I'm not a big fan of shopping. Some purchases are much more difficult than others, which is why I'm a big fan of online shopping. My wife and I recently had to buy a car after hers was totaled, and the experience left me wondering why the process is so difficult.
I know there are services such as Carvana, which delivers a new car to your door with a seven-day, no-questions return policy.
I may give such as service a try some day, but for now I'm old fashioned and figure if we're going to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a car, I'd prefer to take it on a test drive before buying.
Before I get to the tale of woe and offer ideas for making the chance to buy a car easier, I should explain two things:
1. We only decided to buy a new car after doing plenty of research that showed that a new Toyota Prius was only about $4,000 more than a used one. My normal inclination is to always buy a car used because a new car's value depreciates 9 percent when you drive off the lot.
2. I don't consider myself an expert in car price negotiations — mainly because I've only bought one new car — so before buying the Prius I hired a car broker to buy a used car. The broker not only saved me money, but it took a lot less time and I'm sure less hassle than I would have had at an auto dealer. Eventually, we went with a broker to buy a car for my wife.
Start with a price report
To get a feel for our local market to buy car, I got a free TrueCar report for its estimate of how much the car would cost. I then used a link from my Consumer Reports magazine subscription that allowed three area car dealers to send us price quotes through email.
The offers were all reasonable, based on the prices we found online. But one offer was about $2,500 less than the others. That kind of set off a red light for me, but I called the salesman anyway to make sure the price was accurate and that it included any out-the-door fees, taxes and anything costs they planned to charge me.
He assured me it was, and sent me an email confirming the price as the final price. This is where things started to fall apart.
0% financing runaround
I told him I was ready to buy a car from him, but again, wanted to make sure that he was quoting me the final price and that we wouldn't be surprised with other charges when we arrived. I also asked if the price included the 0% financing that Toyota was offering.
He told me it didn't include the 0% financing, which would increase the price by about $1,000. The low price was for people with bad credit, who wouldn't qualify for the 0% interest rate and would end up paying $1,000 or so in interest with Toyota's low-interest financing. If you have good or excellent credit, which we do, then the price rises $1,000 because you're getting the free financing.
Confusing, yes, but whatever. The car was still a deal.
Paint protection bait and switch
So before driving 20-something miles, I told the salesman that I agreed to his new, final price, but only if it included everything. I didn't want to be surprised by any add-ons or other fees when we arrived. He told me that the final price was what I'd be paying.
When we arrived in the early evening to buy the car, he showed it to us and pointed out a $995 fee for paint protection and wheel locks that he said were added at the factory.
I was furious. I told him I didn't appreciate this bait and switch, and asked for the extras and $995 to be removed before we'd buy. After he "talked" to his boss, they agreed to lower the price to $700. I felt like I was about to buy a car from Jerry Lundegaard:
But unlike in "Fargo," we didn't buy. The salesman said they couldn't remove the paint protection, so we walked out.
Back to the broker to buy a car
I immediately called a car broker we had been working with. He told us before we went to the Toyota dealer in Fairfield, Calif., that other Toyota dealers told him they couldn't match the Fairfield dealer's price because he was likely losing money on the sale. He warned us to look out for upsales.
Long story short: The broker found the same car at another dealer for $1,000 more than the Fairfield dealer originally offered, but without the paint add-on and any other hassles. It was time to buy a car — finally — for a fair price.
We didn't even have to drive to the dealer. They delivered it to our home and the broker handled the paperwork.
The dealer's response
I've since reviewed the shady dealer on Yelp with a one-star review, and called the general manager after he read it to tell him the full story.
He denied it was a bait and switch, telling me that the fine print in the email the company sent me explained that the price wasn't guaranteed and that add-ons may be part of the added price when I arrived at the dealership.
OK, Toyota gets out of a bait and switch with some legal notice that no one reads. I get that. But it's still dishonest business, I told him, to have a salesman quote me one price and then give me another when I arrive.
His answer floored me. Their initial prices were so low, the GM said, as a way to get people in the door. Without the extra markups and their tactics to spring them on people at the last moment, they'd be out of business.
If they didn't add on extra costs when the customer arrived, they'd go out of business if they sold cars at the original price they quoted, the general manager of the Toyota dealership said.
What? I asked him to clarify, and his response was that they basically dupe people to come in and buy a car by showing them low prices. Then they hit them with extra fees. Without that business practice, which he said was normal, they'd be out of business.
Is there a better way to buy a car?
If I ever buy a car again, which for me is a rare purchase, I don't plan on dealing directly with a dealer. I'll either go through a broker or try Carvana or whatever else is available online.
I don't expect buying a car to be like a trip to the grocery story, where I don't have to haggle over the price of what's in my grocery cart. Car features can be individualized, though picking one off the shelf should be a lot easier than it is.
Another option would be to go without a car, which I'd seriously consider if I lived in a major metropolitan area. I could take Lyft, public transportation, bike, walk or rent a car when absolutely necessary. Anything but having to buy a car.
I may get to that point someday. But until then, I'm on the lookout for better ways to buy a car.