Falling in love can be dangerous, especially when it's at a used car dealership. Bethany Porter's heart went all a-flutter once she laid eyes on a black '99 Saab 9-3 convertible with 98,000 miles on it sitting at the Geoff Rogers Autoplex in St. Peters, Missouri, home of the "price smash." She was ready to dump her 2001 Nissan Pathfinder for it. They had gone 175,000 miles together, good miles, but she was ready for a little more thrill in the driver's seat. Her human lover, her husband, cautioned her against jumping in too eagerly as they walked into the dealership... So did having stars in her eyes leave her burned behind the wheel? And how can what she learned help you save big on your next car purchase? I reached out to two car salesman experts to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on how the deal went down.
I also contacted Geoff Rogers Autoplex. Chuck, the manager, confirmed the trade-in happened for the amounts Bethany described. The salesman she and her husband worked with was no longer there and Chuck did not make available any other employee who might have knowledge of the sale. Requests for comment about the specifics of the negotiation process as described by Bethany were not returned.
Back to our story, already in progress...
Beth was feeling confident. She drove the car home and it was all good except for a few cosmetic issues like a cracked windshield, needing a new battery, a hydraulic soft top that was low on fluids and a non-working info display. But for all its charm, she had seen the Saab soft top convertible she coveted at other places and knew she could get what she wanted elsewhere. "Be prepared to walk," her husband told her as they returned to the Geoff Rogers Autoplex. A current of electricity ran through her body. "I am digging the power I feel," she recalled feeling at the time. Knowing that she could always walk gave her an edge.
She laid down the foundation for the new relationship with the salesman. "I straight up told the sales guy that it was gonna be a good cop/bad cop thing," Bethany recalls. "Do not treat the husband like he is dumb. He will walk, just be honest and we'll be fine."
The salesman asked her husband "What can I do to get you in the car?" Her husband said they wanted $4,000 for the Pathfinder and to only pay $2,000 for the Saab, pictured at left. He also asked for the cracked windshield to be fixed, the battery replaced, and a statement that the top was working fine.
Then the deal-making fun begins! Bethany's tale follows, along with play-by-play commentary from our car salesmen experts, Chris Duncan and Mike Rice.
Salesguy says that he cannot go over $3500 for Pathfinder, then says that he has to make some kind of profit. Husband says he knows that Pathfinder will be sold for nothing less than $9,000, so this should be no biggie. Salesguy says he is crazy, it is not going to sell for that much. Salesguy is dumb enough to ask husband to show him online where he sees our car going for that much. Husband pulls up a number of cars, earlier model years, higher mileage, not as great trim package, selling for $10,000+. Thought salesguy had learned his lesson. Had salesguy look over car, he comes back in and starts on the paperwork.
Mike Rice: "Salesmen make their money off the deal of the car. Finance makes their money off selling extended warranties to customers, and selling loans to banks at the highest rate possible. What they will often do when you sit down and try to hammer out a payment, is they will get your payment where you want, but then in finance, kick the term out another year and pack in stuff like LoJack and a warranty. Thats why you always fight for the price of the car, not the payment. Most people don't catch it."
While salesguy was out, husband tells me he does not want to buy the car tonight, wants to do a bit more research. The car will be there tomorrow, he says. I'm cool with it. We tell the salesguy when he returns, and salesguy freaks out. Husband says he wants to see offer in writing, salesguy writes stuff down, husband says okay, maybe we will be back tomorrow. Salesguy freaks out more and says he's given us everything we wanted, what else do we want, the car could be gone tomorrow, what else do we need? Well, he had our keys, so my husband asked for them, and after another five minutes or so, we got them back.
Looked online, decided the deal would be okay, and decided to finance the car to rebuild my crappy credit. Plan was all in place. Return to dealership next morning with offer we had before. Our salesguy was there, but "busy." Another guy is helping us, and presents us with offer, with only $3,500 for Pathfinder. Husband says, I have $4,000 right here in this paperwork. Oh, oh, our mistake they say. Husband starts to get a bit nervous. No worries, I say. Now is probably a good time to mention this was a "We Finance Everyone!" type place. Kind of a hole in the wall. We wait to see the finance guy. We have the written offer, things seem pretty cut and dry.
