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Friday, December 29, 2006


Most people don’t have any choice except to finance their cars. However, if you are reading this column, the chances are you are in that fortunate higher demographic category and can afford to pay cash for your next car. People who read Op Ed columns in newspapers tend to be more intelligent and affluent. But, just because you can, is it the right move?

Many people think they can get a better deal on a car if they pay cash. This was true 40 years ago before dealers discovered the new profit center referred to as the Finance and Insurance Department. Today this is not true. In fact, paying cash may even make the actual vehicle cost you more! The reason for this is that car dealers make money when they handle the financing with the bank or with the manufacturer’s lenders like GMAC or Chrysler Credit. A dealer typically averages about $700 on every car he handles the financing on. Therefore, if the dealer’s minimum acceptable profit on a car was $1,000, he may sell it to someone who he could make $700 finance profit on for less than someone who he knew was a cash buyer. Dealers will sometimes sell a car for zero profit on the car because they can make a good profit on the financing.

One argument in favor of financing a car is being able to keep your money invested and earning a greater return than your interest cost of financing. The often overlooked fallacy is not making the comparison realistic by understanding that when you pay cash you are really “borrowing money from yourself”. If you have a 3 year CD paying you 6%, on $25,000, you will earn $4775.40 at the end of 3 years. If you finance a $25,000 car for 3 years at 6%, you pay only $2,379.80. But, to compare apples and apples you would have to pay yourself back for the $25,000 you “borrowed from yourself” to pay for your car. When you paid yourself back with interest monthly over three years, the interest you earned would equal the interest paid on the car loan. If you can earn more than 6% with your money, than financing the car for 6% would be a good idea.

One argument against paying cash for your car is that it becomes an asset of your estate and your net worth. This means that someone who won a lawsuit against you could seize your car for payment. If you had to declare bankruptcy, you could be forced to sell your car to settle your debts. If you owed the IRS money and could not pay, they could take your car. None of these things could occur if you had a loan on your car which offset the equity.

There is one very important intangible reason why some people should pay cash for their car. That intangible is called “peace of mind”. My older brother, Doug, grew up during the Great Depression. When he built his new house, he paid cash for it. I couldn’t believe this and was severely critical of him. It was entirely illogical for him to pay cash when he could get a very low interest rate and home mortgage interest is tax deductible. His investments earned him far more than the interest rate on his mortgage would cost. After a while I finally realized why Doug was right and I was wrong. He paid cash for his home because it made him feel better. Growing up in the thirties, like many of my customers did, made an indelible impression on his emotions. Owning his home with no debt made him feel happy and secure and what could be more important than that?

Thursday, December 28, 2006


I am suggesting these New Year’s resolutions for car dealers.

(1) Stop charging your dealer fee (a. k. a. delivery fee and doc fee). This fee is really profit for the dealer disguised as an official fee charged by the state or federal government. When you quote a customer a price, it should include all charges except for sales tax and license fees. State law in Florida does not prohibit this or even put a cap on this fee as many other states now do, but it’s just the wrong thing to do.
(2) When you advertise a car at a price, clearly disclose to the reader how many cars are available at that price. Dealers get around the law by listing a stock number next to the car, as if this is will explain to the reader of the ad that there is only one available at this price.
(3) Don’t advertise a large discount on a car unless the discount is from MSRP. Dealers advertise huge discounts from prices that are artificially inflated. What good is a $15,000 discount if the dealer has a $15,000 markup above MSRP on that car?
(4) Don’t pander to folks with bad credit and give them false hope. Tell those with bad credit that if their credit is too bad, you cannot obtain financing for them. When you advertise…”No credit or Bad Credit is No Problem” you aren’t telling the truth. When you advertise that “no credit application is refused”, you are misleading the customers to think that no loan is refused because of bad credit. You are not telling them the truth.
(5) Don’t advertise that you can sell used cars as low as $99. There is no such thing as used car that can be profitably sold for $99. The scrap metal or the parts on a car that cannot run or is totaled in an accident is worth $150 or more.
(6) Have a heart! I received a call this morning from the son of an 81 year old man who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and committed to a mental health institution under the Baker Act. The day before he was committed, his father bought a brand new car for $32,000+ from a well known South Florida dealer. The son read my column instructing those with a problem with a car dealer to call the owner or the general manager before taking legal action or notifying the press. When he tried this, he was stonewalled by both the general manager and the president of the dealership. His father had bought the car the day before he was committed to an institution under the Baker Act. This is not only heartless but just plain stupid. What do you think this will do for that dealer’s reputation when their customer’s son contacts the local TV stations and newspaper?
(7) Be accessible to your customers. You might think that you own and operate a pristine business that never offends or takes advantage of anyone, but you can’t be sure about that if you insulate yourself from your customers. You might be amazed at what you find out when you speak directly to your customers and even to those who wanted to be your customer but changed their mind for some reason.
(8) Don’t surprise your service customers with a “miscellaneous supplies fee”. Sometimes this is called an “environmental fee”. The price you quote your service customers should be the price they pay…not that price plus 10% which is pure profit to the dealer.
(9) (9) Don’t mark up your “hot models” over MSRP. The manufacturer’s suggest retail price affords the dealer very generous profit margin. Don’t exploit the temporary situation where demand for that hot model exceeds supply. This is no different than some gas station operators do during fuel shortages before and after hurricanes.
(10) Do away with the fine print. If there is something important that is worth reading in your ad, print it in a font size that can be read without a magnifying glass. If it’ not important, don’t put it in the ad. The only reason for fine print in a car ad is to hide something that you don’t want the reader to find.


When you trade your old car in on your next car, the dealer will try to retail your car or sell it at auction for more than he allowed you in trade. If he successfully retails your car, he will make about $2,000. If he wholesales it at the auction, the profit will be less. You should know that this is what the dealer wants to do. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and he will actually lose money on your car at the auction. Or, he may be unable to retail your car and then most certainly lose money when he is forced to wholesale it.

Obviously it is more difficulty for an individual to make a profit by selling her own trade-in than it is for the dealer. That is one of the main consideration you must consider before deciding to sell your old car yourself. Most people run an ad in the local paper and/or online to advertise their trade. If you do this, you need to know what to ask for your car and I recommend consulting This is Kelly Blue Book’s Web site and will tell you about what your car is worth wholesale and retail. Another way to determine this is to ask dealers for your make of your car what they will buy it for. This will establish the wholesale value. CarMax is a good company to consult if there is one near you. Once you establish the wholesale, you should consider a markup of less than what car dealers are asking. When deciding how much profit you want to make, remember that you are losing the sales tax reduction that you earn when you trade your car in. On a $20,000 trade, that amounts to $1,200. If you can make a $2,100 above wholesale, you are ahead of the game by $1,000. This takes a lot of work and you will be dealing with a lot of “tire-kickers” and people who cannot afford to buy your car. I very strongly advise you not to extend credit. Require full payment in cash. Set a time limit on how long you will try to sell your car. Remember that your used car is depreciating every week and your cost of advertising will climb. I wouldn’t suggest you hang on to your old car for more than a month.

Ebay is a good alternative to advertising your car in the newspaper. A lot of car dealers use Ebay to retail used cars and it is very effective. There are schools on how to retail merchandise on Ebay and Ebay has tutorials. There are also a lot of books at any bookstore on this subject. There are companies who will do all of the work for you and you only pay them a fee if they are successful in selling your car. If the dealer you are buying your new car from sells cars on Ebay (most do), you can ask him if he will post yours Ebay along with his cars for a fee.

