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Monday, September 28, 2020

Minimize the Risk of Servicing Your Car During the Covid Pandemic

One of the most frequent questions I get on my radio show [Earl Stewart on Cars, Saturdays 8-10 AM EST 95.9 FM, 106.9 FM;] is “How can I be sure I’m servicing my car properly when I’m afraid to drive my car into the service department for fear of Covid?”

Following are some tips to be sure that your car is getting the right care and not expose you to the Covid virus:

- If you’re concerned about maintaining your car’s warranty, call your dealership’s service department and explain your concern. All makes recommend that you follow the recommend service in our owner’s manual, but it’s very, very rare that warranty repairs are denied because of being late or even missing a recommended service. To do so would require proof that neglect specifically caused a repair…running low or out of oil for example. Call your service department and explain your concern and they’ll likely understand your delaying a service. Also, most service departments provide for “pick-up and delivery” service at an additional charge. The single most critical thing you should watch is your oil level. You want to be sure your oil level doesn’t drop far enough to cause engine damage. I you can’t do this yourself, please have someone do this at lease every 6 months or 5,000 miles.

- Online Owner Forums: Every make car has large numbers of owners who “gather on the Internet” to trade ideas and problems. If your car has a particular problem, noise, rattle, fuel consumption or anything at all that is worrisome, the odds are almost 100% that some people in a chatroom have discussed it and offered solutions. For example, you might have 2016 Honda Accord that stalls at stoplights. Just Google, “2012 Honda Accord stalling at stoplights” and you’ll be amazed at the amount of useful information you’ll see.

- Another way to learn if you have a serious or minor problem, is to describe it carefully to the service advisor or technician that normally works on your car. You can do this by phone, text, or email and be sure to include pictures and audio recordings from your smartphone. Given a good description, especially with audio and video, a good tech can usually give you a diagnosis by phone.

- If your “Check Engine Light” comes on, it’s usually nothing serious. In fact, about half the time it’s because your gas cap isn’t tight enough! Almost all “check engine light” warnings are related to excessive emissions, and this is rarely a serious problem requiring immediate service. You can decode your “check engine light” yourself with a code-reader. The highest rated and best seller on Amazon is the Autophix OBD2 Scanner Enhanced OM126P for $49.99, free one day delivery. Rick Kearney, the technician on my radio show, recommends Auto Zone, Advanced Auto Parts, and O’Reilly’s for a FREE code check. Don’t go to Pep Boys, they’ll charge you.

- If you must take your car to a service department, ask them ahead of time to describe their precautions against Covid. EVERYONE should be PROPERLY wearing a mask, social distancing should be being enforced, hand sanitizers and hand washing stations should be readily available. Your car should be DE sanitized before it’s returned. The tech who was inside your car and the person that returns your car should be wearing masks. Especially careful companies are testing their employees (and even their family members) for Covid periodically.

One thing to remember is that you and your family’s lives are far more important than buying or servicing your car. This pandemic will pass, things will greatly improve, and the day will come when you can safely service and buy a car again. Better safe than sorry.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Template for Buying a Car Online Avoiding Dealer Deceptions


On my radio show, “Earl on Cars”, I feature a mystery shopping report of different South Florida car dealerships. Every week (for over 17 years) we’ve visited different car dealers, pretending to buy a car, and reporting on live radio what really happened. We name the dealerships and those salespeople we dealt with. In the past we’ve responded to “too good to be true” advertisements and exposed the dealers’ deceptions. We thought that, by showing you the “tricks up dealers’ sleeves”, we could help you avoid them. Now, we think we’ll try a different approach, more beneficial to you. We’re demonstrating the best way to buy the car of your choice at a low price without deception. All our mystery shopping reports are available online at 

Below are the mystery shops of four Ford dealerships in South Florida. The very best way to get the best price on the next car you buy is to compare your out-the- door price on the same car with at least 3 car dealerships. Competition is your best friend and car dealers’ worst enemy. Below is a clear example of exactly what you should do the next time you buy a car.  


9-17-2020 Mystery Shop: Multiple Ford Dealers: Mullinax Ford, Al Packard Ford, Wayne Akers Ford, and Advantage Ford Report: 

 I began my mission with a Google search: “Ford dealers near me”. On the search results page, the four closest Ford dealers were Mullinax Ford in Lake Park, Advantage Ford in Stuart, Al Packard Ford in West Palm Beach, and Wayne Akers Ford in Lake Worth.  

My next step was to visit each of their web sites to find my desired vehicle: a new 2020 Ford Explorer XLT with an MSRP of $38,170. Three listings had links that were labeled to imply that clicking it would reveal a price for the listed vehicle. Wayne Akers Ford’s read, “Get Today’s Price”; Mullinax’s said, “Get Today’s Out-the- Door Price”. Al Packer’s was “Get Today’s PACKER e-Price”. Only Advantage Ford’s listing implied the online price was the price; their link read simply, “I’m Interested.” 

