the customers themselves. If you sign a credit application, be sure that you know all the information on that application is accurate. Be sure that you understand and agree to all parts of the transaction including down payments, accessories on the car, etc. Never be a party to falsifying information to a lender to obtain a loan. This is a federal crime.

Advertisements aimed at people with bad credit usually exaggerate with claims like, “We finance everyone”, “Wanted, good people with bad credit”, “No credit, no problem”, and, my favorite, “No credit application refused” (it doesn’t say your loan won’t be refused, just your application). My advice is to ignore these kinds of ads and these kinds of dealers. Their strategy is to take advantage of people with bad credit who they believe will buy any car, pay any amount of interest, and any profit to the dealers if the dealer can get them a loan.

It is common practice in Florida to encourage the car buyer to drive the car home immediately upon signing all the papers. In some states like New York this is not permitted until all the car has been registered with the state in the new owner’s name. The reason for this immediate delivery (commonly referred to as the “spot delivery”) is to discourage and possibly even prevent the buyer from changing his mind. Taking possession of the car is a legal consideration making the purchase more binding. I recommend that you not rush the purchase or the delivery. For one thing you want to be sure that the car is exactly the way you want it…clean inside and out, all the accessories properly installed, no dings, dents or scratches, and that you have a complete understanding of how to operate all the features of the vehicle.

More important than anything above, is to be sure the car does not have an outstanding safety recall from the manufacturer. Independent used car dealers, especially those who specialize in folks with bad credit, have become the home for dangerous used cars with unfixed safety recalls. Many new car dealers, like the AutoNation stores, wholesale all cars with unfixed Takata airbag recalls. These cars are bought at auction by used car dealers like DriveTime, OffLeaseOnly.com, CarMax, and thousands of others smaller used car dealers. These cars are retailed to people with bad credit who don’t ask the right questions because they are “grateful” to find financing. ALWAYS CHECK THE VIN OF THE USED CAR YOU BUY AT WWW.SAFERCAR.GOV.

I mention the risk of the “spot delivery” in this column on buying a car with bad credit because it can be especially harmful to someone whose credit is denied after the car has been delivered. You will most likely be required to sign a “Rescission Agreement” before you drive the car home. This is a quasi-legal document which requires you to return the car if your credit is denied. You will probably be told that your credit will be approved, but sometimes the dealer is wrong. The rescission agreement will have a charge for time and mileage that you have put on the car you are driving. Usually this is a very high charge from 25 cents per mile plus $50 per day and higher. It can take weeks for a special finance lender to rule on a credit application. If your credit is denied you could owe the dealer thousands of dollars which the down payment you made might not even cover.

As frightening as all the above may sound, the one single thing you can do to prevent bad things from happening when you purchase a car is to choose your car dealer very carefully. How long has he been in business? What is his track record with the Better Business Bureau, the County Office for Consumer Affairs, and the Florida Attorney General’s Office? Ask friends, neighbors, or relatives who have dealt with this car dealer what their experiences have been like. Choosing a good dealer with integrity will resolve 95% of all your concerns.

Monday, April 02, 2018

HOW TO COMMUNICATE BETTER WITH YOUR CAR DEALER (and be taken more seriously)

As many of you know, I communicate directly with my customers. Some would say to a fault. I don’t have a secretary or administrative assistant. My dealership’s telephone receptionist never asks the caller “who’s calling” or “may I ask the nature of your call?” and she puts my calls (and the calls to all my employees) right through. If I am not in my office, she puts them through automatically to my cell phone…7 days a week. I also have five red phones in five locations of my dealership…the showroom floor by the receptionist, the service customer waiting lounge, outdoors in the service drive, the used car department and in the body shop waiting lounge. Each phone has a picture of me with the message, “Customer Hotline to Earl Stewart. The Buck Stops Here. Have We Not Exceeded Your Expectations? Please Let Me Know. Simply Pick Up the Receiver and Wait For Me To Answer.” As if all this wasn’t enough, I put my personal cell phone number on my business cards and pass them out to my new customers at our bimonthly New Owners Dinner.

I say all this, not to brag (or maybe just a little). It might surprise you that I am not deluged with phone calls. I get quite a few, but considering I sell 400-500 cars a month and service thousands of cars each month, I doubt if I average more than 25 calls per day. Most of them are positive, complimentary calls. I believe one reason for this is that my employees are motivated to work harder to satisfy my customers because they know, if they don’t, I’m going to hear about it very quickly. Another reason is that my customers are remarkably respectful of the fact that they can call me and do not take advantage of it. When you extend your trust to people, they almost always respect that and do not take advantage.

Of course, you are not going to find a lot of car dealers who do what I do. But here is how you can improve your communications in other ways that will allow you to get problems solved and promises kept. Always ask for the business card of every person you deal with. If they don’t have a card, be sure to get their name. This improves your service right away because the person is no longer anonymous. Ask the person for his cell phone number. There was a time when it was considered wrong to call someone on his cell phone, but that was before cell phone rates became so cheap and the cell phone became universal. If this is a critical person you are dealing with, ask for his home telephone number too. Here is a little trick that I use when I do this. I always start out by giving them my cell phone and my home phone number. Then I say, “and may I have yours?” I can’t remember ever having been refused. If someone you are doing business with refuses to give you his cell phone number, maybe you should wonder why.

Also, make it a point to be introduced to this person’s manager. Get the manager’s business card and as many contact numbers as he is willing to share with you. When you do this, you have put the salesman or service advisor on notice that if he doesn’t return your phone calls you will be calling his boss. If you really want to have an edge, ask to meet the general manager and/or owner of the dealership. Get his telephone numbers. Now you will have everybody’s attention when you come into the dealership to transact business. Also, when you have their cell phone number, you can also text them which is less invasive than a phone call.

If you are a “computer person”, collect email addresses from everybody you deal with. Email is not as timely as a telephone, but it has the advantage over the telephone because it is “on the record”. When you make a request of a person by email, he can’t deny it because you have a copy of the message. I know that with Microsoft Outlook email, I get an acknowledgement every time somebody opens an email that I sent them. Furthermore, you can copy as many people as you like with an email. You can send copies that the primary recipient knows about or make them blind copies that he can’t tell were sent. Someone is a lot more likely to act on your request when he knows that it is a matter of record and his boss was copied with the email.

If you can force yourself into the habit of getting names, telephone numbers, and email addresses from everybody you deal with and their managers, conducting business with your car dealer (or any other business) will be much smoother and trouble free.