If you fail in your attempt to retail your old car, remember to be careful to maximize the amount you get from your dealer as trade-in. Often times dealers will attempt to trade a car in for below wholesale. Be sure you have a firm handle on the true wholesale value of your trade. You can get bids from other dealerships to purchase your car for cash and you can check with If you are buying a car from a dealer franchised to sell a different make than your trade-in, be wary. This dealer will likely be unable to offer you as much as a dealer who is franchised to sell the make of your trade. People looking to buy a used Toyota are more likely to visit a Toyota dealership than a Chevrolet dealership. That is why it’s important to get bids from other dealerships before accepting the trade-in offered by the dealer you’re buying your new car from.


I just finished talking to a friend of mine, Al Loson, from Pt. St. Lucie. We met after he read my column in this newspaper on dealer fees. In case you missed that column, a dealer fee a. k. a. doc fee, and dealer prep fee is just another profit the dealer tacks on the car after he quotes you a price. Al is a retired business executive from up North who was extremely successful running his supermarkets in a highly ethical fashion. He is lobbying his legislator, Senator Ken Pruitt, on this issue. He is asking that Pruitt take the lead in changing Florida law so that dealer fees become illegal as they are in many states like California.

Al called me a few days ago when he saw part of a TV news show on WPTV, Channel 5, regarding this subject. He wanted to know if I had, but I missed it. I obtained the video tape from WPTV and Al and I watched it together this afternoon. It was based on a Wall Street Journal article which ran several weeks ago on this subject. The reporter did mention that Florida was one of the states that did not even have a cap on dealer fees. The reporter said that in Florida dealer fees could range as high as $600. This is inaccurate. I know of at least two dealers charging $895.

We also discussed other issues regarding the lack of ethics with many car dealers. We talked about bait and switch advertising, car invoices that dealers lead customers to believe is their true cost but actually has hundreds of dollars in hidden profits included, and illegal ads that were permitted to run because the Attorney General’s office was too understaffed to police car ads.

I told Al that I respected and admired how hard we was lobbying his legislator and for being such a strong advocate for ethical car advertising and sales practices. But, I also told him that I didn’t think he would have much luck. Car dealers have a powerful lobby in Tallahassee. Dealer associations are there to protect their dealers, not the consumers. Dealer associations would never advocate changing Florida law in such a manner that would negatively affect the profits of its dealers. With all due respect to all of our politicians, even our good politicians’ first duty and responsibility is to get elected. What good can a politician do if he doesn’t get elected and how can he get elected if he doesn’t “play ball” with those who fund his election? You can complain about this all day long but our political system is all about compromise and it is still the best system on the planet.

The way car dealers will begin to change is through evolution…natural selection and the survival of the fittest. This will be a very slow process, taking years. American consumers are getting smarter and smarter. They also have much greater resources of information available to them, especially through the Internet. With greater education and data resources they are also becoming more demanding and intolerant. The new American consumer will not patronize car dealers who try to lure them in by bait and switch ads. They will not pay an $895 dealer fee which is supposed to cover the dealer’s paperwork or new car get ready when it is really only additional profit for the dealer. The new American consumer will seek out car dealers where they can be treated with respect, courtesy, and integrity. When other dealers seeing these dealers selling more cars, service, and parts and prospering more than they, they will have an opportunity to change. And if they don’t change, they shall perish.

Never Go Car Shopping Alone

A woman wrote me a letter this week 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 make a decision 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 “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 actually 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 2 or 3 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 has to 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 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.

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.

Saturday, November 25, 2006



Dear Florida car dealer, this is the 4th letter I’ve written to you. The first asked you to stop charging your “dealer fee” on top of the price you quote your customers. The second asked you to advertise cars at a price you were willing to sell the car for and have an ample supply of. The 3rd asked you to accept the responsibility, and not blame others, for the fact that car dealers have a terrible reputation comparable to politicians and lawyers.

I’m looking at a used car ad about a special one-day sale in the PB Post that, by the time you read this column, will have taken place.

Here are some of the claims in this car ad. (1) Claim: The dealer is forced to sell used cars for $9 because he is overstocked. Fact: If a car dealer was overstocked with used cars he would not sell them below his cost and no used car costs as little as $9. A car dealer can sell a junk car that won’t even run for $150 just for the scrap metal. (2) Claim: We can afford to sell used cars for $9 because we are a large volume dealer. Fact: No matter how large a dealer is, he cannot afford to sell his product below its cost. (3) Claim: You are asked to pick out the used car you want and then “sit behind the wheel”. Only then will you be given the discounted price. Fact: This is a tactic invented by a promoter who charges dealers to put on these sales. This tactic is meant to instill irrational excitement in the mind of the potential buyers. The promoter will have a fast-talking pitchman with a bull horn trying to whip everybody into a buying frenzy. He goes from car to car “ripping” the old price sticker off and showing the new price. One thing that keeps people sitting behind the wheel of their chosen car is the hope that it is a $9 car. (4) Claim: The General Manager of this dealership states, “I mean, a quality used car for as low as $9? That’s irrresistable!” Fact: There is no such thing as a quality used car for $9. You would be lucky to find one for as little as $5,000. (5) Claim: “After 1PM Saturday, all cars will return to their usual prices. Fact: You can buy any used car from that dealer (except the two $9 cars) for the same price that they were advertised for in that sale.

You know that all the claims in this car ad are false and so does virtually everybody that reads this column. Unfortunately there is a minority of car buyers who are unable to pick up on this deception. These are the buyers who will flock to this kind of a sale. I know what I’m talking about because I put on this very kind of sale many years ago. I’m not proud of this. We had overflow crowds, people actually arguing over who could sit behind the wheel of the car to find out what the discount would be. We would sometimes sell 50 or more used cars during the one day of this type of sale...More than we would normally sell in 2 weeks. The people who flock to these sales are the very young, the uneducated, minorities who have difficulty with English, widows or others who have never bought a car before, and generally those most vulnerable member of our society.

So, you say. If these sales are so successful, why do you warn me not to “underestimate the IQ of my customers”? Here’s why. Far more people read your ad than the poor souls who succumb to your deception. For every person who fell for your ad, there are probably ten people who read your ad and understood how misleading it was. How many of those will you ever sell a car to? What does an ad like that do for the image of car dealers in our community? Ads like these and the sales practices encountered by those who are fooled by these ads make a car salesman the butt of as many jokes as you hear about lawyers and politicians.

I don’t ask you to stop running these kinds of ads out of the “goodness of your heart”. I am asking you because it’s simply good business. Your image is important and the only reason you are doing OK now is that most other car dealers don’t offer a better alternative. But, as Bob Dylan said, “The Times, They Are A Changin’”.


Earl Stewart

Saturday, November 18, 2006



Dear Florida car dealer, even if you weren’t a good history student in school, you probably remember the quote from Commodore Perry from the War of 1812, “We have met the enemy and they are ours”. The satirical comic strip, Pogo, has a memorable quote satirizing Commodore Perry, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. This fits the image problem we car dealers have today. We brought it on ourselves through our devious advertising and sales practices. However, we blame everybody but us…our customers, lawyers, the media, and car dealers like me who dare to speak the truth.

This is the 3rd letter I have written to Florida car dealers in my weekly column. The first asked you to stop charging your “dealer fee” on top of the price you quote your customers. The second asked you to advertise cars at a price you were willing to sell the car for and have an ample supply of. In both letters I made the point that there is a minority of car dealers like me who do not charge dealer fees or resort to “bait and switch” ads. I also confessed that I used to be one of those dealers that I am writing about today. I did charge a dealer fee once and I did advertise cars that I hoped the customer would not buy. At the end of each letter, I asked that you call or email me to discuss my letter. So far, I have received no phone calls and the only emails blame me and others like me, for the negative image that car dealers have in our society. Here is an example of the emails I have received from dealers: “I read your sanctimonious babble in today’s Post and you are correct in assuming your comments will garner the attention of other dealers. It is comments like the ones you made that keep public opinion of our chosen profession in the doldrums. Like it or not we’re together in this battle and your “holier than thou” claim will only fuel the fire. Want to show the world your true compassion? Donate 20% or more of you net profit to charity then you’ll truly be the “great guy” you aspire to be.”

