How To Buy A Car (Or, Yet Something ELSE That Took Me Forever To Learn, But Now I Rock At It), Part One

Next to a home purchase, a new vehicle ranks right up there among the biggest purchases of someone’s life. You would think that people would do the proper research–and I’m not talking about research on the car itself; I’m talking about learning how to buy one–but many don’t.

Jim and I didn’t, when we first started buying cars. We have been screwed by car dealers* several times, and each time was maddening. However, we have learned many things through those terrible experiences over the last 23 years, and since the car-buying process is now an exciting one for me**, and because so many people walk into that situation with their eyes closed, I thought I’d share my super powers with you.

Lesson #1: Keep your emotions out of it, and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

When he graduated from high school, Jim was driving a great little car; it was a 1973 Capri. After graduation he entered Navy boot camp and then was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. The Capri wasn’t going to cut it as far as getting him reliably home to Knoxville on many weekends to visit me (awwww!), so he wanted to get new wheels.

We went to the local Ford dealership and he picked out a brand-new 1986 Ford Escort EXP, a cute little two-seater very similar to this one:

He test drove it, fell in love with it immediately, and was on the phone with his Dad to ask him to come and co-sign for the loan (Jim was 19 at the time and had no credit history whatsoever!) within 45 minutes.

The car? Of course it was great! But the second Jim sat his bootie down in the driver’s seat, it was all over. Did you know that a car salesman’s best way to sell a car to you is to get you IN IT and to let the emotional part of your brain take over the logical? That’s why, when you’re test driving a new car, the salesman (or woman) is sitting there next to you or in the back seat saying things like, “She’s a smooth ride, isn’t she?” and “The sound system in this baby is phenomenal!” They are, many times without you even realizing it, trying to make you feel like you can’t live without the car, especially if you have volunteered information to them ahead of time that they can use against you, like “I’m so tired of my old car”, “My old car has chronic electrical problems”, or “I can’t wait to get a new car!” Plus, if you are feeding them during the process by saying things like, “I love this color!”, “This stereo system is waaay better than the one I have now!”, or “This car is suh-weet!”, it’s all over and they know their chances of making the sale are pretty good, and that, my friends, is going to adversely affect your negotiations later.

Your best bet? Do NOT test drive a car unless you are

1) seriously interested in buying it, or
2) the type of person who can go into a pet store and play with puppies, and then leave without buying one (I am that type, and by the way, so is Weaselmomma!)

Keep quiet for the most part at the dealership, and don’t offer up ANY information to them that they can use, because they will use it. Check out this classic (FF to :50)!

What happened with Jim and the EXP? When it was time to negotiate, we didn’t. As a 19-year-old (with a 17-year-old sidekick) who didn’t do any research, he ended up paying sticker price. Yikes!

Lesson #2: Get it in writing.

Paying sticker price on that EXP would have felt better in the end if we had been able to drive it until the wheels fell off, but as luck would have it, we were in a wreck with it eight months later. Shortly after we got married, an 81-year-old man named Mr. Looney smashed into us, and the car was totaled. We lost the court case (don’t even get me started), and because of the depreciation, we ended up having car payments on that thing for almost two years after it was long gone.

In the meantime, we lived without a car at all for almost a year. Jim got rides to the ship with friends (when they were in port, of course), and I walked or got rides from neighbors.

The following Memorial Day weekend, we asked a neighbor to take us to the Dodge dealership so we could buy a car. Our salesman knew immediately that we needed a car, because we told him (DUMB).

All we said we wanted was a cassette player. (Yes, I’m old.) The salesman said that would be no problem. Not only did we pay the sticker price for the car (DUMB), but he also talked us into signing the paperwork for the totally overpriced undercoating package (DUMB). He told us that, it being a holiday weekend and all, we’d have to bring the car back later that week to get the cassette stereo installed.

Guess what? When we called to make the appointment, we were given a price on the stereo. We insisted that our salesman promised it to us as a part of the deal, but they wouldn’t do it. Because we didn’t get it in writing.

