November 16, 2003

car purchase, part 2

Want to know how to fix a printer, bake a cake, buy a car? Go to the web, young woman, get on the web. If you’re talking about cars, go to We learned a lot there about our particular car-to-be, how it felt in the real world and how much people were spending on it. Answer: all over the place – at sticker as well as thousands below (for higher end models, where the dealer markup is bigger so there’s more room to negotiate). We also learned how to play this game.

Dan sent out a query through the website, telling dealers what we wanted and asking about availability. We expected email responses. We got a few but mostly they called. Me. Well, of course. I was at home. But I wasn’t really prepared for these phone conversations as I went about my morning. The thing about talking to salespeople, particularly car salespeople, is that you’re both playing a little coy game, not revealing how much you want this or how much you’re willing to give up in order to get it. Hard to do when you’re unprepared. But I took down car info and their price quotes and said we’d get back in touch.

One guy emailed with the subject line: Do you hate car salesmen? And then went on to give a pitch for himself as a non-salesman that sounded an awful lot like a sleazy sales line, ending of course with “Call me!”

Car salespeople are lonely, apparently. They all wait by the phone hoping for your call like lovelorn teens. Over this past week, I’ve been inundated. You talk to one and say you might call again and he waits a day and a half and then calls you again, just in case. And, oh, yes, sends an email just in case you didn’t get the phone message.

The Hollywood Toyota guy sent an email with “I talked to your lovely wife.” (How can he tell how attractive I am on the phone? Does he have a video phone that records even what you don’t transmit?) and went on to link to some special “lowest price guarantee” he offered so you wouldn’t have to worry about buyer’s remorse. Uh huh. California has a no-cooling-off-period law, where the moment you walk out of the door with your car, you’re stuck with it. No walking back in and saying “Oops, I just made the biggest mistake of my life!” Which also means if you go back and say “I found it cheaper elsewhere”? They’ll laugh in your face as they cash your check.

In the midst of all this, we got a quote from the Hollywood guy for five hundred under sticker price, the North Hollywood folk for a few hundred under and a guy in La Crescenta for a thousand under. When we got that one, I did a little huzzah dance, because I knew that would force the Santa Monica guy to keep to his vaguely floated offer of “as much as a thousand off.” We had no real intention of going to La Crescenta, but it was nice to know it was out there, waiting for our money.

We also realized through our research that our initial plan to lease the car was, well, insane. Through Dan’s union, he could get a loan for a low interest rate. With the same down payment we’d planned and a slightly higher monthly payment, we’d own the car outright in five years instead of having to pay the thousands a residual would be to own after the end of the lease. I think leases are good if loan interest rates are considerably higher. They’re especially good if you’re the kind of person who wants a new car every three to five years. Us? We’ve had the Accord for fourteen years, the Corolla for fifteen. We raise cars like kids, not letting them go till they’re teenagers.

We applied for the loan. The woman at the credit union suggested I call a guy at an auto club sort of place, said he’s gotten great deals for other members, he does the haggling for you. So I called. I told him what we wanted. He called back later, left a message on the machine: “It’s going for at or above MSRP, but I got you a great deal!” (imagine the trill of excitement in his voice) “I got you five hundred off the sticker price!”

Um, yeah. When I called him back a day later and told him his great deal was not so great, he told me I was a wheeler dealer and didn’t need him. (Said with a laugh and meant as a compliment.) I’m no wheeler-dealer. I just use the Internet the way nature and Arpanet never intended. And you, sir, aren’t nearly as good at your job as you pretend. They’re all salesmen, these guys, even the ones who are pretending they’re on your side.

Back online. Dan found a useful website full of nothing but Sienna owners. It’s comforting to be contemplating a car that has such loyal owners they want to obsess about it in their very own online club. The site has an owner photo gallery; I expected minivans against gorgeous sunsets, minivans clad in nothing but their sexy car bras, minivans driving straight up the sides of huge, vertical mountains. The truth is more mundane. People want to show what their color car looks like, or they want to show the non ’04 owners what they’re missing. Oh, and apparently there are now ’04 Sienna taxicabs in New York. Cushy. Also funny to see my new ride in bright yellow.

What the site had, more importantly, was a discussion about what people got their cars for. Most do get it for lower than MSRP these days. A thousand off for an LE is doable if you haggle. More would be a miracle. I think it’s good to have a semi-objective way to measure your own ability to negotiate. If you’re asking for invoice price on a hot car, you’re either a magician or you’re in for a rude shock. But if you’re willing to spend MSRP on a yawner with incentives and rebates out the wazoo, you’re being taken. It’s important to have a sense of the market. (She says, with her two weeks of experience at this.)

There’s one Toyota place in Central California, about four hours northeast of here, that sells cars at $750 above invoice. This is obviously a fantastic deal. However, there’s a little matter of getting the car. I talked to one of the guys on the phone and it sounded like they’re so busy they can’t keep up with the demand. There’s a wait for cars. Hell, there’s a wait for their return phone calls/emails. And then there’s the small matter of potential shipping costs and the fact that the Toyota advertising charge varies from region to region and it’s higher in that area than here (it’s considered part of the invoice price) and it’s not quite as attractive a deal as it looks to begin with. I’m sure if we’d waited and been persistent, we could have saved hundreds of dollars. But not thousands. And we’d probably be waiting till January (they don't currently have our model/option package in stock). And we have this trip to Cambria on the horizon. And my mom’s visit in December. And we want the car, damnit.

So okay, maybe I’m not as cool a customer as I should be. I’d be happy to get a Prius there when we’re ready to replace our Accord and already have one newish, comfy car, but right now local and convenient is worth a few hundred bucks, rightly or wrongly.

I sat down late in the week to make follow-up phone calls. When I broached the idea of $750 over invoice, every single dealer choked on his coffee. (And then went on to tell me there’s got to be a catch. I said no, it’s just a different business model. Less profit per car, more cars sold.) But when I talked about a thousand below MSRP, nearly every dealer was willing to meet that price. Even Eager Young Salesguy from our first, tentative foray into the world of car sales. He promised, in fact, that if we came into his store, he’d not only meet but beat the price. “But not by a thousand!” (The spread between MSRP and invoice for our car is somewhere between $2000 and $2500, depending on what source you use for the invoice info.)

What the hell. I made an appointment for Saturday.

Posted by Tamar at November 16, 2003 10:51 PM

Congratulations on the new purchase! Sounds like you went about it the right way, armed with research and figures, etc. Hope you all enjoy the new (gasp!) minivan (double gasp!).

FYI: the link to Edmonds isn't working or their site is down today...

Posted by: jms at November 17, 2003 11:42 AM

Oops, I misspelled it. It's actually Fixed in the entry now too. Thanks for letting me know!

And thanks for the congrats! I'm still in shock. Happy shock, that is.

Posted by: Tamar at November 17, 2003 04:50 PM

When I bought my new car it was a really tough to decide where to get information and where to buy the car online. I wanted to buy it online, because I think car dealerships put too much pressure on buyers. I decided to try out a few different sites. First I tried buying used cars or SUVs at because a friend has told me about them. I also compared them to AutoTrader, KBB,, and some other sites. KBB had some great info, but so did and CarsDirect. had great car reviews and the free car prices were really helpful. CarsDirect was also helpful, but I found the site annoying to use. I ended up buying a new car at process was so nice.

Posted by: Michelle at December 12, 2003 08:43 AM