We can see this sort of “shoot the messenger” attitude with our politicians who blame the media for their negative image. It always amazes me to hear Republicans accuse the media of left wing bias and the Democrats blame the same media for a right wing bias. Sure there is bias in the media just like there is some bias in all of us. But, when your image in the eyes of the American public is as bad as that of politicians and car dealers, how can you not understand that there is a problem? The only profession I can think of that ranks as low in the public esteem is that of lawyers.

If you will call or email me to discuss my position in an open minded manner, I think you will be surprised and happy that you did. My business has grown steadily since I began to really understand that satisfying and respecting my customers was the most important single ingredient for my overall success. I’m certainly not making the claim that my way of doing business is the only path to success. I know a lot of car dealers who sell more cars and make more money than I do who do not take my approach with their customers. You can “fool some of the people all of the time”. However, that minority that can be fooled all of the time is shrinking daily as our customers become more educated and sophisticated. One day soon, there won’t be enough of them to go around and the majority of car buyers will be doing business with guys like me.


Earl Stewart



Dear fellow car dealer, in case you missed my last letter to you on “dealer fees”, you can find it on the Hometown News Web site archives at Or, you can click on my Blog,

The subject of this letter is the ads most car dealers run which are designed to motivate prospective car buyers to come into their dealerships believing that they can buy or lease a vehicle for less than they really can. Most of these ads appear in newspaper, but there are also quite a few in direct-mail, TV, radio, and the Internet. If you are one of the few car dealers who do not do this, I know you will enjoy reading this column and agree with me.

One of the most common lures is advertising the new vehicle below your cost. You spend thousands of dollars advertising monthly and consider losing a little money on one or two cars as part of your advertising budget. The problem is that you deliberately limit the number of cars you will sell at this price and you do this in a deceptive manner.

One way this is done is to show a stock number next to the price of the car. This translates into there being only one car available at that price. Another technique is to use the phrase “other cars available at similar savings”. First of all, how do you define “similar”? Secondly, Florida law requires that you include “dealer fees” in all advertised prices, but not in cars that are sold for “similar savings”. Adding back that dealer fee can turn a “loss leader” back into a profit.

Another trick is to show huge discounts from “list” when list is defined in the fine print as including “dealer installed” options. By simply marking up whatever options you choose to install on an advertised car, you can generate as much markup as you like.

Bait and switch is also aimed at monthly payments. By disclosing in the fine print that a very, very high credit score is required to qualify for an advertised low payment, lease or purchase, you limit the possible buyers that can qualify to a very small percentage of the population. The vast majority who cannot qualify, end up with a much higher payment and higher profit to you.

A favorite deception is to advertise very large “minimum trade-in allowances”. I have seen trade-in “minimums” as high as $15,000. These ads are clearly aimed at prospects from the lower economic strata who are currently driving older cars and are prone to be less sophisticated and informed buyers. A smart buyer knows that you cannot possibly allow someone $15,000 on a trade-in worth $250 unless you make back that deficit in additional markup on the car you are selling.

Another deception aimed at the lower economic, less educated portion of our society is the “no credit, no problem” ad. Having bad credit or no credit most definitely is a problem. It might not be a problem for you but it is for the person with the bad credit and it is for the bank that will refuse to finance that person. Another version of this trick is “no credit application refused”. A sophisticated buyer knows that all you are saying is that you will allow anyone to fill out a credit application and you might even agree to submit it to a lender. But you are not telling him that her credit application will be refused if her credit is too bad or not sufficient.

There are other examples that I could cite and there will be new ways that many dealers will come up with to lure buyers into their dealerships. As I said in my last letter, I am asking you to voluntarily stop this form of advertising before the regulators make you stop. I am not suggesting what you are doing is illegal, but I am saying that it is not right. I am also saying that it is bad business. If I can’t get your attention by asking you to treat your customers with respect and consideration, how about if I tell you that you can sell more cars and make more money if you do?

You are successful in luring lots and lots of people into your dealership, but you sell only a small portion of these people cars. Those you don’t sell are probably angry at you when they learn they cannot buy the car for the price they believed. Even the ones you do sell may be angry because they had to pay you more money than they wanted. Unhappy customers don’t come back and they tell their friends. You have to spend more and more on advertising because your repeat and referral business is so bad. This is not good for your bottom line and your manufacturer is probably “on your back” because your customer satisfaction rating is so low.

As I said in my last letter, I look back on the sixties, seventies, and eighties and recall a lot of advertising that I wish I hadn’t done. But I learned better, and I “got the message” from my customers. I’m not trying to flaunt my success as a reason for you to change the way you do business. But, in a very recent JD Power Survey of all Toyota dealerships’ customers, including mine, we were found to have the highest customer satisfaction rating of any other Toyota dealership in the Southeast USA except for one. If that doesn’t get your attention, we also had the 2nd highest customer closing ratio out of every Toyota dealership in the USA (about 1,300). Selling a higher percentage of Toyota buyers than virtually anybody else and satisfying those customers better than virtually anybody (even the very few who did not buy from us) translate into high volume and high profits. Try it; you’ll like it.

If you would like to discuss this with me, please call me or email me. My numbers and addresses are below.


Earl Stewart



Dear fellow Florida car dealer, I started in the retail auto business in 1968, about 38 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 am not trying to tell you how to run your business; I am suggesting a change that will reward both you and your customers.

Virtually every car dealer in Florida adds a charge to the price of the cars he sells, variously referred to as a “dealer fee”, “documentary fee”, “dealer prep fee”, etc. This extra charge is printed on your buyer’s orders and is programmed into your computers. It has been made illegal in many states including California. You charge this fee to every customer and it ranges from a few hundred dollars to nearly a thousand. Florida law requires that, if you charge a dealer fee to any customer, you must charge all customers. It also 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 always do this and you get around the law by limiting the number of advertised vehicles (as few as one).

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 of 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 would not be true if you were to make the decision to not charge the dealer fee to anyone. 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 cost 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 $895 in profit that the customer is not aware of or believes is an “official fee”, you can actually 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 law permits you 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 a few years ago, it was scary. But I did it because I could no longer, in good conscious, 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!

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 am well 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, not you. And, I am 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.

Sincerely, Earl Stewart

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Just when I thought that I knew all the tricks that some car dealers play, I discovered a new one in Saturday’s Palm Beach Post.

The ad screamed “GET UP TO $12,000 OFF”. The new cars featured in the ad showed many discounts over $3,000 and $4,000. Then I found the gimmick. The discount was off of “List” price, not the manufacturer’s suggested retail, or MSRP. Most people, including me, use the terms list price and MSRP interchangeably. However, MSRP is a legal term deriving from a law sponsored by U.S. Senator Monroney, about 40 years ago. The Monroney label is required by law to be displayed on all new vehicles showing the manufacturer’s retail price, MSRP.

The purpose of this law was to offer the consumer some basis for comparison of prices between different car dealers. Before this law was passed, a car dealer could post any price he wished on the window of a new car. If he posted a price with a markup of $10,000, he could advertise a $5,000 discount and still make a $5,000 profit.

