Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shady motherf***ers: TC goes used-car shopping

There are a number of occupations that have bad reputations. For example, people love to take shots at lawyers and many people have pretty bad names for them. But most of the lawyers I know are actually solid, honest people who really want to help regular folks navigate difficult legal issues.

The profession that is most maligned is probably that of used car salesman. The three words are nearly synonymous with "slimy" in the heads of most people. When I googled "professions with a bad reputation" for the purpose of this post, this result was the #1 hit, and it showed used car salesman as the profession with the worst reputation.
The used car salesman still remains the measuring stick for all professions that are frowned upon. Society views these individuals as sleazy shysters who will do whatever it takes to get you into hunk of junk. Many people won’t even go near a used car lot for fear of being ripped off. Also, being swindled by a shady used car salesman is the only instance in life that, when given a lemon, you can’t make lemonade.
I never really wanted to believe that any profession is inherently bad. I've gone through my life trying to stay aware of potential cognitive biases. I reasoned that most people probably only deal with a used car salesmen a few times in their life, so if they have a bad experience with one, it's going to be quite impactful. On top of that, people have been preconditioned to believe that used car salesmen are these slimy people, so surely there must be a lot of confirmation bias at play.

Well I'll be damned if my most recent used car buying experience doesn't validate the public wisdom!

I needed a car in Vegas. I know what kind of car I like: small, sporty convertibles that are reasonably comfortable but not too expensive. I sent the same form letter to about a dozen used car dealerships in Vegas. I told them all to send me their best offers because I'm not going to be popping into all of the dealerships and this is their best chance to get me in the door.

The tactic worked out quite well; I was able to weed out all the salesmen who wouldn't give me a decent offer by e-mail and wanted me in the door. I ended up getting a competitive offer on a BMW 128i from Desert Audi's internet sales manager which was about $2000 below what they had it listed for. I took it for a test drive, and they pushed me to make a decision that day, but I decided I should mull it over. There were some scratches and dents on the car and I e-mailed them back to say that if they cleaned up the interior and exterior, and removed the $400 "documentation fee" that we had a deal. They set up an appointment for me to come in on Wednesday where I was supposed to simply point out what I wanted fixed on the car.

When I came in on Wednesday morning, they told me the car had been sold last night. Okay, no big deal, it happens. The internet sales manager apologized and said she'd e-mail me some more vehicles. No problem.

She came up with another 128i. It seemed to be the same car as the previous (without the dents) but for about $1000 more. I went back on Sunday, test drove the car, and it looked great. I said if they could make it the same price as last week's car, they had a deal. They came back with an offer for $500 less and I hemmed and hawwed, negotiated some window tint, and took it. The manager and I both signed a piece of paper agreeing on the price. I shook hands with a bunch of people who congratulated me on my new purchase and got my checkbook out.

Then came some waiting, waiting, waiting. The salesman told me it was "to prepare the paperwork" and at the time I actually believed that (after all, I've already agreed to the price -- shouldn't they want me out of there asap before I change my mind?) but I'm convinced that they intentionally make the whole process take longer to increase your commitment.

Finally the finance guy took me into his office. I know this is the part where they try to get me on a bunch of features, extras, extended warranties, and other high-margin crap I don't want. No problem, I figured I'm pretty strong at this kind of thing and can just decline across the board. So when he got into his whole extended warranty speech, I cut him off by saying, "well, this is a certified pre-owned and covered until 100k miles right? So I don't think I need that."

"Oh, is it? Let me double-check." The guy gets on his phone with the manager.

He hangs up and says, "sir, the BMW is not a Certified Pre-Owned."

I'm flabbergasted. I'd been double and triple sure to check this online and here is a screenshot *right now* of their online posting:

You can see at the bottom their Certified Pre-Owned banner in the bottom, which isn't present on some of their other cars. Oh, and when I showed up on the lot, there was a huge banner in the windshield which read "Certified Pre-Owned by BMW".

I asked about this and he said (are you ready for this?) "yes, but it was CPO at the original price. We're giving it to you for this reduced price."

Oh. You dirty motherfuckers. They were trying to pull out the rug and quietly remove the CPO (45000 miles of warranty) just without saying a word. Then they tried to calm me down by selling me their "Platinum Service" which is "much better than the Certified Pre-Owned." I'm sorry for being profane twice in the same paragraph, but you shady, shady motherfuckers. Like, how do you do that? I can understand high-pressure sales tactics, but how do you just change the terms of the deal without telling someone? Why not just take out the steering wheel, the engine, and the seats while you're at it, and charge me for those? "Sorry sir, the engine was included with the original price, but since we're giving it to you for this reduced price, that's going to be extra."

You slimy, underhanded motherfuckers. The world is right about you people after all.

I didn't actually drop any f-bombs in the dealership, but I told the manager that I thought this was shady and unethical. He didn't even try to argue, and I left the dealership. They had a sale in hand, an absolute lay-up, and they lost it by trying to fuck me over just one last time. And the scary part is that it damn near worked. If I weren't such an incredibly meticulous person on this type of thing and checked the CPO online before walking in, they would have gotten me.

