It's been a month since I almost bought Toyota Camry, and I was hoping to kick off this series with good news about a new dark red sedan I bargained down to the price I was shooting for. Instead, my wizened white Nissan is still chugging along and I haven't yet found the right car for the right price.
But I'm a lot closer!!
Here is my approach, so far.
Part 1. Research
I've spent months looking at cars, test driving, figuring out my needs and wants, and reading about how car sales work and how to negotiate.
Here are the three most useful shopping tools I've found.
1. Truecar.com suggests a car's price based on what people have actually paid and gets dealers in your area to offer a lower than MSRP price online. Not necessarily the lowest you can go, but definitely a better place to start.
2. In this video, Rob Gruhl teaches aspiring hagglers some car buying ninja tricks. Witty and informative. Worth every second.
3. And in this series of articles on Edmunds, "Confessions of a Car Salesman,"a reporter goes undercover to learn the insider tricks of car dealerships. For example, remember that worksheet they always bring out with four squares? Here's how dealers use it to squeeze you out of every cent you can pay:
The next step in my training involved the use of the "4-square work sheet." Michael told me the 4-square was my friend, it was the salesman's tool for getting "maximum gross profit." As the name implies, the sheet is divided into four sections. When you have a prospect "in the box" (in the sales cubicle) you pull out a 4-square and go to work.
The process begins by asking the customer how much they want for a monthly payment. Usually, they say, about $300. "Then, you just say, '$300... up to?' And they'll say, 'Well, $350.' Now they've just bumped themselves $50 a month. That's huge." You then fill in $350 under the monthly payment box.
Michael said you could use the "up to" trick with the down payment too. "If Mr. Customer says he wants to put down $2000, you say, "Up to?" And he'll probably bump himself up to $2500." Michael then wrote $2,500 in the down payment box of the 4-square worksheet.I later found out this little phrase "Up to?" was a joke around the dealership. When salesmen or women passed each other in the hallways, they would say, "Up to?" and break out laughing.
The final box on the 4-square was for the trade-in. This was where the most profit could be made. Buyers are so eager to get out of their old car and into a new one, they overlook the true value of the trade-in. The dealership is well aware of this weakness and exploits it.
The opening numbers were now in place on the 4-square. At a glance, Michael said, you could see the significant numbers of this deal — purchase price of the car, trade-in, down payment and the monthly payments. As you negotiated you could move from box to box, making progress as you went. It allowed you to sell a car in different ways. For example, if the customer was determined to get full value for his trade-in, you could take extra profit elsewhere — in the purchase price or maybe even in financing.
The first numbers that go on the 4-square come from the customer. The down payment and the monthly payment are only what they would like to pay. Now, it's time to get the numbers that the dealership would like the customer to pay. These numbers are called the "first pencil" and they come from a sales manager in the tower. Michael said that the first pencil was the dealership's starting position. "You have to hit them high," Michael explained. "You have to break them inside — make them understand that if they want our beautiful new car, they're going to have to pay for it."
This reminded Michael of something and he laughed. "Here's another thing. Never give the customer even numbers. Then it looks like you just made them up. So don't say their monthly payment is going to be $400. Say it will be $427. Or, if you want to have some fun, say it will be $427.33."
The whole series takes a while to read through, and it was written 10 years ago, but it was a worthwhile education. (More on the Four Squares of Death at the Consumerist.)
So that was my basic training. Next step, deciding which car to buy.