The ad I am referring to in Saturday’s Palm Beach Post shows discounts from “list” price, but defines it in the very fine print at the bottom of the ad as being “MSRP plus installed options”. There it is! The giveaway is “plus installed options”, if your eyes are good enough to read the fine print (I had to use my magnifying glass). By jacking up the MSRP with “installed options”, a car dealer has circumvented the law sponsored by Senator Monroney. This dealer can now advertise huge discounts, limited only by how high a markup he wants to put in his “installed options”. There is no law limiting the markup in an installed option. Dealers commonly install options with very low cost with high perceived value to the too trusting or careless customer. Some examples are undercoating, paint sealant, fabric protector, stripes, theft insurance, and rust proofing.

I came across another surprise in The Stuart News. If you have read my past columns, you know about “dealer fees” aka “dealer prep”, doc fees, and a few other misleading names. This charge is simply additional profit to the dealer disguised as a state or federal fee like sales tax or license and registration. The amounts range from $495 to $895. State law requires that this “fee” be included in all advertised prices and my surprise was that there are some dealers ignoring this law. The prices advertised in The Stuart News in the ads I am referring to disclosed in the very fine print “all prices plus tax tag & dealer fee”. This is a violation of state law. Unfortunately, it is impossible for the Attorney General’s office to police all of the car ads in the state every day.

Dealer fees, dealer prep, doc fees, etc. are bad enough even when they are included in the advertised price. The tactic employed by dealers to get around the law requiring that the dealer fee be included, it to switch the prospective buyer to another car. This is easily done by these means: (1) Pay the salesman no commission or a minimal commission on the advertised car. (2) Make the color and accessories of the advertised car very unattractive. (3) Have only 1 or 2 cars available at that advertised price. (4) Limit the time a buyer can buy that specific car by fine print saying “price good on date of publication only”. (4) Simply telling you that the car has already been sold. How are you to know? Many states like California make dealer fees illegal. In my opinion they should be made illegal in Florida. Please write your legislator on this issue.

Your best defense against this kind of thing is to choose the dealership you buy your car from with great care. Find a dealership that has a good reputation with the Better Business Bureau, Count Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Attorney General’s Office. Preferably choose a dealer who has been in business for a longer time. Ask friends, neighbors or relatives who may be driving a model that you are interested in how their experience was with that dealer.


About seventeen years ago a car dealer in Dallas, Texas wrote a book entitled Customers for Life. His name is Carl Sewell and the book describes in detail why treating your customers with care, courtesy, respect and dignity is the surest way to success in the retail automobile business. When I first read this book many years ago, I wished that I had written it myself. I learned a lot from Customers for Life and it had a major impact on my business and my life.

If you would like a free copy of this book, just go to my Web site, Click on the link under the picture of the book where it says “complimentary copy click here”. Some of the chapters in the book are “The customer will tell you how to provide good service, if the customer asks, the answer is always yes, there’s no such thing as after hours, under-promise and over-deliver, and you can’t give good service if you sell a lousy product. When you read this book, you should have a pretty good idea of how you should expect to be treated by your car dealer, or any retail business establishment.

Remember that Carl Sewell is not just a “nice guy”, but also a very shrewd businessman. He learned that by treating customer so nicely and fairly that he actually exceeded their expectations, these customer continued to buy from him “for the rest of their lives”; Hence the title, Customers for Life. Back in 1990 he calculated that the average customer for life bought $517,000 in cars and service from him over their lifetime. Adjusted for inflation, that would amount to closer to $1,000,000 today. Furthermore these customers referred their friends, neighbors, and relatives. Also, Carl Sewell did not have to spend any advertising money to persuade them to buy from him. It is no wonder that he is one of the largest volume and most profitable car dealers in the USA.

Carl also believes in treating his employees with the same courtesy, care, and respect that he treats his customers. Have you ever been embarrassed in a retail business when a boss chewed out a subordinate in front of you? Chapter 13 is entitled “Who’s more important? Your customer or your employee? A: Both. When you enter a car dealership where the employees are more like team mates and genuinely care for each other and their supervisors you can practically feel it in the air. You feel more comfortable and trusting and more confident that, if they treat each other like this, you will be treated similarly. This is a direct quote from Customers for Life. “It’s very rare to see a manager who treats his customers one way and his employees another. And it’s awfully hard for employees to treat customers well if the boss treats them badly.”

After you read Customers for Life, why not loan it to your car dealer? Remember that this is not a “do-gooder” kind of a book. The message is that a businessman can be more successful and profitable by employing the recommendations of this book. Loaning your car dealer this book would be doing him a favor. Most car dealers should have heard of Carl Sewell. He is one of the most successful car dealers in the county and his book is considered by manufacturers and dealers to be the “bible” for customer satisfaction. If they haven’t heard about Carl Sewell, feel free to use me as a reference. Reading Customers for Life had a major positive impact on my success and the reputation I enjoy as a car dealer.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


The total cost of a new car consists of many factors including initial purchase price, maintenance and repairs, and insurance. One of the most often overlooked and biggest costs of owing a car is depreciation. Some makes and models of cars depreciate more than others. By choosing the right make and model you can minimize depreciation. You can also minimize depreciation by properly maintaining your car, protecting it from the elements, and selecting the best color. One important factor in depreciation that is most often overlooked is the time of year that you buy or lease your car.

You should always buy your new car as soon as possible after that year model is introduced. Some would disagree, arguing that you can buy a car for less at the end of the model year. Even if this were so (and I don’t agree with this), the savings would not offset the increased cost of depreciation that you inherit by buying a new car that is a year old. If you follow the advice I have given in my previous columns on the smartest way to buy a new car, you can usually buy a new car for close to the same price at the beginning of the model year as at the end.

There was a time when virtually all makes of cars were introduced in the last quarter of the calendar year preceding the model year. If you bought a new model in September, you could be assured that you got it at the right time to minimize your depreciation. Nowadays, new models are introduced at almost any time and the introductions are nearly unpredictable. It’s not unheard of for a manufacturer to actually skip a model year entirely, selling last year’s model for another year. Or, sometimes a manufacturer will introduce a new model as much as two years before the calendar date of that model year. You should be sure you know exactly when that model year you are contemplating buying was introduced. You don’t want to buy a model year that was introduced 6 or 8 months ago

If you are leasing your car, you should also try to lease it as soon as possible after that year model is introduced. Also, when deciding on the length of the lease, your lease should end when the new model that you will lease or buy next is introduced. You don’t have to lease a car for a full one, two, three, or four years. You can lease a car for 39 months, for example, which may assist you in having your lease terminate at just the right time to buy or lease your next car.

Be sure you know how many more years the make and model you select will remain before it is replaced by a major model change. The life cycle of a particular model varies between manufacturers from as short as 3 years to as long as 6 or 7 years. Your car will retain its value considerably more if it is still within its current product cycle when you trade it in. You need to be especially wary when a specific model is discontinued entirely. Research this carefully and time your purchase or lease as early in the product cycle as possible.

