Over the course of the last four months I have visited six dealerships and driven at least 15 cars, which has been very enlightening for me. I learned a lot about the things that are most important to me in a vehicle as I drove small cars, crossovers, pony cars and trucks, but I also learned a lot about the process of working with dealers and how to interact with them. Here are a few things I learned:
Know what you want before you get to the dealer. It’s so much easier to show up at a dealership and know what car you are interested in and at what price. Look at a dealership’s models online before you go, that way you can head straight to the cars you like and want to see. Salesmen have a horrible reputation for being nasty crooks, and I think that can be totally true sometimes, but taking control from the get go makes it easier on you if you know exactly why you are on that lot.
Explore all of the options within your price range. When I first started the Millennial Motors series I originally imagined I would test drive every single model that falls within the compact car category. There are tons of options to choose from in that segment alone. When I saw the Mazda CX-5 while I was at the dealership looking at the smaller Mazda3 I realized there was a whole world within my ideal budget that I wasn’t looking into at all. I ended up really enjoying my experience driving Subaru crossovers and realized they are really good options for the money—so good that were I actually buying a car I probably would have written off a majority of compacts I had looked at. You might think you want a compact or a specific brand, but narrowing your search too much from the start could cause you to miss the perfect car because you didn’t look a little bit further into what your money can get you.
This process is time consuming. I was at dealerships for covert missions to drive brand new cars and write about them. It took time to explain to salesmen what I wanted, find the precise car I needed to drive and actually get behind the wheel. When I would let them mock up a payment schedule with me the time I was there doubled. Buying a car is a very serious thing, so make sure you have driven all the cars you want and know you have found the one. After that, you have to be willing to spend the time to get the keys. It takes time working out a loan, any trade-in you might have, etc. And salesmen sometimes make it longer than it really has to be:
Have a thick skin and stand your ground. When I drove the Ram 1500 Express last week I was excited when my salesman said they don’t work on commission. I thought it meant they would be less pushy. That was only true for the first 30 minutes. After I told them I needed to think about it, the sales manager came over and tried to get me to take the truck home overnight to really see if I liked it. I told him no. He tried to seal the deal by lowering the price a little bit when I said I was worried the payment would be too much. To calm those fears he told me that any Joe Shmoe that “works at Walmart can make this payment.” Then, in the ultimate act of desperation, he asked when I last had my timing belt changed on my car. Mine hasn’t been changed lately, and he made it a point to tell me the cost of a new timing belt would equal the cost of one month’s payment on a brand new car. (The joke is on him—I have a chain that doesn’t need replacing! Sucker.) As a car lover that takes good care of my personal vehicle, it was extremely insulting that he would insinuate that maintaining my dependable, smooth running Honda would ruin me financially. They were really desperate for a sale that day, and I thought his antics were ridiculous. I was tired of being there so long, and some of them really won’t stop trying until you leave the lot.
Consider used, and look private party. The whole point of this series was to look at what the new car market has to offer, but as I went to each lot I had this same thought each and every time: how much money could I save if I bought a two-year-old version of this exact model? When I set the price cap at $25,000 I was thinking about young people that are just getting their first jobs, maybe getting married and moving to new cities. But it always struck me as both irresponsible and unrealistic for someone in their 20s to buy a car this expensive, and then tack on $3,000 in additional tax and fees. I’m certainly not in a place to fork out $28,000, or incur that amount as debt. Finding the exact car you drove on the lot but with a handful of miles and only two years of wear won’t be impossible, and you will save a lot of money. Sometimes you find that car on a used car lot, which means you will still pay taxes on it, but even then you will spend less. Look on websites like Autotrader and Craigslist, consider driving to the next largest city where they might have more options (I bought my car in Phoenix despite being Tucson-based), and take your time. The right car is out there, and it’s just waiting for a loving new owner.