Disclaimer: I’m no expert on cars or car shopping, these are just my own thoughts and experiences, but I felt like sharing them in case anyone finds them helpful.
First, a bit of a backstory about my previous car purchase history. The first vehicle I purchased was 23 years ago. I bought a new Chevy Metro. No one had ever educated me on the sales practices of auto dealerships, and I thought you could trust the sales team and the employees that were helping you. I ended up paying full price, added on whatever they recommended, and paid way too much for that car. The lesson learned is that buying a car is a much different and unpleasant experience from buying anything else on a regular day to day basis. In other words, the lesson learned was – you can’t trust anyone on the sales team when buying a vehicle.
It was an expensive lesson to say the least, but one that taught me a lot. My mother often repeated the quote “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” That truism is particularly pertinent to buying a car.
Unfortunately, the unsavory dealings I experienced with that first purchase weren’t unique to that particular dealership, nor have things changed much in the past 23 years. Since then, I’ve bought a few used cars in the early 2000s, but always consulted people I trusted about the deals and relied on their experience.
In 2004, we ended up buying two Nissan Sentras. First we purchased a used, low mileage ’03 SER, and then later, I bought an ’04 Spec V. One lasted for 12 years, and the other seventeen years.
Throughout those previous car purchases (I can count six), there were always some deceptive sales practices that were implemented again and again by the dealerships we dealt with. Rather than talk price, the sales teams discussed monthly payments. They would try to hide any and all pertinent numbers like the actual price, trade in value, interest rates, length of payments, and various add-ons. No matter which way you looked, they were trying to hide something from you. I fully understand the need for them to be profitable, but the way in which they dishonestly treat people is despicable. In every single instance, the same lesson was relearned and reinforced – you can’t trust anyone on the sales team when buying a vehicle.
In 2015, when we decided to replace my wife’s vehicle, we wanted to stick with Nissan due to their reliability and most importantly the fair dealings and good customer service we’ve had with the local dealership’s service department. We were looking for a car to haul the family around in, that kids would eat and spill in, that was comfortable, had decent features, but nothing fancy because we knew the interior would take quite a bit of abuse, and specifically one that was used with some factory warranty remaining.
Using the internet, we had narrowed our search down to a used 2012 Nissan Rogue (we even had the specific VIN), from our local dealership’s website and various sites like Edmunds.com and Cars.com. We went down to the dealership, test drove it, and then met with the salesman that we’ve known for many years (he used to be our main point of contact in the service department). He was always pleasant and friendly when he worked in service, and we thought since we knew him, and had been loyal to that particular Nissan dealership, that they would give us a fair deal. After all, we had already bought two cars from them, and knew the employee for more than a decade.
After some back and forth with the salesman whom always had to disappear to converse with the sales manager, the best price they would give us was actually worse than it was on internet sites that the dealership advertised on (Edmunds.com or Cars.com). When I brought this up to the sales team and the employee that we had worked with for many years, they explained that we would have to purchase the car through that particular website to get the deal. As idiotic as that was, I used a computer in the dealership, and bought the car online. This retaught me, that even if you have history with a dealership – you can’t trust anyone on the sales team when buying a vehicle.
Now, on to the present day. it’s been 17 years since I replaced my last car. With all that’s been happening in the world, some of the auto dealers are offering zero percent to boost their sales – this seemed like a great time to take advantage of the current incentives.
After renting a Jeep in February, when I was in Arizona for business, I really wanted a Jeep Wrangler with all the bells and whistles, or a Jeep Gladiator. However, I would never go off-roading, would never take the top or doors off, and didn’t really need that type of vehicle. So, I began looking at crossover vehicles.
This time, I decided to shop for cars differently. I had no interest in test driving a bunch of cars, and didn’t want to deal with any sales teams face to face based upon previous experiences. Since the local Nissan dealership didn’t treat us fairly during our last sales experience, I have no loyalty to them. Moreover, I didn’t want to own two of the same cars again since we already have a Rogue (like when we owned two Sentras). Besides, there are so many other vehicles out there.
While we were at the coast – on vacation, I was looking at vehicles online. I joined many car specific groups on Facebook to ask questions of existing owners, watched many a YouTube video, read quite a few reviews, and narrowed down my choices to a few vehicles with certain criteria. Here are those criteria listed in order of importance to me:
- Zero percent financing for a minimum of 60 months.
- Cost of insurance premiums and if I could get GAP insurance through my agent (he could)
- Features and performance
- Local dealership – mainly for service, but if I could buy locally too, that was a plus, but not a must.
- Test driving was on the bottom of my list – I’ll explain.
Armed with the internet, I contacted multiple dealerships for each brand. They all wanted to schedule a test drive and get me in there. I refused in any and all cases. I let them know that until we worked out a deal, I wouldn’t come in. That’s something that I had to repeat again and again throughout the process.
Here are the steps I used in negotiating and ultimately buying the car – in this order:
- I’d see the car I was interested in on their website, and then would have to put in my contact information for their “best offer.”
- The sales team from each of the dealerships I contacted, would start emailing, calling, and texting me. Every time one of them called, I would ignore their calls. Via email and text, I told them that I would not speak with anyone over the telephone – at all.
- I asked for their lowest price.
- I asked the specifics of their financing. If it wasn’t 60 months or more at zero percent, then they got ignored going forward – marked as spam, text and phone numbers blocked, etc. Weirdly enough, many brands and dealerships were inconsistent with one another when it came to various promotions and financing.
- Again I asked if they would go any lower, letting them know that other dealers had lower prices. When they asked which dealer, I refused to answer, but would include a screenshot without the other dealer’s information.
- I asked to see a full breakdown – line by line of the total cost of the car and financing.