If you are buying a brand new model at the beginning of its product cycle, be sure that you are buying from a manufacturer that has a very good reputation for quality. You can get a pretty good idea of the quality of the new model by researching the reliability of the previous year model. It is true that a brand new model can experience some bugs during the early months of its first year. If you are nervous about this, it might pay to wait for 3 or 4 months after a brand new model is introduced to see if problems in the form of recall campaigns or otherwise do occur.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


(1) Consumer Reports Subscribe to Consumer Reports, go to the library and read past issues, or check out Consumer Reports online. There are other objective sources of information on cars, but this is the best. They accept no advertising from anybody and their sole goal is rigorously and objectively testing merchandise that consumers buy. You can very quickly find the best make car for the model and style you want to buy. Consumer Reports rates cars by performance, cost of operation, safety, and frequency of repair.
(2) Test Drive the car you have chosen This step requires that you visit a car dealership. Remember that this doesn’t have to be the dealership you buy it from. You obviously must see, touch, feel, and drive the car that you think you want to buy. A new car is a very personal thing and just because Consumer Reports loved it doesn’t mean that you will. Be sure that you test drive the car at all speeds in all road types that you normally drive. Drive it in the city but also on the expressway.
(3) Carefully choose the accessories you want There are some accessories that enhance the value of your car and some that don’t or may even lower it. Generally speaking you should accessorize a car comparably to its class. If you are buying a lower priced economy car, you should not load it up with leather seats and an expensive sound system. If you do, you won’t recoup much of what you spent on these accessories in its resale value. On the other hand, if you are buying a luxury car, don’t skimp on items people look for in luxury cars like a navigation system or a moon roof.
(4) Carefully choose your car’s color Color is more important in determining a car’s resale value than accessories. If you want to maximize the trade-in value of this car, choose a popular color. White, silver, black, and beige are the 4 most popular colors. Sports cars and convertibles are exceptions and red is often the most popular color. The difference in trade-in value between the right color and the wrong color can be several thousands of dollars.
(5) Arrange your financing Now that you know exactly what kind of a car you are going to buy, you can check with local banks and credit unions to find the best interest rate. Don’t commit until you have chosen the dealer you will buy from. Manufacturers sometimes offer very low special rates and dealers can sometimes offer a lower rate than your bank or credit union.
(6) Shop your trade-in If you are trading in a car, take it to 3 dealerships for the same make and ask them how much they will pay you for your car. A Chevy dealer will pay more for a used Chevy and a Toyota dealer will pay more for a used Toyota. If you live near a CarMax store, get a price from them too. They have a reputation of paying more money for trade-ins than most dealers. Don’t commit to the highest bid, but give the dealer you buy from a chance to beat that price.
(7) Shop for the best price on the Internet Go to the manufacturer’s Web site. The addresses are all very intuitive. Toyota is and Pontiac is You can type in your zip code and get the Web sites of all of your local dealers. Depending on how far you are will to drive to pick up your new car, request price quotes from as many dealers as you like, but be sure you get at least 3 quotes. When you have chosen the lowest price, verify that this price is “out-the-door” with only tax and tag added.
(8) Offer your favorite, or nearest, dealer the right to meet this price. If you have been dealing with one dealership for a long time and have had good experiences with their service department, you should give them a chance to meet your lowest Internet price. Of course, you can take your new car to them for service even if you don’t buy it from them.

You will notice that there were no steps listed above which suggested that you look in your local newspaper’s auto classified section, watch car dealer’s TV ads, or believe their direct mail “too good to be true” offers. When you fall for this, the dealer is in control. When you follow my eight steps, you are in total control.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Of course, you should be careful of all advertising…newspaper, TV, and radio, but direct mail can be especially deceptive. The reason this is so is because direct mail usually “falls beneath the radar” of the regulators. There are so many ads in violation of rules and laws that the regulators are overwhelmed. They focus on the most visible ads, often the ones that they see themselves in the newspaper or on TV. Direct mail represents a very small percent of total advertising. One reason for this is that it is considered by many advertising agencies to be too expensive and relatively ineffective. I believe that the only way to make direct mail effective for many advertisers is to use deception.

I have a couple of direct mail pieces on my desk and will cite some examples of this deception. “We will buy back your present vehicle for up to $5,000 over current Kelly Blue Book Value on trade towards the purchase of a Brand New Toyota or Pre-Owned model.***” The asterisk is for the very fine print disclosure on the back of the letter which reads: On select models. Discounts and rebates will vary from model to model. Of course, with the two words “up to” in front of the $5,000, no disclosure is really necessary. Buying back your present vehicle for $1 over current Kelly Blue Book Value is technically “up to”$5,000.

Attached to the letter is a something that looks like a check made payable to the recipient for $8,207. Here we go again with the “up to”. “You can apply this registered voucher for a discount ‘up to’ $8,207 off MSRP on a new Toyota.” Of course there is another asterisk which states “on select models”.

But there’s more! “Just for attending this event, you will receive 5 “golden” $1 coins as a gift, and you may have won $100, $250, $50, or possibly even $4,500 cash!” We, of course, have another asterisk which says that your odds of winning anything are 1 in 25,000. I often wonder who responds to these ads, not understanding the difference between a “golden coin” and a gold coin. Or, who really thinks they have a reasonable chance to win anything.

It’s not over yet! “Every application for credit will be immediately submitted and processed for approval and on-the-spot delivery REGARDLESS OF PAST CREDIT HISTORY”. Of course, the operating key word here is “submitted”. There is no guarantee of “approval”. They will simply “submit” your application to the bank and if you have bad credit, the bank will reject your application.

“During this weekend event, any new Toyota or used vehicle could be purchased with ZERO cash down!” The key word here is “could” instead of “can”. Of course, there is the old asterisk, which, if you can find and then read the fine print, it says with approved credit. You have to have a very high Beacon score to buy a new or used car with zero down payment. Less than 1% of car buyers would have this high a Beacon score. There is also a phrase which says “CASH DOWN IS NOT SUGGESTED”. This dealer might not suggest it but I can almost guarantee the bank will not only suggest it but demand it.

“Due to overwhelming response and customer request, I would like to again offer you a personal invitation to receive 80% of base original MSRP for the car you are currently driving.” This promise doesn’t even have an asterisk. Of course the base MSRP excludes accessories. Sometimes an offer is so ridiculous that you wonder who would ever believe it. Ask yourself how any car dealers could promise to pay 80% of the new base MSRP on a used car that they have never seen. They don’t know how many miles are on the car, whether it has been wrecked, or even if the car will still run.

Direct mail claims like those above, unfortunately do work. People actually come in and buy cars. Unfortunately these ads prey on those who are uneducated, have difficulty reading English, or are simply gullible.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The “Check Engine Light” Just Came On!

Imagine for a minute that you and your family are on the expressway on a Sunday afternoon, driving to your favorite vacation spot. All of a sudden, your red check-engine light comes on! What are you supposed to do? You are hundreds of miles away from home and it is very unlikely that you will find dealers’ service departments for your make of car open on Sunday. Should you keep on driving? Your only alternative under these conditions is to try and find a motel for the night and find a dealer the next morning.

Unfortunately, the answer is that you should not continue to drive the vehicle any further than you absolutely have to. The problem that caused the check engine light could be any one of hundreds. Potentially, it could be a very serious problem that could be made more serious (and more expensive) by driving the car. It could also be something so inconsequential as you failed to twist the gas cap tightly enough the last time you filled the tank. I have never completely understood why car manufacturers don’t enhance the warning system to differentiate between small problems that can wait and those that could be catastrophic. What a shame it would be to ruin a family’s vacation because they failed to screw down their gas cap tightly or some other minor problem that could have waited weeks to address! My guess is that the reason manufacturers do not enhance their check engine light computer system is simply because of the increased cost. I’ll bet that the cost of a motel overnight would be a lot more than the manufacturer would have had to spend to make the stay unnecessary.

The vast majority of the time the check engine light comes on, it is not serious enough to rush to your dealer. The problem is that you can’t say for sure if this is one of those times. In fact, the service advisors in many dealerships are so used to check engine lights coming on for minor problems like loose gas caps that they often mistakenly advise customers not to worry about it and to bring the car in “when you get a chance”. This works 90%+ of the time, but that 10% when it is serious can be very expensive. In fact, if the car is under warranty and you continue to drive the car when the check engine light comes on, you could void your warranty. If your check engine light comes on, pull over to a safe place and check to be sure your gas cap is screwed on tightly. That is the problem more than half of the time. If that doesn’t make the light go out, bring the car to your dealer ASAP.

