The New Experience of Buying a Car

I am an intelligent, independent woman so when I decided to look for a used car a few years ago, I figured I could do it on my own. That turned out to be a costly mistake. I thought I had done my research and knew what to look for, but in the end, I did everything wrong and had a horrible experience. However, I learned from my mistakes and things have changed! When I needed to look again, I realized shopping for a car doesn’t have to be painful. Now that information is available at our fingertips through a quick internet search or a car buying app, consumers are in the driver’s seat (so to speak). Let’s take a look at what I did wrong and how I learned to NEVER make those mistakes again.

First, as an eager shopper I walked directly into the dealership. I didn’t realize that when you do this you are giving control to the sales team from the start. Since then, I’ve learned a trick from my husband that changes the dynamic. Instead of heading inside, take a stroll to look at some of the cars on the lot. Let them come to you! That way you are the one calling the shots. Plus, you have time to see if their inventory matches your needs. This time around, I tried this trick and it really worked. There were a few dealerships where no one came out to me so I left. Trust me, there are many more fish in the sea!

Which brings me to my second point. You are free to leave at any time. Savvy, high pressure sales teams know how to size you up and push your buttons. This happened to me the first time around. I am a friendly and polite person so my sales person quickly began trying to get me to agree to small things. They will say things like “if we can find a car you like, do you think you might take it home today,” “we want to make sure you are a serious buyer,” and other similar phrases. Don’t be fooled. They are trying to use your politeness to get a sale. If they can convince you to agree to small requests, they can hold them against you later in the process when you are on the fence.

This time when I ran into a high pressure sales person who tried to get me to agree to his terms, I simply refused. I stood my ground and refused to commit to anything. I didn’t spend much time dealing with this particular person. Now when I begin to get that uncomfortable feeling, I know to trust it. I left quickly knowing that I did not want to shop there. After I left, I looked up the car they were trying to sell me and my suspicions were confirmed. The vehicle they told me was a “great deal” and a “steal” was actually priced higher than fair market value. Not only that, I could see that they had recently increased the price. Yep, you heard me right, they actually increased the price that they were initially going to sell the car for thinking they had me on the hook! They were wrong.

It is getting harder for dealers to use these tactics but they still exist. They have just become more refined. This is where you have another great advantage. In today’s consumer-centric world, you can read reviews and hear about other people’s car buying experiences. A quick internet search will reveal consumer ratings for the dealership. Every instance is different, but if you see many negative reviews and recurring themes, you will be prepared. Like anything else, you can use these reviews as a gauge. A negative review could be the result of one bad sales person who is no longer with the dealership, and multiple vague positive ones could be fake. Use your best judgement.

I knew how much I wanted to spend and the types of features I was looking for. However, I didn’t know what make or model would fit the bill. To narrow down my search, I began visiting dealerships. I wanted to get a better idea of what each model had to offer and test drive them to see which vehicles might be a good fit. It’s ok to tell the dealer that you are just looking and will not be buying that day, it takes the pressure off. If they are interested in building a relationship, they will take the time to show you a few models and give you options. If they try to sell you on one particular car, be very weary.

Once I had a better idea of what I was looking for, I was able to go online to find the car I was interested in before I ever stepped foot in a dealership. This is where the real power resides. Again, this puts you in the driver’s seat. When you walk in blind, not knowing what you really want, you are at the mercy of what they want to sell you, which is often a car they have had for a while that they really want to get rid of. However, if you do your homework up front and visit a site like you will see if the vehicle you are interested in is reasonably priced, if the price has changed recently, if the car has been in an accident, and even how long it has been on the market. Tools like this also direct you to dealerships that you might not otherwise know about.

Initially I was looking for an older used car, but using online tools, I found a newer model that I could afford. Having done my homework, I knew exactly what I wanted and how much it would cost me. With this ammunition in hand, I made an appointment to see the car I found online. I have to tell you this was such a better experience! I felt much more confident and educated than before. I knew the car I found was a good deal, now I just needed to see how it ran and inspect it for any damage.

