Getting ready to let go of an old friend

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How do you change something that has stayed the same for so long? After 16 years I sold my pickup and bought a new car and my emotions are a mix of losing a long-time friend, gaining a brand new toy and satisfaction of negotiating my first car deal by myself.

40-year-old virgin

I was a forty-year-old virgin when it came to buying my new car. My dad had helped me buy my pickup when I was 24 and it was my third vehicle but my first brand new vehicle. I hadn’t saved any money but he gave me $,5000.00 toward a $12,000 Dodge Dakota Sport, which at the time was the first and only mid-size pickup available. It was black and reminded me of my friend Stephen in college who also had a black pickup. We had a terrible falling apart the year before but I still admired him so much that he influenced this buying decision.

A week ago Wednesday I had no serious plans for buying a new car but when I made a sudden stop I saw the oil light flash on. It went out quickly and flashed a couple more times on the way home. That was enough to get me seriously thinking about getting a new vehicle. July marked my 16-year anniversary for getting the new pickup, so buying a new car now just seemed “right”.

The whole buying process fell together smoothly as if it were predestined. Everything fell into place or the stars were aligned or something cosmic happened. Something made this happen.

I dreaded spending my weekends car shopping and never really walked the lot on Sundays looking for my dream car. But one week before the oil light flashed my company asked all of its salaried employees to take as much vacation time before the end of the the quarter. Now, I had five day weekend with nothing to do. Then “flash” goes the oil light and “flash” goes my mind that now’s a good time to start shopping.

What don’t I know?

Thursday night and Friday all day were devoted to online research. What kind of car did I want? How much was my pickup worth? What do I even need to know that I don’t know?

Don't Get Taken Every TimeI knew a lot already because I had been reading the book Don’t Get Taken Every Time by Remar Sutton, a former owner of a car dealership turned consumer advocate.

I can say that this book at $14.00 is the best investment I made in this whole car buying process. It reads like a summer thriller you’d read on the beach and uses fictional characters to personify the sleazy car salesman, the ruthless car dealership owner and various car buyers with their motivations including the smart car buyer who practically one-ups the salesman’s sneaky tactics. This book makes no apologies for giving its reader a healthy skepticism of car dealers and the whole car buying process. Even if half of what it said wasn’t true, I still appreciate the mindset it gave me.

With skeptical mind in place I next turned to Consumer Reports and signed up for a one-year membership for $26.00. Consumer Reports is the best-known objective authority in car buying information and they make finding the information you want very easy. I had no clue what kind of car I wanted other than I wanted something in a certain price range, something that would be safe and reliable for the Minnesota winters (front-wheel drive would be ideal) and something that would fit all my co-workers. Having a pickup didn’t let me share in my part of driving to lunch when three or more of us were going. I often felt I needed to buy the driver lunch. Strange what motivates car buying decisions, huh?

Starting my research

By Friday morning I had narrowed my choices to the Honda Accord Sedan and the Nissan Altima. I knew I wanted a new car because a long time ago I heard the expression, “I don’t want to inherit somebody else’s problem.” That has stuck with me all these years. Remar Sutton said in his book that a used car deal is actually the best deal you can make but you have to know how to bargain for it and make sure you’re not getting a lemon. Maybe I’ll go that route next time.

By Friday afternoon I was researching financing. The first place I turned was to my bank Wells Fargo, who offered me a generous 6.99% on 48 months. (Yeah, I’m being facetious when I say “generous”.) LendingTree was a decent one-stop source for loans and I received two offers through their services from CapitalOne Bank and CarLoans.com. CapitalOne got the loan amount down to 5.83%. CarLoans.com just raised my blood pressure.

Sleazy financiers

CarLoans.com is just scum in my book now. Here’s why.

The first communication I receive is in E-mail. That’s fine. But it had the audacity to say this in the middle of the message, “I need to ask you a couple of quick questions and confirm some information from your application. Again, we’re in the final phases of loan approval, so be sure not to reapply elsewhere or do anything else that could negatively affect your credit.” Wow, I’m already in the final phases and I just started! And you’re also telling me not to shop around for other quotes because this may affect my credit. Riiiiight.

I later received a call from them to verify my credit information, which I expected. But the lady calling me was very difficult to understand. I couldn’t tell her nationality but I believe she was probably calling from an Indian call center. Several times, I had to ask her to repeat herself.