The dealer has a diagnostic machine, called a “scan tool” which deciphers the trouble codes stored in your car’s computer. This code doesn’t necessarily tell the technician exactly what the problem is. Usually it just indicates an “area of concern”. He must do further diagnostic tests to determine the exact problem. Often there are more than one problem and symptom. Sometimes a problem will cause the check engine light to go on and then the problem “goes away”. If the problem does not reoccur during a certain number of times that you start the engine, the trouble code is removed from memory. Most of the reasons your check engine light will come on are environmentally related. If our cars did not have to meet such tight emission standards, you would practically never have a check engine light go on. This is one of the prices we are paying for clean air.

All too often, the check engine light will come back on right after you have had your car worked on for that very reason. Many people immediately assume that the dealer did not fix the car right the first time and charged them for work that wasn’t necessary. This can be the case if the dealer’s technician was careless or wasn’t properly trained. But, not infrequently, the technician can do everything right and the light still comes back on after the repair is made. This is because there are often multiple problems that contribute to the symptom causing the check engine light to go on. Or, there could be a completely new problem unrelated to the first. Remember that there are hundreds of reasons that this one red light can come on. It takes a very well trained, conscientious technician to come up with the right fix.

The best thing you can do is to choose the dealer to whom you trust your car with great care. You do not have to have your car serviced at the dealer from whom you bought your car, but you should use a dealer franchised to service that make of car. Check with the Better Business Bureau, County Office of Consumer Affairs, and the State Attorney General’s office on the track record of the service department you choose. Ask friends and neighbors who drive your make of car where they have their car serviced how satisfied they are.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Translating Misleading Car Ads

In previous columns I have recommended that you avoid reading most cars ads in the newspaper and in direct mail. Most TV and radio car ads are similarly misleading. My suggestion is that you carefully choose the precise year, make, and model you want with the precise accessories and get at least 3 legitimate bids from car dealers on the Internet or, next best, at the dealerships. However, if you do find yourself perusing the large number of car ads in the local paper, here are some translations of common misleading ads. I took these straight from a local paper.

20% to 40% OFF MSRP. Never buy a car based on how big a discount you are quoted. Always calculate the price you are willing to pay based on an accurate understanding of the cost of that vehicle. Different makes and models have different markups and factory incentives can cause the true markup to vary widely. What sounds like a big discount may also pay the dealer too big a profit.

LIQUIDATION SALE. Most of the time you pay just as much for a car during a “sale” as you do without a sale. The only exceptions are factory incentives which do have an expiration date. A “sale” is what advertisers refer to as a “call to action”. They are looking for something that will motivate you to come in today, rather than procrastinate. It doesn’t seem to matter if the motivation is untrue.

UP TO $15,000 OFF. Many dealers have an additional markup on top of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, MSRP. They commonly label this a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This can be thousands of dollars. Discounting a car thousands of dollars means nothing if the dealer just added a “Market Adjustment Addendum” for an amount equaling or exceeding the discount.

STK#62029A. When you see a number like this next to the price of a new car, it means that that is the only car you can buy for that price. The number is the stock number for that specific car which is supposed to tell you that this is the only car at this price. Many of these ad cars are of undesirable colors and accessories. They are advertised below cost and the loss is charged to advertising if they have to sell one. You chances of buying one of these are slim and none.

CREDIT PROLEMS ARE NO PROBLEM. This type of ad is particularly insensitive and distasteful. It is meant to attract people who have such bad credit that they think they cannot obtain financing. Unfortunately, there are people whose credit is so bad that no lender will offer them financing. These people are disappointed and embarrassed when they learn the truth that “credit problems can be, in fact, big problems”.

MINIMUM $10,000 TRADE-IN ALLOWANCE. This is just like the huge discounts. A trade in allowance means nothing if the car has been marked up high enough to offset the extra trade-in allowance.

WITH ACCEPTABLE CREDIT. This allows dealers to add a fine print disqualifier which is an extremely high Beacon score that disqualifies 99% of the car buying population. It is used in conjunction with very low lease payments or purchase payments. It is a “bait and switch” which affords the dealer the opportunity to raise your payments (and his profits) because your credit is “not acceptable”…to him.

PRICE GOOD ON DATE OF PUBLICATION ONLY. You will find this only in the fine print at the bottom of the page. This is added protection to the dealer, in addition to the stock # mentioned above, that he won’t have to sell you the car at the advertised price.

AS LOW AS or FROM. You will see this in smaller print next to a very big price and a big, pretty picture of the car. This is a further “C.Y.A.” for the dealer so that he doesn’t have to sell that car at that price.

WE’LL BEAT ANY OTHER DEALER’S PRICE OR THE CAR IS FREE. Some claims are so outlandish that I hesitate to bother warning you about them. Applying the old saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” should protect most people from this kind of ad.

I could go on and on, but I hope I have already made my point. Car dealers’ ads are the absolutely worst way to decide which car you should buy and what price you should pay. When you respond to most car dealers’ ads, they are in control. You must take control and let the dealer respond to your carefully thought out and researched choice of year, make, model, accessories, and what price you offer to pay him.

Six Most Common Questions Asked by Car Buyers

At my dealership every other month we invite all of those who recently purchased a used or new vehicles from us to our “New Owners’ Event”. Our customers enjoy a buffet dinner and meet my customer relations manger, service manager, parts manager, top technician, and me. There is a lot of Q & A and here are the six most frequently asked questions with my answers.

(1) What grade of gasoline I should use? Use the grade of gasoline recommended by your manufacturer. Most cars run just fine on regular, but higher compression engines, and all V-8’s, require high test. There is absolutely no value to using a higher test, more expensive gas than your car’s manufacturer recommends.
(2) What brand of gasoline should I buy? I recommend that you stick with major national brands and avoid the independents. If you buy from Sunoco, Amoco, Mobil, etc, you are far less likely to get contaminated gasoline. Condensation and debris in your gas can cause some very expensive repairs. I also recommend that you buy your gas from the same gas station as often as possible. If you do have a problem, you will know exactly where it happened. Gas stations that do a high volume and regularly refill their tanks are less likely to have condensation or debris in their tanks.
(3) If I don’t put very many miles on my car, do I still need to bring it in every 6 months for service? The first recommended service is usually after 6 months or 5,000 miles. Even if you have driven only 1,000 miles in 6 months, you should bring it in to have your oil changed, your tires checked, and your car inspected. Time is as big a cause of wear on your car as is mileage, especially in South Florida with our high humidity, heat, and salt air.
(4) How often should I check my tire pressure? Having the correct tire pressure is one of the most underrated maintenance requirements on a car. Not only will maintaining correct tire pressure maximize the life of your tires, but it will increase your gas mileage, and make your car safer to drive by improving the braking and handling. Check your tire pressure at least one every month.
(5) How important is it to have my car serviced by the dealer rather than an independent garage? If you have a trusted mechanic or you are a competent “do-it-yourselfer” there is nothing wrong with having routine maintenance, like oil changes and tire rotations, done outside of your car dealership. I do recommend that you bring it to your dealer for checkups periodically and always for any kind of repair. Today’s automobile “is not your father’s automobile”. It is a very sophisticated, highly complex, computerized machine. Factory authorized dealers must invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in computerized diagnostic machinery and maintain a staff of highly trained technicians who specialize in that make of car.
(6) Should I use regular or synthetic oil? As long as you change your oil at least every 5,000 miles or 6 months (whichever comes first), you cannot go wrong with either. Synthetic oils are much more expensive than regular oils and are touted by some to be superior. I have heard pundits on both sides of this issue. If you choose to use synthetic oil because you believe it is better, be sure that you still change your oil at least every 5,000 miles or 6 months.

