Quit Blaming The Dealer For Your Low Trade-In Offer

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent approximately 16 hours on commercial airplanes. This has given me ample time to read a wide range of automotive dealership complaints written by the kind of people who believe Applebee’s is fine dining. They seem to believe dealers are at fault for low trade-in offers. They’re wrong.

The reason I’ve been reading all these dealership complaints is that I cannot sleep on airplanes. This is because I am six-foot, three inches tall, whereas the maximum height for sleeping on airplanes has been strictly defined by the FAA as “no taller than a medium-sized badger.”

So instead of sleeping, I logged on to the Internet and I decided to read Yelp reviews for car dealerships. And here’s what I discovered: this is the single most entertaining way you can pass the time on an airplane.


Even if you find yourself seated between Chris Rock and Don Rickles, and even if they start having a comedy battle right there in the aisle, and even if David Copperfield shows up and turns a flight attendant into a toaster oven, I would advise you to say to them: “Sorry gentlemen, could you keep it down? I’m reading Justin C’s review of E-Z-Cars ‘n’ Guns in Tampa, Florida.”

As you might imagine, people complain about everything. Some are legitimate: the dealer raised the price on the final contract without telling me. The dealer damaged the car before delivery. Some are wildly absurd: the dealer won’t honor the warranty, even though I drove 30,000 miles without an oil change. The dealer won’t take the car back four months after I bought it, even though I hear a strange noise when accelerating. But by far the most enjoyable complaints come from people who think they’re getting screwed on their trade-in.


A large majority of these complaints were leveled at gigantic used-car retailer CarMax, who once sold me a used Range Rover that is currently at the center of a giant dart board in the Land Rover North America Public Relations department conference room. The reason for all the complaints about CarMax is obvious: CarMax routinely advertises that they will buy any car, and they will.

Unfortunately, they don’t say that they will buy any car for full retail value, plus $1,000 extra because your car has a cool aftermarket six-disc CD changer with a Michael Buble album stuck in slot four. So the vast majority of complaints go something like this:

CARMAX IS THE WORST!!!! I took my 1995 Pontiac Trans Sport into CarMax six days ago for a trade-in offer because they said they would buy any car. WELL CLEARLY THEY DON’T WANT MY BUSINESS! This van has served our family well for the last nine years and it’s worth a lot to me sentimentally, plus I think I dropped an iPhone cord in the back seat at some point so that’s at least ten bucks. THEY ONLY OFFERED ME $500!!!! THIS IS A TRAVESTY!!! This van will be a GREAT family car for YEARS TO COME, even though third gear stopped working back in April. I AM NEVER SHOPPING AT CARMAX AGAIN.


Now, I am the very first person to admit that CarMax lowballs people. I say this because I once took my Ferrari to CarMax for an appraisal, and they offered me $64,000, which was a little on the low side considering I later sold it for almost $80,000. Essentially, this was not a buy offer. This was CarMax saying: we don’t want anything to do with your freaking Ferrari.

And this isn’t unique to CarMax. I am constantly hearing stories from my non-automotive friends where they go to trade in their car (“Blue Book says it’s easily worth fifteen thousand”) and they’re upset when the dealer gives them a much lower trade-in figure than they expect. They act like they consider it a personal insult. I get the sense, with these people, that they would be less insulted if the dealer came out and said: You smell bad and your wife is a fat cow, but we’ll give you the fifteen grand.


But here’s the thing, ladies and gentlemen: the dealer is not in the business of buying used cars at their retail value. The dealer is in the business of making money. And they will not make money by giving you the Kelley Blue Book “showroom condition” value for your 2002 Honda Odyssey with 147,000 miles and Doritos crumbs in the gauge cluster.

So let’s go back to the angry guy with the 1995 Pontiac Trans Sport. Yes, this car may have a retail value of $2,000, presuming you find the perfect buy-American Midwesterner who a) needs a van, and b) doesn’t trust airbags. But CarMax will never get this retail value, because – surprise, surprise – they don’t plan to park a 20-year-old van with faded paint and mismatched tires on the front line next to a two-year-old Lexus and a low-mileage Mercedes.


So CarMax will bring the van to a wholesale auction, and they’ll be lucky to get $1,000 for it by selling it off to some crazy mechanic who plans to take a sawzall to the roof and use it as a parts truck. So they offer you $500 in order to make a little money for themselves when they go to sell it.

Now, if you’re the kind of consumer who writes car dealership reviews on Yelp, this is the part you think is unfair: you’re only getting $500 for a vehicle that’s “worth” up to $2,000. And this is where the real entertaining part of these complaints comes in. Because here’s what these people don’t seem to understand: if you don’t want to sell your van to CarMax, you don’t have to. You can always use Autotrader, or Craigslist, or eBay, or cars.com to sell the thing yourself and get the value you think it “deserves.” Complaining about a dealership price offer when you don’t need to trade in your car is like showing up at the Apple store and complaining that the Internet is slow on the display computers.


And so, ladies and gentlemen, I leave you with these parting thoughts: if you don’t like the dealership’s offer, quit complaining and sell the thing yourself. Actually, on second thought, please don’t quit complaining. I need something to do on airplanes.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.