Then she tried to set up an appointment for me to meet with a local guy doing business out of a Dodge car dealership in Roseville, MN, to finalize my loan. I told her I just wanted a quote for a loan and that I’m not ready to sign for a loan yet. She didn’t understand or chose not to understand that I just wanted a quote and said I needed to meet with the local loan guy. When I finally said “thanks, but no thanks” she offered to have the guy call me. Fine.

Later and for the next few days, I began getting these calls from (800) 323-8160. When I would answer I would hear nothing. I’d say “hello” again and then a long pause. A recording would eventually play saying something like “Thank you for holding for a representative to speak with you about your car loan application.” What!? You’re calling me as a potential customer and putting me on hold!? You haven’t even identified who you are! The third time this phone number popped on my phone I ignored it and was surprised to get a voice message from this local Roseville car dealership guy. Ah, this is your brand of customer service, eh? No thanks!

Phones call continued at the rate of two or three per day for a few days. Finally, I answered one and a person was on the other end instead of a recording. By this time I was already in the middle of purchasing my car and had different financing and so asked CarLoans to stop calling me. They did stop.

How much should I pay?

On Saturday, I purchased two online car reports from Consumer Reports for $28.00, which gave me the pricing breakdown for the Honda Accord and the Nissan Altima. These gave me the invoice prices for the cars, which is where I would later insist on starting negotiations. Having the invoice price, the holdback amount, the destination charge and other costs the dealerships incur gave me the confidence to know where to begin talks about money.

By this time my mind was set on the Honda Accord as my first choice and the Nissan Altima as my second choice. I also spent the day putting together a list of the accessories I wanted using each dealership’s website. My paranoia was still healthy after reading “Don’t Get Taken Every Time” and so I regularly cleaned my browser caches. Being in computer support myself and having worked at Best Buy Corporate headquarters supporting Ph.Ds who data mined their website statistics for as much user visitor information as possible, I thought this was a very wise thing to do.

At this point I knew how much I was willing to pay and so far had a somewhat decent 5.83% finance offer that was better than my bank’s offer. Next, I needed to know what I could ask for my pickup.

How much does Kelley Blue Book think it’s worth? For the past few years I was estimating about $500.00. I thought its depreciated value was pretty much at end and any dealership would give me at least that much for trade-in on a new car. KBB said that a 1992 Dodge Dakota Sport pickup with air conditioning and automatic transmission could sell for $900.00. Not bad. This gave me a number to shoot for but I would be surprised if I got anything close.

Putting everything together

Sunday was my put-it-all-together day. I had print-outs of the cars I wanted, how much they should cost, the accessories I wanted, financing and local dealership inventories where I should be able to find the car I wanted.

Two more great bits of information fell in my lap.

While researching financing I found the CarDeals newsletter, which lists factory-to-dealer incentives and customer rebates available for new car buyers. Not all of these are publicized and dealerships aren’t required to disclose them. I paid $10.00 for the current bi-weekly newsletter and found that the Honda Accord was eligible for 3.9% financing until September 2. That certainly beat CapitalOne’s 5.83% and actually beat my long term savings rate. My credit was great so I should have no problem qualifying.

I also found two websites that sold genuine Honda accessories and learned I could use their pricing to negotiate pricing for accessories at the dealership. Whereas Honda.com was quoting about $1,500.00 for accessories (not including installation, I should at least be able to get all the items for about $1,000.00.

My last chore for Sunday was to take my truck to my local mechanic and get an oil change. I still didn’t know why my oil light had come on but I was pretty sure it was due to low oil since I had to add two quarts to bring it up to level. And, coincidentally, my oil and filter were due for the change almost to the mile.

My main concern with my pickup was that I’d be selling something that was on the verge of breakdown and might even break down while I was searching. When I spoke with one of the mechanics and explained that the oil light flashed, the age of the truck and its mileage, he assured me that burning that much oil was probably normal. He said he actually had brand new tow trucks that burned four quarts between changes. Whew, was that a relief to know! After the oil change, my pickup still ran fine.

By now, I knew how much I should spend on a new car, at most what I should spend on accessories, knew the cost of my trade-in, knew how I wanted to finance, was comfortable selling my pickup as a reliable vehicle for its age and had a list of dealerships where I’d go shopping. My only unknown cost at this point was insurance cost but I had already called and left a message for a quote. I wasn’t expecting more than $500 per every six-month period.

Monday would be my first trip to the local dealerships.

 

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