What gets me is that the whole time, I actually did get the feeling they weren't trying to fuck me. Now I think the tactic with the whole sold car, the extra waiting, all of it is just a tactic to get me to make multiple trips and wear me down. When I look back on things, I can think of at least five different ways in which someone in the company simply lied to me to get me more committed to buying.

In general, I'm a conflict-avoider. I'm one of those people who feels bad about asking for what I really want. I'll often take a little the worst of it to avoid conflict. But when I get fucked over or someone tries to pull the rug out from under me, my moral outrage goes off the charts. I become the Incredible Fucking Hulk of moral outrage. I will spite people forever and make them mortal enemies. And yeah, maybe I'm being unfair painting all used car salesmen with the same brush, but now because of these guys, I've got the whole industry on notice.

I believe in capitalism. Always have. Always believed that voluntary transactions between individuals are beneficial to both parties; that they're win-win. But used car buying -- that's now adversarial. This is now me against you. When I play poker, I don't cheat, and when I fight, I don't break the rules. But now I have found that used car salesmen are pretty damn likely to short the pot, mark the cards, rub ointment on their gloves, and load their hand wraps. So now I'm on notice. Now it's on.

Ultimately, it seems the most important thing to remember when buying a used car is the same thing to remember when you're in a cage fight:

Protect yourself at all times.


  1. Standard. Only problem I have with the article is that it seems to overlook the fact that new car dealerships are just as capable of these types of shenanigans.

  2. New car dealers may actually be worse, since they operate in essentially the exact same way but don't have a rep quite as bad. I had a situation similar to this when I bought my Jeep, in which a "finance guy" put page after page in front of me that he claimed were things like my "fraud protection document" (actually an extended warranty for with all of the options selected) and my "maintenance document" (actually a contract prepaying for two years of oil changes at about $50 each). After declining these, Finance Guy actually said "I don't know if we can complete this deal without these documents." I said "Fine," and left. The General Manager caught up with me in the parking lot, after which I got a new Finance Guy, who was apparently the Express Lane Finance Guy - I was out in 5 minutes with the original deal and no bullshit.

    I guess they're trained to give up when faced with serious pushback, line a customer walking out.

  3. Got (alomst) the same B.S. when we tried to buy a new VW: after a few rounds of the "box game" (where the numbers move around with each "new deal", but your cost stays fixed), we reached a point where (for some reason I do not understand, nor do I care) where the financing and give-backs were somehow inter-related.

    It was all clearly a ruse to confuse. We walked.

  4. This is why I tend to stay away from dealers and buy private. I get the car checked out and know exactly what I'm getting and what I'm paying for it. There are risks and more effort involved in finding a car I want, but I feel like the slime of a dealership just can't be washed off.

  5. Terrence, I'm exactly like you: I will give up some advantage if it will mean avoiding conflict. However I've learned that car buying is a big game of chicken, and we don't realize we are driving a tank against their Lada! It may feel like it's the other way around, but it isn't, so long as you do your homework beforehand (like knowing about the CPO).

    I was searching for a new car, and found many dealers offering incentives knocking off about 5-8% from MSRP. Those dealers were very difficult to budge on their numbers. Then I found a dealership which offered me MSRP for the vehicle. I was shocked, but then I realized that I could be a total dick and steadfast in asking for a price below what I had seen elsewhere. I had the confidence to walk out if I wasn't getting what I wanted, and it paid off as I was able to get the car for 10% off MSRP.

    My shadiest moment was not with a used car guy, but a mortgage broker who had verbally committed to a rate only to try to have me sign papers with a .25% higher rate on them, and then refuse to drop it. Thankfully I had another broker who had also committed to the lower rate, and I called the second person from the first broker's office and walked out.

    Unfortunately sales people are incentivized to be shady. It's just better for their bottom line because people assume the sales persons are acting in the buyer's interests, and that makes them exploitable...

  6. Go into the dealership knowing what you want, how much you're willing to pay per month, # of years you're willing to pay, and finance % you're willing to accept --- then let them do whatever the hell shady crap they have to to cook their books or call it whatever they want, as long as you walk out of there getting what you wanted, fine. If they won't get the #'s where you want them, bail.

    The internet and it's associated car buying help sites (CarFax, KBB, Consumer Reports, etc.) have flipped the script on dealers.

    Just as finding an honest, capable mechanic is best achieved through word of mouth, so is finding a reputable car dealer. If ever you hear of someone who has had a good experience at the dealership, go where they went.

  7. P.S. -- Shout out to Wesley Chapel Mazda is you're ever in the West-Central Florida area looking to buy a car, bought my last car there -- they delivered on everything they promised and have provided no hassle service on more than one occasion since. It won't be forgotten when another car purchase is needed in a couple years.

  8. You're a pro poker player , living in Vegas , why don't you just buy private & pay cash ?

    Yes they might lie about the brakes that need fixing but it'll only cost you an extra $150 , just knock a few k off the price preflop ;)

  9. BMW brakes are hell of a lot more than $150.

  10. Well sharing about buying a used car. I'm quite happy because whatever story you have shared here will be sound handy for me to understand how to buy a used car. Thanks :)