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In the age of internet car shopping, most smart buyers solicit quotes via phone or email and avoid negotiating at the dealership. However, even with electronic communication, some dealers will tell you one price but then change it once you arrive. Here is how to deal with that.

Let me begin by saying that as a professional car shopper, I have brokered hundreds of online deals across the country, and not once has a dealer put a price in writing and then not honor that quote once my client arrived at the dealership. The vast majority of these kinds of transactions go smoothly, but I have received a surprising amount of emails from folks who dealt with a dealership that had a different strategy in mind when working with an internet customer.

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Obviously, this creates a frustrating experience for the buyer. What car buyers should understand is that while shopping from the comfort of your own computer gives you more control, the wrong kind of dealership will still try to tip the scales in their favor, such as in this message I recently received:

I’ve been going back and forth with a dealership for a car, which was listed online at $36785. Went in and talked to them and was firm at out the door at 34k. All fees included taxes tag etc. The salesman sent the following email.

“Got with our General Sales Manager. We are all in at $34,900.00 drive out.

I went in, expecting the 34900 out the door. But to my amazement, they concluded this is not a binding document and was sent in mistake. Instead, they were willing to go 36k out the door.

Is this email not a binding offer from the dealer? Are they not expected to honor this deal same day?

Let me be clear about this: an email is not a contract. While putting the price in writing puts some level of obligation on the part of the dealership, they are not legally required to honor that quote once you arrive. Nor are they under any obligation to honor that price within the same business day. Any business can choose to sell their product for whatever price they see fit.

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Mistakes and miscommunication do happen, and it is certainly possible that one person at the dealership offered a price on a car and was not authorized to do so. However, it is more likely that this store was banking on pressuring the customer into paying more once they arrived so they wanted to see if they could get away with it.

If you find yourself in this situation, the response is simple: state that you will either buy the car at the price quoted in the email or you are walking out. The dealer can either honor that price or you shop elsewhere. Do not accept any offer higher than what was stated in the email. A slimy dealer will most likely try all kinds of tactics to get you to come up; the classic is “we are losing money on this deal.”

That may be true! But it’s not your problem. They made the offer, they can either stand by it or lose the deal.

The key to internet car shopping is to avoid this mess to begin with. Usually, there are some red flags and warning signs in the initial communication stages. If a dealer is reluctant to even send prices in writing and/or withholds specific information about the car or the total cost, that is usually a sign that this is not the place to do business with.

Once you receive the quote, make sure all the numbers line up to an actual vehicle that the dealer either has in stock or can acquire for you. Having a VIN or stock number that is associated with the quote helps as well. This will prevent the bait and switch tactic of, “Oh, we thought you were talking about this other car, the one you want is more expensive.”

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I also recommend having the dealership send you a copy of a purchase order or sales contract. While this is also not a binding document on their end, a good dealer is unlikely to put numbers down on an “official” document that they aren’t prepared to commit to. If you are speaking with a member of the sales staff, it might also be a good idea to have a discussion with a manager before arriving and go over the numbers one more time.

Again, there is a very good chance that if a dealer is upfront and discloses everything the final transaction should be smooth and hassle free. Just be sure when you are shopping around that you are comparing apples-to-apples prices, and if you get a bad feeling about the level of communication with a certain store, take your business to another store.