When it came down to numbers, I knew what rates were available and what my credit score was so there were no surprises there. That means no hidden fees and no upcharges. A tactic they like to use is to ask you how much you want to spend. If you tell them what you want to spend monthly, you may find they will try to extend your payment period to 72 or even 86 months to get you into a car that you might not be able to afford. You may pay less monthly, but the car is still too expensive and you will be paying more in interest in the long run. Be smart. Know what you can afford and what kind of terms work best for you. If possible, it is best to get pre-approved at a credit union so you have that info walking in the door.

Ok, now the hard part, the numbers guy. This is where they will make you wait while they get the financing together. Now is not the time to let your guard down. Make sure you take the time to read every document and understand what they are trying to sell you. They didn’t make you wait that long on a whim. It is another tactic to wear you down. They know that now that you have picked a car you just want to take it home and get out of there. If they make you wait, you may be less vigilant about what you are signing.

So, it was no surprise when they tried to sell me additional options like extra insurance, vehicle maintenance and even tire protection that I did not want or need. They are trained to make these options sound good but in many cases they are just add-ons that directly profit the dealership. Even though I was tempted, I said no and moved on to the actual agreement. Here you want to be extra vigilant and make sure the numbers listed are the numbers you agreed to. Be sure to watch for hidden charges like filing fees.

Another sneaky trick I experienced was a form saying that you accept the car as is. DO NOT sign this form unless everything you and your sales agent or sales manager agreed to is on the sheet! In my case they had agreed to recondition the car and buff out scratches. I also stood my ground and made sure they added a second set of keys (if you don’t have them you may find an unexpected out of pocket expense in the hundreds). They may resist but again, don’t be afraid to walk out. It is not too late. Also, here is where silence can be a great asset to you. Tell them what you want and sit back until they give it to you. If they balk, just sit silently and stare at them. They want the deal and they will come around. I made sure they agreed to these terms and they were on the form before I signed.

All in all, I feel like I got a good deal and there was much less haggling than the last time. I was in control of the experience from finding the car I wanted to signing on the dotted line. I knew exactly how much it would cost me and whether or not it was a good deal before I even left my house. This is very different than my previous experience when I found the exact car I had just purchased was actually listed at a lower price online. Plus I had to pay for extras because I did not have verbal promises in writing. I went from feeling taken advantage of, to feeling in control, and you can too.

Here are a few other lessons I learned:

  • Trust your instincts.
  • Get pre-approved and work out your budget before shopping.
  • Don’t feel like you have to do it all in one day. Take the time to research or drive enough cars that you are confident in your choice and don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse.
  • Watch out for hidden fees. Ask to have title and paperwork fees waived or reduced.
  • If you don’t get the answers you want, use the silence trick. Just sit back until the uncomfortable silence prompts a positive response from the dealer.
  • Never go on an empty stomach or when you are tired or ill. All of these things will dull your mind and you might make preventable mistakes.
  • Try not to shop in the rain or at night. It is harder to inspect the car for any damage.
  • Never feel pressured to buy a car on the spot or put down a deposit. Chances are that the car will still be there tomorrow, and even if it isn’t there are always other deals that will be just as good.
  • If they won’t let you test drive the car, consider that a big red flag.
  • Never believe what the salesperson is telling you. Always do your homework and look up the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) for pricing accuracy, as well as accident reports.
  • If your sales person tells you they will add or fix something, be sure to get it in writing.
  • Sleep on it. If you are unsure or uneasy, just leave and re-approach the situation when you are fully rested and have had a chance to remove yourself from high-pressure sales tactics.
  • If they tell you the engine is running rough because the car has been sitting just walk away.
  • Watch out for bait and switch tactics. A dealer may tell you a car you found online is available, then claim it isn’t when you get there and try to sell you something else.
  • High-pressure sales tactics are not always easy to spot. Sales professionals are trained to size you up and work on your vulnerabilities. They often do this by acting like your best friend.
  • Use caution if the car smells strongly of air freshener or smoke. They may be using the freshener to mask odors (like cigarette smoke) that will be very hard to remove.
  • Don’t feel pressured to provide a down payment larger than you can afford.
  • Don’t offer up extra information. Some dealers use tricks to make it appear that they are giving you what you asked for. Be sure to keep the big picture in mind.
  • Check on insurance, gas and registration rates before you buy so you are prepared for those extra costs.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Ask a friend or family member to go with you for moral support. You can always use them as an excuse to leave if you need to!


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