Lesson learned.

Lesson #3: Check your paperwork carefully. ALL of it.

A couple of years later we found ourselves in a position where we could get a second vehicle if we could keep the payment low. We headed off to another local dealer and checked out the used car lot. We knew that we were keeping our mouths shut about our private business, and we knew that we had to get everything in writing. We had an idea of what the most we could afford monthly was ($150)(remember, this was a long time ago!).

Jim found a 1985 GMC S15, like this one:

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Because this was 1990 and the car was five years old already, the dealership was unable to sign us up for a five-year loan on it, which is what we wanted. We didn’t understand that at the time, but it does make sense now, of course. I remember the “negotiations” like they were yesterday: they gave us the figure that our monthly payment was going to be, which was a lot more than we could afford, and we said no. There was quite a bit of the “Let me go talk to my manager” back and forth stuff, and they said that we could make it work. We went into the office belonging to the guy in charge of financing, and they printed up a contract for us to sign.

As I was signing it, I looked at the monthly payment amount. It was STILL TOO HIGH. I stopped, mid-signature, and said, “No! This is higher than what we told you we can handle. You said you could make this work!”

The jacka$$ guy took the contract back and then put a new one through his printer. He handed it to us, and as we checked it over, I realized that vital information wasn’t printed on it, like, UH, the monthly payment amount.

We should have walked out.

But didn’t.

We told him we weren’t signing it until it was completely filled out. On the third try, he got the monthly payment within $1 of what we said we needed, and we were so worn down that we signed it and drove off with our new truck.

A couple of months later, I looked at the contract for some reason, and discovered how they got the payment down. It wasn’t because they gave us a better deal, like I had thought.

Our interest rate?


We couldn’t refinance it and had no choice but to pay the twenty-four percent for the duration. Ugh.

Lesson learned.

Click here for Part Two, which has much happier endings and will show you how we’ve evolved since the 90’s!

*I guess this is the part where I say that of COURSE all car dealers and their salesmen and women are not slippery, slimy, crooked, lying shysters. (There may be a few honest ones out there. Maybe.)

**We are not in the market for a new family car; the older boy is starting to look around for a total clunker. That process is totally different from buying a new car, but it made me think about the times Jim and I have bought cars and…oh, never mind.



  • Kat

    Why oh why didn't you write that post 1 1/2 years ago? LOL. Seriously buying a car cost me a few sleepless nights back then…

  • Baby News

    I seriously need to learn how to buy a car. The last one we bought, which was from a dealership, wouldn't budge on the price, but I didn't push hard because I wanted the car, which I had told them! 🙁

    The car is great, but it has a pretty nasty oil leak that we, of course, weren't told about. We bought it for bluebook, but that's in excellent condition….an oil leak is not what I consider "excellent!" Lesson LEARNED!

    Looking forward to part two!

  • NYC Girl

    This is the one area where my NYC attitude paid off for me…we actually my dad. In 1994 he wanted a Hyundai Santa Fe…he was in love and drooling for this car. So much so we went shopping on Jan 2nd. The dealership bragged about 0% interest for 5 years…dad was sold! Car guy said yes you got the 0% no problem, mom went to get the $4000 down payment while we waited in the dealership. We hand over check, contract comes back 6.59% interest. I was like "WHAT!", I told my dad don't sign it. Guy goes back and does his manager talk, he can't do anything better in the interest something about dad's credit blah blah. I tell him either get the contract to 0% like you told me 2 hours ago or give us back the check for $4000. He asked my dad (totally ignoring me) and my dad back me up. The salesman was shocked I was running the show. 2nd manager talk…comes back looks like they could work something out for us. It's a MIRACLE! We walked out with our 0% & Santa Fe. Like they were gonna give back $4000…I don't think so!