Walk into the finance guy's office. The car, all detailed and ready to go, can be seen right outside the window behind him. He casually asks if we have title for Pathfinder, we say yeah, give it to him.
Chris Duncan: "I know of a sales guy who says he would sometimes 'forget' to give the title back to the customer after checking it, to ensure that if they went elsewhere they couldn't complete the deal."
Mike Rice: "They will do anything they can to keep you on the lot. Ever see a car lot offer 'FREE VALET PARKING!'? Great, now they have your keys and you're a captive audience. The other good one is 'My manager has the keys to your trade in and he's out.' Is it illegal? That's for a lawyer to decide, but if you call the cops and tell them your being held captive, odds are they will grovel at your feet quickly."
He pulls the paperwork out of a folder, mentions how great the car is, how fun the top will be down for rest of summer. Okay, we say. He pulls out pens and is all, "sign here and here" without explaining anything.
Husband stops and looks at paperwork. Whoa. He says. To refresh, the trade-in is $4,000, the cost of the car is $,2000. But the loan on the paperwork includes a $2500 extended service plan, which has never been mentioned previously by anyone. Whoa. The car only has 98,000 miles on it. We don't want that, says the husband. Finance guy says "WHAT! It's a foreign car! Something goes wrong, you are screwed! You need this!" I point out that it costs more than the car! Plus, $500 has been added on to the price of the car. "Well, we can't finance the car for less than $2500," the salesman says. "Never mentioned before," we say. Husband says, "We are leaving."
Chris Duncan: "As for the extended service plan, that is a crappy warranty wearing a summer dress. Common place on a used car lot and again they will be paid commission on the deal. But slipping a warranty in isn't that uncommon. It's kind of the 'assumptive close' approach: 'Oh, you don't want the warranty? Hmmm, have you thought about what you would do if xxxxx happened? Ah, I see. Well I will need to go and speak to xxxx about this and see if they can take it off, we always sell warranties with our vehicles!' Gets the customer second guessing if they are making the right move by not taking it, you could also categorize it under the ‘Jones' effect. 'Everyone else is doing it……Bundling it in with finance is even easier as it will only cost you xxxx per month…'"
Finance guy looks to me for emotional outburst, but I simply say "okay." We get up and walk out, through the dealership, down to our Pathfinder in the lot.
Mike Rice: "Bethany won this one by calling their bluff. Never be afraid to walk from a deal. I have seen peoples emotions and 'not wanting to make a scene' put them into a bad deal."
Husband realizes they have our title, we see no one coming out, he inserts key in the ignition when the finance guy literally runs out to us. Tells us to come back in, we have it all worked out. Husband says he doesn't think so. Finance guy says he talked to manager.
Chris Duncan: "The closing technique of a good car salesman is to make the customer think that they are getting a great deal. That the salesperson or the staff at the dealership are working really, really hard to make sure that the deal happens and that they are overcoming enormous hurdles to accomplish what was set out during the negotiation process."
We remained mum about having to go back in anyway for the title. They ended up taking off the service plan, and we did the loan for $2,500, but they gave us a check for $500 to make up the difference. We got $4,000 for the Pathfinder, a new windshield, a new battery and although the top worked great the first summer, and most of the second, it has given us fits lately, but we fixed it ourselves. Zero engine issues. Zero.
Mike Duncan: "On the whole, it sounds like they dealt with a common, slightly shady dealer, but in the end didn't do too bad. $6300 for a 99 Saab is ludicrous. However, they got way more for a 175K mile pathfinder then they should have at trade-in. It's all a shell game and it all gets kind of weird. Dealer made probably $4k on the Saab, give or take on what they have in it vs. the sale price. However, they will sell the Pathfinder wholesale for probably $2Kish. With the windshield and battery, the dealer will make maybe $1,500. Retail somewhere south of $4k for a '99 Saab isn't too bad, you get a lot of cool car for the money."
THE TAKEAWAY: Bethany says her experience taught her a few lessons about buying a car. "Never let them keep your keys. Always get it in writing. And never hand over your title," she writes. "Always always be ready to walk away. You CAN find the car somewhere else. Those guys thrive on emotion. THRIVE. ON. IT."