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Monday, September 24, 2018

Open Letter to Florida Car Dealers:

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


Dear Fellow Florida Car Dealer, 

I started in the retail auto business in 1968, about 50 years ago, and I have seen a lot of changes in the way we dealers sell cars and the expectations of our customers. My remarks in this column are made sincerely and with a positive intent toward you and your customers. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business; I’m suggesting a change that will reward both you and your customers.

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

The argument that I hear from most car dealers when I raise this issue is that the dealer fee is fully disclosed to the buyer on his buyer’s order. But, most car buyers are totally unaware that they are paying this. Who reads all the voluminous paperwork associated with buying a car? The few who notice it assume it is an “official” fee like state sales tax or license and registration fee. Those few astute buyers who do question the fee are told that your dealership must charge this fee on very car which is not true. These astute buyers are also told that all other car dealers charge similar fees. This is almost true, but, as you know, my dealership does not.

The reason you charge this fee is simply to increase the price of the car and your profit in such a manner that it is not noticed by your customer. This is just plain wrong. Dealers will admit this to me in private conversations and some will admit that they have considered eliminating the fee as I have but are afraid of the drastic effect to their bottom line. By being able to count on an extra $999 in profit that the customer is not aware of or believes is an “official fee”, you can quote a price below cost and end up making a profit. Or, if the price you quote the customer does pay you a nice profit, you can increase that by several hundred dollars.

This “extra, unseen” profit is even better for you because you don’t pay your salesmen a commission on it. That’s being unfair to your employees as well as your customers. When the rare, astute buyer objects to the dealer fee, the right thing to do would be to decrease the quoted price of the car by the amount of the dealer fee. This would have the same net effect of removing it. The salesman won’t permit this because he will lose his commission (typically 25%) on the decrease in his commissionable gross profit.

If you don’t know me, I should tell you that I don’t profess to be some “holier than thou” car dealer who was always perfect. Although, I never did anything illegal, when I look at some of my advertising and sales tactics 20+ years ago and more, I am not always proud. But, I have evolved as my customers have evolved. My customers’ expectations, level of education, and sophistication are much higher today. Your customers are no different. As I began treating my customers, and employees, better I discovered that they began treating me better. Yes, I used to charge a dealer fee ($495), and when I stopped charging it many years ago, it was scary. But I did it because I could no longer, in good conscience, mislead my customers. Just because everybody else was doing the same thing did not make it right.

Now here is the good news. My profit per car did drop by about the amount of the dealer fee when I stopped charging it. But, when my customers realized that I was now giving them a fair shake and quoting the complete out-the-door price with no “surprises” the word spread. My volume began to rise rapidly. Sure, I was making a few hundred dollars less per car, but I was selling a lot more cars! I was, and am, selling a lot of your former customers. My bottom line is far better than it was when I was charging a dealer fee. You can do the same! Currently I’m the largest volume single point car dealer between Orlando and Coconut Creek (near Ft. Lauderdale). That’s not bad for a little dealership in Lake Park, FL (population 9,000).

Why am I writing this letter? I’m not going to tell you that I think of myself as the new Marshall that has come to “clean up Dodge”. In fact, I’m aware that this letter is to some extent self-serving. Lots of people will read this letter to you and learn why they should buy a car from me and not you. And, I’m also aware that most dealers who read this will either get angry and ignore it or not have the courage to follow my lead. But maybe you will be the exception. If you have any interest in following my lead, call me anytime. I don’t have a secretary and I don’t screen any of my phone calls. I would love to chat with you about this. My cell phone number is 561 358-1474.


Earl Stewart

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Lunch with Bob Woodward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Copies of Confessions of a Recovering Car Dealer are available online at 100% of the proceeds are donated to Big Dog Ranch Rescue,