  • PJ Mullen

    I love car shopping, it's like an indoor sport for me. My girlfriend in college needed a new car and she went out shopping. She asked me to go with her after she narrowed her choices down. One dealer had a new shipment of cars and they got her #1 choice in her #1 color in the day before, so she flipped.

    Before I can ask any questions, we were sitting in the F&I manager's office as he prepared the paperwork. Finally, I asked her what she was paying for it, and she said she didn't know. The manager gave us the paperwork and when I looked it over I knew she couldn't afford it. I wanted to know the money factor (it was a lease), so I could do the APR calculations in my head. He told me that the money factor was irrelevant in a lease (it's not) and that I didn't know what I was talking about.

    I stood up, stacked up the paperwork and ripped them to shreds, dropping them on his desk. My girlfriend flipped out at me while the manager just sat there dumbfounded. I tossed him the keys back and told him to keep his car.

    As we left the dealership she was furious, that she LOVED the car. I stopped, looked at her and said that is exactly why we are leaving.

    Later that day I called another dealership, told them what car I wanted, where they could find it, that I wanted the complete lease details faxed to my office and, if I liked them, we would be down that night to sign.

    Long story longer, she got the car, I saved her $50 a month on her lease and the dealership she got it from had to call the dealership we stormed out of to trade for the car she wanted. Because I'm a jerk, I also made it a point to call that F&I manager to let him know that we ended up buying the exact car he tried to fleece her on, but from someone else.

  • DaddysFishBowl

    WOW, 24% interest? That's crazy, I can't believe some of the tactics that these car salesmen use. I'll definitely be back tomorrow for more tips.

  • The Devoted Dad

    I am so cautious with car salespeople. Don't get me wrong, there are some good ones out there but too ofte it is the quota of the dealership that drives dishonesty. It is why I could never be a salesman. Can't wait for part 2. -Jason

  • Heather

    Car dealerships stress me out, and the process always seems to take HOURS AND HOURS.


    Thanks for these tips, I have a feeling we'll be needing them after January as C's car is starting to act up..

  • sandra

    oh great, you write this post now that i have signed all the paperwork for a new car?? umm, yeah, i dont think i checked it all. can't wait for the next post so i can totally convince myself of how dumb i really am. this has to be a sign…i think i might be regretting that thing i drove to work today LOL.

  • sandra

    ok, i take that back. this time wasn't as bad as when i got my first car, which was used and i did pay 24% interest and i was never, ever told how much the car was.never asked either. at least i didn't do that this time. (i'm trying to console myself here)

  • Anonymous

    OK no matter how what you say, they all are crooks. But you have to learn to read everything and get everything in writing.

    With one car we bought they said it was the invoice price plus 1% but what they don't tell you is they also have on the invoice an additional discount price that the manufacture gives them. I learned this being in the retail business and buy wholesale for the store.

    So depending on the make and style they could get a nice healthy additional discount. When he showed me the invoice I READ IT and there was a box with a 15% discount. So I pointed this out to the salesman and he had to give it to us. He was not happy but TO BAD SO SAD.
    You never by sticker price and always do research on it we like Consumer Report Magazine and word of mouth.
    Also try to buy as close to the end of the month – salespeople need to make their quota's and will bargin more. Also never pay for additional undercoating. They wouldn't sell them with out it.
    Make sure Older Gson reads all this.
    Can't wait to see what is next.
    Grandma W

  • Tom

    This is great stuff.

    I am the type who doesn't mind going into a car dealership and kicking tires and looking at things and then walking off if I don't like what I see. The way I see it, I'm the consumer and it's my money. They'd better make the deal work for me.

    Your advice is right on. People should go into the negotiations with their eyes wide open, their heads clear, not hungry, not tired, and ready to fight for hours if need be, and with their top dollar figures already established – asking price, monthlies and interest rate.

    As for the clip – Gilbert Gottfried and Sinbad both? Amazing!

  • Mr. Man

    You DO have Mad Skillz! You should be charging for this clinic. Some valuable lessons are available here that you learned through the School of Hard Knocks.