- They all sent me back the monthly payments, and some random figures, but not what I asked for.
- Numbers six and seven repeated a few times (to my annoyance) until I emailed something similar to the following: “I need to see a complete line by line breakdown showing the following: purchase price, taxes, fees, and total. Tell your finance / sales manager that I will not pay for any extras at all – none, no gap insurance, no add-ons, nothing. Also, total monthly payment.” The math at this point would be simple. Total price + fees and taxes, divided by the months of the loan should equal the payment. A few got back to me with what I asked for.
- Not surprisingly, some came back with purposely hidden information, and a payment that was higher than what it should have been. I had to flat out tell these people that unless they put what I asked for in writing, that I won’t come in. That finally got the results I asked for.
- Once I had their final offers, with all numbers in writing, I narrowed it down to the 2020 Subaru Forester Sport with the extras included. Most of the dealerships were with a few hundred of each other, but I still asked again if they would go lower compared to the competition.
- I filled out a financing application online, which turned out to be a total fiasco and waste of time. I know I have good credit, I can see my current score through my credit card’s website. Never again, will I do an online app prior to going into the dealership – never. It’s for their convenience prequalifying – not mine. No thanks!
- After I had the numbers in writing, I scheduled a test drive, and went down to the dealership. They also let me know that they would give me $250 in credit for accessories and six free oil changes.
At the dealership: Upon entering, the sales team that I had been conversing with wouldn’t even come out to greet me. Instead, they sent some random sales guy to take me on the test drive and fill out some forms.
Firstly, the salesman pulled the car up for us to get in. After he stepped out of the vehicle, I noticed a scratch on the leather of the drivers seat.
For a brand new car, I insisted they would either need to fix this or get me a discount. Prior to driving the car, I instructed him to reach out to whomever he needed to at the dealership to get something figured out while we were on the test drive. Also, I had them check out my Sentra for trade in. I already knew that I would probably sell it myself though.
The test drive went fine, and the car met my expectations. I didn’t feel like I was making a mistake with the Subaru, and didn’t feel that I was missing anything by not test driving the competition.
Upon returning to the dealership, the salesman sent the car to the detailing department to see if they could buff out the scratch. He also let me know that they would only give my $500 for my car on trade, but I know I can get at least $2500 if I sell it myself based upon the CarFax report I paid for and KBB.com, so I declined.
I explained that we couldn’t move forward with the deal until we had the scratch resolved. Five to ten minutes later, he informed me that they couldn’t get rid of it. We went back and forth, but I was able to get $300 knocked off the price and a $50 cargo net. I had the original screenshot/email of the deal we had worked up previously, and needed to see the new deal in writing before we went anywhere else. Luckily, I had screenshots of previous emails during this time. It took a bit, but they finally got the new deal worked up and everything seemed fine. The scratch is annoying, but since it’s covered by my butt when I drive, I’ll deal with it. Besides, $350 is $350.
I had to re-fill out a paper financing application (again, I’ll never do one online again), wait and wait some more, and finally I was able to sit down with the finance / sales manager. Even though we already had a deal agreed on, he tried to sell me GAP insurance (already handled by my insurance agent) even though in writing I said I wouldn’t buy it from him. I quickly responded with a no, and that we already had a deal worked up. Let me tell you, since I got all of that out of the way in writing up front, the signing was fast! The fastest I’ve ever had with any car deal in my life!
Well, there were some minor annoyances after that. Firstly, the salesman upsold me on Subaru’s app for $75. It has some neat features, and it’s worth it, but it felt like being nickle and dimed at this point.
Secondly, the parts department and service department didn’t have records of the oil changes or parts credit. I had to email the sales team that was now gone for the day to ask about them.
Thirdly, I made an appointment to have a Subaru hitch installed the next morning – this was a huge mistake and major annoyance. Let me explain. They wanted about $600+ for their official hitch to be installed. It would have been a 1.25 inch version (I’d explain more, but I’m new to this, and that’s the best I can explain at this moment). My intent was to purchase a hitch mount bike rack for four bikes that we could use for family outings. I knew from researching bike racks, that a 2 inch version was preferable for bike racks. Moreover, the service manager explained that using a 2 inch version from a third party (because Subaru doesn’t offer them) would void my warranty. So, I agreed to have them install the Subaru version the next morning as it was late.
That night, I asked in a Facebook Subaru group about the hitch and bike mount, but also read a lot about bike racks for hitch mounts that evening. Here’s in a nutshell what I found:
- The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act prohibits manufacturers from voiding the warranty if you use aftermarket parts. Which means that the person I spoke to at the dealership either didn’t know what they were talking about or they were lying to me.
- Every hitch mount bike rack that I researched require a 2 inch receiver for four bikes. Every single one. The 1.25 inch receiver is fine for 2 bikes, but not more.
- Third party hitch mounts installed are less expensive. I’m having one installed by a local company next week, and just ordered a Kuat bike rack today.
The following morning, I called the dealership the second they opened and had them cancel the installation of the hitch. I would come down later that morning and pick up the car. When I arrived at the dealership, there was another service manager there, and when I was discussing getting a third party hitch, he agreed that it would NOT void the warranty. Same service department, different employees, giving conflicting information.
Fourthly, to make sure that I got the credit for the parts and oil changes, I had to re-show the same email that I received from the sales team, and wait for them to figure it out. Finally I used the credit to get cross bars and license plate covers.
Now that it’s all said and done, I’m quite pleased with the Forester. The all wheel drive and high clearance have already come in handy on the couple of hikes that I’ve been on (with less than desirable entrances to the hiking areas). The safety features and cruise control are quite advanced, the ride is nice, the gas mileage is better than my old Sentra, the acceleration and power are fine, the stereo system sounds great, and it’s a good looking car.