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

It’s about time you got here! I’ve got so much more to teach you about buying a car!

Did you miss the first three lessons? Click here.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. It was 1990 and we had just gotten screwed, buying our little blue truck.

In 1991 we moved to Wisconsin. We still had the Dodge Shadow (the one without the cassette player) and decided that we really wanted to get something else. We weren’t sure what that something else would be, so we just started “doing research” by going around to different dealers and checking out what they had to offer. That brings me to lesson four.

Lesson #4: Don’t settle, and trust your gut.

It had been four years since we had last bought a brand-new car, and that fact plus the amount of rent we were paying on our new home (which, though small, was an actual HOUSE) made us realize that perhaps we weren’t going to find a car that we liked which was within our price range. We had a monthly payment amount in mind, and were prepared to negotiate our socks off to get what we wanted.

The problem? Cars were more expensive now, and we couldn’t budge the dealers on the price as much as we needed to in order to be able to afford something we both liked.

We ended up at a Honda dealership, and found a Civic that we really liked. Problem: it being a Honda meant the cost was higher. After we tried our best to get something for practically nothing, our “genius” salesman came up with a brilliant idea: Leasing.

Leasing a car was a fairly new concept in the early 90s, and the jury was still out at that time regarding whether it was a rip-off or not. We had been at the dealership for a while by this point and really liked the car alot (because we didn’t keep our emotions out of it: we were worn down). After listening to the terms of the lease, the main point being that our actual monthly payment was where we needed it to be, we decided to go ahead with it. I gave the salesman the keys to the Shadow and he sent it back for evaluation, because we were trading it in.

When he brought us the paperwork that had all the facts and figures on it, I started to have anxiety about the situation. And then I flashed back to a moment in the late 1970s:

We had moved to Texas, and my parents were having our home built. They chose a model that they thought would be great, and when everything was getting finalized, my mom started to freak out a little bit. I remember her telling my dad that she didn’t feel right about it; maybe this wasn’t the right house. I remember being annoyed because I was about ten and Julesie and I had been left to our own devices in this empty model home for what seemed like days while our parents talked to the people about our future house, and here was my mom having second thoughts in a major way. My parents pulled out on that house, and we ended up with another one, crabby and inconvenienced Me notwithstanding. I remember my mom’s anxiety attack over it like it was yesterday and because of it, I now put lots of faith in my own gut as well.

So I read the leasing paperwork on the Civic, and started to freak out. I looked good and hard at the amount we needed to put down, the amount we would have left to pay after the leasing period if we wanted to keep the car, and all of that other fine detail, and I decided it was NOT the right thing to do. I pulled Jim aside and told him that I couldn’t do it, and after a few minutes of him trying to talk me off the ledge, we went to the salesman and told him that we were out. He tried to change our minds, of course, but I was already set against it. He was quite persistent, and it made me angrier and angrier by the minute. I asked him for the keys to our Dodge Shadow, and he wasn’t making any moves to get them, still trying to convince us to go through with the lease. Finally, I raised my voice at him: “I WANT OUR KEYS. NOW.” He finally got the message and slowly walked away, retrieving my ticket out of that place.

It turned out to be a great decision, not leasing that Civic. For one thing, 1991 was the last year of the 2nd generation of Civics: they were totally redone the following year. More importantly, we found out within weeks of this catastrophe that I was pregnant with our first child–and those hormones probably fed some of my rage, come to think of it–and a Civic would have been too small in the end.

We ended up keeping the Dodge Shadow for two more years. In 1993 we decided that it was time to drive something that told the world we were parents: a minivan. We did some advanced investigating and decided on the Dodge Caravan. We planned to drive a little north of Milwaukee to a Dodge dealership we hadn’t visited before. We had to do our car-buying after Jim got off work in the evening, which ended up working for us in a major way, and that brings me to lesson five.

Lesson #5: Shop for and buy your car LATE.

By the time we got to the dealership after eating dinner and taking the baby to my parents’ house, it was nearly 9:00 p.m. They were due to close at 10:00, which was a happy accident for us because it basically cut out all of the “let me ask my manager” trips that our salesman would have made, had we arrived earlier.