 In every case, the links opened “lead forms” - forms on which I was supposed to provide my nameemail addressphone number, and any comments or questions. I learned my lesson from last week’s mystery shop and the deluge of phone calls that I received (and am still getting) taught me.  I put in all zeroes for my phone number, and only gave my email address. Next time, I won’t use my personal email address, but another I can get free from Google, MS Outlook, Yahoo, etc. Where possible, I indicated that I only wanted to communicate via email. In the comments sections, I stated that I wanted to receive an out-the-door price on the listed Explorer, with an explanation of all fees. Since the prices weren’t revealed by clicking the “Get My Price” buttons, I assumed that I would be receiving emails with their best prices.  

1. Advantage Ford Online I submitted my form, then for the heck of it, I tried their online chat, but their chat appeared to be nothing but another way to get me to give more personal information. I asked the chat agent about the Explorer, and the agent offered to get me the info, but then said she couldn’t find it, so she needed my email and phone number for her “team” to contact me. I gave her my email and waited. A few minutes later, I received an email from Jelisa with a price and sparse details. My price was $38,886, but the out-the-door was $42,636.99. This supposedly included all taxes and fees, but there was no itemized breakdown. No MSRP was indicated, but I was given a VIN. I searched their website for the VIN and identified a 2020 Ford Explorer XLT with an MSRP of $42,310… not the vehicle I wanted a price on. 

 2. Wayne Akers Ford Online. I got the fastest response from Wayne Akers. I received an email from Sabrika explaining that the Explorer I inquired about had been sold. She included two out-the-door quotes for two other Explorers… both quotes were sparse on details. No itemized breakdown of fees. No details about options or anything else. One was a used 2020 Explorer with an out-the-door price of $41,225. The only indication that it was used was the “U” at the beginning of the listing. I confirmed it was used by searching the VIN on their web site. The other one was another used 2020 Explorer with an out-the-door price of $37,704.  

3. Al Packer Ford Online. As I did with Advantage Ford, I tried Al Packer’s chat service. It was an identical experience. No help from the chat agent, who just wanted to collect my contact information. I did receive a few emails from Joe, though. The first one didn’t have a price quoteit was just an introduction. The next one was just as helpfulHe wanted to know if I had any questions about the Ford Explorer that I was interested in. I never got a quote. 

 4. Mullinax Ford Online I submitted my inquiry on Mullinax’s website. I received an auto response like Al Packer’s, but right after that, I received a price quote. This quote was the only one I received on the actual car I inquired about: a new 2020 Explorer XLT with an MSRP of $38,170. I emailed back to get an itemized breakdown and waited for a response. After 30 minutes, I still had no response, but I made up my mind to choose Mullinax anyway - they were the only one to quote me on the specific vehicle I wanted. They also had the lowest top line price - $33,833 and the promised No Dealer Fees. 

Mullinax Ford On-site Experience Inside the showroom, everyone wore masks. I asked the receptionist for a salesperson and said that I preferred a female associate if possible. I was told there was only one female salesperson and she was busy with a customer. Instead, she summoned Brian. Brian offered me an “air handshake” and chuckled. I told him about the Explorer and that I had received a quote online. He pulled up the vehicle record on the computer, then reported that it had just been placed into their loaner fleet. He said he had a different one to show me if I agreed. I said okay, assuming I was about to be switched to a more expensive model. Instead, I was surprised that he took me to the twin of my desired vehicle: same year, make, model, trim, and MSRP. Brian scanned my license with his phone, and we drove the vehicle out of the parking garage for a test drive. When we returned, Brian asked if I was ready to make a purchase today. I replied I would if the numbers looked good. We went inside. I was asked to wait while Brian got the sales figures. He returned with a worksheet with an itemized cost breakdown. The MSRRP was $38,170. Then Brian applied a $1,087 discount and a $3,250 rebate to get to a selling price of $33,833 (same as my online quote). He added $2,411 in taxes (the sales tax should have totaled $2,079.98, though I did not catch this at the time). He also added $311.50 for Tag & Registration. That was it. No other fees. I asked Brian if it was okay if I grabbed some lunch and thought things over. Brian did not seem to have a problem with that. He handed me my paperwork and said he’d look forward to my call.  

Epilogue What this mystery shop teaches us is that it doesn’t matter how sophisticated or methodical a consumer’s approach is, getting an out-the-door price quote is like pulling teeth. Despite the fancy web forms and chat services, the online experience can be just as frustrating as the traditional showroom visit. However, Mullinax stood out over the others. Except for the slow (no) response for the price breakdown over email and the incorrect sales tax calculation (this was either a mistake or a small hidden fee of $331. Because Mullinax advertise “No Dealer Fees”, they may rationalize that calling the hidden fee something else makes it OK)Mullinax came closest to a modern 21st century car buying experience we hoped to get. TrueCar average for this model is a bit lower than Mullinax’s selling price, coming in at $33,421 before dealer fees. However, with dealer fees averaging over $1,000 in our area, it’s likely that Mullinax has a lower actual price.