The Internet Price is the Lowest Price for a New Car

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Should I buy a Hybrid Car?

With gas over $3 a gallon and the belief that it will rise over $4 by year end, everybody is talking about hybrid cars. Just in the past week, I have been asked to speak before the Rotary Club of Palm Beach and the Kiwanis Club of Lake Park/North Palm Beach about hybrid cars. I think that I was asked because Toyota sells 80% of the hybrid vehicles in the USA and my dealership sells more hybrids than any Toyota dealer in the USA (except California where they have special emission laws).

You should approach making the decision on whether or not to buy a hybrid car the same way you would any other specific model. Just like there are good gasoline powered cars and bad ones, the same applies to hybrid cars. Some hybrid vehicles don’t even get very good gas mileage. The level of technology used in hybrid cars varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Toyota was the first to begin investing in hybrid technology and built their first hybrid, the Prius, in 1997. Nissan was among the last to realize that hybrids are the wave of the future, and will introduce their first hybrid, the Altima, later this year (licensing the technology from Toyota).

The hybrid question I get asked the most is “will I save enough money on gas to justify the additional cost of a hybrid?” My answer is “yes, if you buy the right hybrid from the right dealer”. One very important consideration is the Federal investment tax credit available on hybrids. The amount varies from model to model. The highest tax credit is $3,150 on the Toyota Prius. This credit lowers the price you pay for the Prius by exactly $3,150. Other hybrid models have lower tax credits. The federal government calculates the tax credit based on the fuel efficiency and the Prius is rated the highest at 60 mpg in the city. The other important consideration is what you pay for the hybrid. Most dealers are making up their hybrid vehicles over MSRP. That’s because of their high demand and low supply. The third factor on whether the premium cost of a hybrid over a gasoline car is justified is based on the resale value of the hybrid. The better, higher demand hybrid vehicles retain their value in the used car market better than their gasoline powered counterparts. This means that, when you go to trade that hybrid in on your next car, the trading difference is smaller.
Hybrid cars get better gas mileage in stop and go city driving then they do on the highway. This is because the electric motor is utilized more often in this type of driving and the hybrid battery is charged each time you step on the brakes. This is called regenerative braking and converts the heat of friction from braking to electrical energy. You also charge your battery when you simply take your foot off the accelerator because the deceleration of the electric motor (which actually drives the

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


When you buy your new car your salesman will tell you that it has a “bumper to bumper” warranty. The most common coverage is for 3 years or 36,000 miles whichever should first occur. “Bumper to bumper” warranty sounds like it means that everything is covered. Unfortunately this is not the case. For example, your tires are not covered at all by the car manufacturer but under a separate warranty by the tire manufacturer.

It can be tedious, but the only way to completely understand your warranty is to actually read it. All warranties now are required to use the word “limited” unless there are absolutely zero exclusions and this, to the best of my knowledge, is never the case.

Some of the most common items that are mistakenly believed to be included in warranties are tires, rental car coverage, maintenance, and faded or damaged paint from various kinds of air contaminants.

I don’t know why all car manufacturers choose to exclude tires from their “bumper to bumper” warranties. After all, they choose the tire manufacturer just like they choose the manufacturer of other components on your car which they don’t manufacture themselves like the sound systems. The owner of a car has an established relationship with the service department of the dealership because she is bringing her car back every 5,000 miles or so for factory recommended maintenance. In most cases, she doesn’t even know who the tire dealer is. It would be far more customer friendly for the manufacturer to allow her dealer to handle warranty claims on tires. My suggestion is to ask your dealer’s service advisor or service manager to “broker” the warranty claim on your tires on your behalf. The dealership is more likely to have an established relation ship with a tire store and they can be your advocate.

New car warranties virtually never provide for a free rental car unless the vehicle must be tied up overnight for repairs. All too often, car salesman will promise you a “free loaner” anytime your car is in for service. Verify this with the service department before you rely upon it. There are extended service contracts which you can buy in addition to your new car warranty which will provide rental car coverage.

A new car warranty covers only “repairs” not maintenance items. A very common request is that a front end alignment be performed under warranty. Your alignment should have been checked before your car was delivered. If your car goes out of alignment after delivery, it is usually considered owner’s maintenance. Brakes are another item often misunderstood as being covered under warranty. Brake wear is almost always a maintenance item. Only a mechanical defect in your brakes is covered under warranty.


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. Make no mistake about it. A car dealer is probably making more money selling 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. 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 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 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 of 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 criminal offense.

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 as long as the dealer can get them a loan.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Buying a new or used car is one of the last bastions of the negotiated price. In some countries, negotiation is fairly commonplace in retail stores, but in America virtually all products are sold at a fixed price. Some of us are simply not comfortable negotiating and most of us are not very good at it.

As I have said in previous columns, the best way to buy a new or used car in on the Internet. You can do your research on which car is the best to suit your needs, get guidance on what kind of price you can expect to pay, and finally get quotes from several dealerships on that specific car. However, everybody is not “Internet savvy” and if you are not, you may find it necessary to walk into a car dealership and negotiate for the lowest price.

If you are not comfortable with negotiation, the best advice I can give you is to bring someone along with you who is. Car sales people and sales managers are trained experts in negotiation. This is how they make their living. Here are some tips for you if you decide that you want to negotiate the best price on a car.

(1) If you have a trade-in, keep that separate from the negotiation. Negotiate the best price on the car you are buying and then negotiate the best price you can get for your trade-in. Don’t fall for the old “over allowance” on your trade-in ruse. This is where the dealer makes up the price of car you are buying higher so that he can make you think you are getting more for your trade-in.
(2) Never buy a car on payments alone. Always negotiate the best price you can for the car you are buying and then calculate your best payment when you have negotiated for the best interest rate.
(3) Be sure you understand how the dealer arrived at his retail price. Federal law dictates that a Monroney label be affixed to every vehicle with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Many dealers mark that up with another label, often referred to as a “Market Adjustment Addendum”. This markup can be several thousands of dollars.
(4) Expect the first price you are given to be substantially higher than what you can buy the car for. Sales people and sales managers are trained to “start high because you can always come down”. Don’t be afraid to offer substantially less than the initial asking price. You should look at just like the car salesman does, but the reverse…”start low because you can always go higher”. If the salesman excepts your first offer, you probably offered too much. In fact, shrewd car sales people are trained to always ask for more money, even if the offer is good one. This is because they don’t want to “scare off the customer” by telegraphing to the customer that he “left some money on the table”.
(5) If the sales person asks you for a deposit before he will begin negotiating, determine whether the deposit is refundable. Florida law requires a nonrefundable deposit be disclosed in writing on the receipt. If this is printed on your receipt, insist that this be waived in writing on your buyer’s order. If the dealer will not agree to this, be warned that he may be able to keep your deposit if you change your mind about buying the car.
(6) Be prepared for a lot of “back and forth” when the salesman takes your offer back to the manager. When you get close to finding a mutually acceptable price, the manager himself will often come to talk to you. Don’t be intimidated stick to your guns even when they tell you this is “positively, absolutely the lowest price”. Even if you think you do have the lowest price, a great strategy is to get up, walk out of the showroom, and get into your car to drive away. This will often precipitate an even better price. When you try this, the worst case scenario is that you really do drive home, but you can always return and buy the car the next day for the last price they quoted you. They may tell you that you have to buy today, but nine times out of ten that is a bluff. The only exception is when there are factory rebates and incentive expiring.
(7) The last day of the month really is a good time to buy a car. The salesman’s bonus money is maximized, the factory incentives are in effect, the managers are desperate to make their quotas, and it is the one time of the month when the buyer has the best edge in negotiation.