As an added bonus, we happened to be there on the last day of September. If you know anything about sales, you know that salespeople almost always have a monthly quota. In the auto industry, not only do salespeople have monthly quotas, but the dealership has monthly quotas. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the amount of money a dealership has to pay for insurance on all the vehicles on the lot is determined at the beginning of each month, so it’s in their best interests to keep cars moving out quickly, especially at month’s end.

So, one hour prior to closing on the last day of the month equals the Optimal Time to Buy a Car. It worked for us, anyway. After finding a Caravan that had a few thousand miles on it because someone at the dealership had been driving it around town (and it was still considered “new”), we were ready to negotiate. Our salesman, who I really got a good vibe from anyway (and trust me, that doesn’t happen often for me at a car dealership), basically leaned forward across his desk and said to us, “We close in an hour and I don’t really want to be here late. Why don’t you tell me what your bottom line is and I’ll see what I can do?”

And we did. And he did. And we were out of that dealership WITH our new van by 10:10 p.m.

Wheels of progress.

It was, to that point, the best car-buying experience for us, ever.

I’ve got three more lessons for you: click here to get them!



  • PJ Mullen

    Walking away is the most underused negotiating tactic, and probably the most effective. I've purchased 4 new and 2 used cars to date and other than a lay down, sweet heart deal on my old truck because one of my employees was best friends with the owners son, I've walked out on three times as many opportunities to buy a car.

    Due to the arcane franchise laws each state has about how cars must be sold makes the whole dealership network very inefficient. Cars are commodities. If you've done your research and know exactly what you want, if you find a Ford (as an example) with exactly what you want at a dealership that won't play ball, then you can probably find another Ford dealer a few miles away that can trade for the car you want to make a quick sale.

    And you are so right about going late and at the end of the month. It's all about holding costs. Those dealers are paying interest on their floor plans for each car that continues to rot on their lots. If they can get one more sold to get it off their hands, and off their warehouse line, they'll take a small hit to their bottom line to avoid racking up another months worth of interest on what they paid for it because that interest will only continue to erode their profit potential.

    All this car talk makes me want to go try to work a deal on something 🙂

  • LceeL

    I have 99,000 miles on my 2004 Vue. It's a great vehicle, and I MAY keep it, but i may also be in the market for something else soon, so your lessons come at an opportune time.

  • Anonymous

    I like relaying on my gut to tell me things, 98% of the time it is right. It is also good to ask parents what they think because they usually have gone through some of the same things and know what to do. You don't have to take their opinion but it may give you a different option.

    I feel you learn by your mistakes.
    But sometimes it is nice to avoid those mistakes. We always try to live with a car for at least 3 years after it has been paid off. That feels so good not to have payments for a while.
    Grandma W

  • Heather

    your tips are awesome, and i'm highly considering printing this out & giving it to C when we're ready to make the plunge!


  • JonnyTam13

    Closing time really does work, as long as you're okay being there a little late. I went at 8pm once (hour before close) and was the only one in the office at 9:30 because they were still giving me the back and forth. I won though and knocked an extra 2K off the car.

    Another great trick along the lines of keeping emotion out of it is to play good cop/bad cop. When we bought our last car (a Camry), I went in and said my wife really likes this car, but I'd be just as happy with an Accord, and I can get an Accord for cheaper. If you knock down the price to X, then I'll save myself the hassle and make my wife happy. If not, we're going with the Accord. Worked like a charm…even though we never even looked at the Accord 🙂

  • Michelle

    Oh I'm so with ya on these tips — especially the before closing on at the end of the month… or when it's raining, especially in the middle of the week.

    And FYI the money the dealer pays is called floorplanning. Yet another of my stupid bits of trivia that I can't make go away.

  • The Devoted Dad

    I am so bookmarking this series for future reference. I get anxiety about car buying too. I hate dealership because it is well understood that they will get out of you as much as they can, and by thousands of dollars. That, to me is close to robbery. I know not all dealers are like this but there are too many with a bad reputation. -Jason

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    I think I will try to recommend this post to my friends and family, cuz it’s really helpful