Caveat emptor “let the buyer beware” could have been written specifically for what you can expect when you walk into a car dealership to negotiate the best price. You are up against experts who negotiate for living. But, if you will follow my advice above, you should be able to hold your own and maybe even get a great deal.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


I guess one of the worst things that can happen to us in our driving experience is to be involved in an accident. Hopefully there are no injuries, but we still have to cope with our insurance company and maybe the other party’s insurance company. We also have to select a body shop or accept the one recommended by our insurance company.

After you notify your insurance company of your accident, your first big decision is to select a body shop. This is every bit as important as selecting the right doctor or dentist, except they are working on your car, not your body or teeth. Most of the time your insurance company will recommend a body shop. Consider their recommendation, but also do your own due diligence. If you choose the body shop, that body shop is working for you and is your advocate, not your insurance company’s. Remember that your insurance company is the one paying for your repairs and one of their very important considerations is the cost of repairing your car. They, of course, are interested in a quality repair too, but cost is, at least, an equal consideration. Your number one concern should be quality, not cost. Your insurance company may tell you that it’s OK to have your car repaired at the body shop of your choice, but they “won’t guarantee the repairs”. A reputable body shop will guarantee their own repairs and you don’t need two guarantees. I strongly recommend that you give first consideration to a body shop owned by a franchised dealer of the make of your car. This body shop will have an advantage of faster availability of factory parts, more experience repairing your make and model, and the technicians will usually be better trained in repairing your make of car.

Obviously, a car that has been damaged and repaired is worth less than one that has not been repaired. Even with a quality repair, a late model car with substantial repairs could be worth thousands of dollar less when you trade it in. This sad fact is a very good reason you should be sure that your car is ruled a “total” by your insurance company if it meets their criteria. A car that will cost 70% of its current market value to repair is usually considered a total and your insurance company should replace your car, not repair it. If it’s a close call resulting in a decision to repair the vehicle, you should get a second opinion. This is the time when it’s good to have a body shop that you chose that is beholding to you and not your insurance company.

Your insurance policy will dictate the parts the insurance company may use in repairing your car. It is highly desirable to use OEM parts (parts manufactured by the company that built your car) as opposed to “after-market” parts often manufactured in Taiwan or another foreign county. These parts are copies of OEM parts and much cheaper than the genuine parts. They may not fit as well or have the correct tolerances. You should find out before you purchase your policy if it will provide for OEM parts. If your insurance company won’t authorize OEM parts, ask if you can pay the difference. It is worth the investment.

It is very difficult to forecast accurately the time it will take to complete a major repair. This is because there is usually hidden damage that is impossible to detect until the car has been disassembled. When hidden damage is detected, the body shop must call your insurance company’s adjustor to authorize supplemental work. This work may require parts that were not anticipated in the initial repair and they have to be ordered. There is no one to blame for this; it’s just a fact of collision repair. The bottom line is to expect delays when your car is having a major repair. A quality body shop will “under promise and over deliver” by building in some extra time to allow for the inevitable supplemental repairs.

Be sure you understand what degree of rental reimbursement coverage you have. It varies from policy to policy. Some policies have no rental car reimbursement whatsoever, some have partial, and some complete. In a major repair, you can be without your car for over a month.

In summary, choose your insurance company carefully and read your policy carefully before you commit. Choose your body shop just as carefully. You need a quality body shop owned by the franchised dealer for your make of car that will be an advocate for your interests, more than your insurance company’s.


The “Big Sale Event”. If you look in today’s newspaper, you will 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 only good for 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 rebate. Once again, this is simply a tactic to push you into buying before you have a chance to do your comparative price shopping.
“Take the car home tonight and see how you like it”. Driving the car you are 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.
“You must give me a deposit before I can give you a price”. This has to be one of the most insulting ways that some car salesmen have of intimidating a prospective buyer. It’s amazing how many people actually succumb to this which allows the salesman an element of control….you can’t leave until they give you your money back. If confronted with this ultimatum, simply walk away.
“Are you ready to buy a car today”? Often times, if you say no to this question, the salesman will tell you to come back when you are ready to buy. He will tell you to shop around and come back with your best price so that he can beat it. The salesman is afraid that, if he does give you his best price, you will go somewhere else and that salesman will beat it. Of course, that is the whole idea of competition and that is exactly what you want to do. If the salesman is afraid to give you a price because his competitor will beat it, it must not be the best price!
“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 is not unethical. It is 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. If you cannot negotiate a price close to your best price, get up and leave. Continue this process with another car dealer.
The “really big” discount”. The other day a friend showed me direct mail advertising piece from a new car dealer with a coupon good for $2,000 discount on any car in his inventory. This is very common for newspaper 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”.

The best protection from all of 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. All things being equal choose the dealership that has been in business a long time and an owner or general manager who will make himself accessible to you and all of his customers.

Monday, July 03, 2006

What to do if you are Treated Badly by a Car Dealer

Hopefully the sales or service experience with your car dealer went well. But, sometimes they don’t. Now what? The advice I give you applies to all business transactions, not just car dealerships.

Your first step should be to communicate your complaint ASAP to the General Manager or, preferably, the owner. Be sure that you are talking to the real owner or the real general manger. A General Manager is over all employees in the entire company. A general “sales” manager is not a General Manager. If you can’t reach the owner (Many car dealerships are either publicly owned or owned by absentee owners), ask to see the General Manager. Often times the owner or General Manager is not aware of everything that goes on with all of their customers and employees. They might have new employee that should not have been hired or received inadequate training. Or, they may simply have a “rotten apple” that should not be working there. The ease and speed with which you can meet and speak to a General Manager or an owner is a pretty good measure of the integrity of the company as whole. If the owner or General Manager cares enough about her customers to allow total access, it is probably a very good place to do business. In fact, it is a good idea to find this out before you do business.

If you cannot reach the owner or General Manager, contact the manufacturer who franchises the dealership. Car dealers have a contract with the manufacturer called a franchise agreement and this contractual agreement requires that they treat their customers with courtesy, efficiency and integrity. Most manufacturers have a customer hotline that allows you to call and register a complaint directly. The owner or General Manager of the dealership will be made aware of your complaint. As you might guess, the manufacturer has quite of bit of clout with their dealer. If a dealer does not live up to his side of the contract, his franchise could be canceled or not renewed.

The third step I recommend, if numbers one and two don’t work, is to contact a consumer agency like The Better Business Bureau or the County Office of Consumer Affairs. These agencies will send your complaint to the dealership and request a written reply. No car dealership or business wants an unanswered complaint in the file of a governmental or private consumer agency.

Your last resort is to contact an attorney. I list this last because hiring an attorney just about eliminates the possibility that you can quickly, amicably and inexpensively resolve your differences with the car dealer. Be very careful which attorney you choose. Try to choose one that is primarily interested in helping you and not in generating large fees for himself. Under the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, an attorney is entitled to his fees and costs from the defendant in a lawsuit if he wins. These fees can be much larger than the amount of your claim, motivating an unethical attorney to spend more time than is needed and dragging out a case to generate more fees than are necessary. This can be very dangerous for you because the car dealer’s attorney’s fees run roughly parallel to your lawyer’s and you can be held liable for those if you lose the case.

Hopefully you never have to resort to the final step of hiring a lawyer. In trying steps one, two, and three try to present your complaint as concisely and politely as possible. You have every right to be angry when you are taken advantage of, but try to let your anger subside before you speak to or write to someone about your problem. We all react negatively to someone who is profane, raises his voice, or is sarcastic. Your goal of communicating and resolving your complaint is best reached by communicating clearly, politely and concisely.