This was our third time buying a used car, so I feel as if I am really getting the hang of this now. The first time was when I was pregnant with the twins and we KNEW we HAD to buy a minivan, but I was so nervous: how could we know we were getting a GOOD used car rather than a lemon? and what if we got cheated because we didn’t know how to haggle?? All of our previous cars had been handmedowns from my parents, who take meticulous care of their cars. My friend Melissa was the nudge I needed: she said something like, “Look, you just have to go into it knowing you’re going to get a little screwed on the deal. But what’s the alternative? Going to school to be an auto mechanic, just so you can evaluate each car? Then going through the process to become a car salesperson, so you know how to haggle with one? No. You need a minivan, so go buy one and lose a little money and hope for the best.”
The second used car we bought was one for Paul’s commute. We were looking for something older but with relatively low mileage and relatively long expected future use. I hate his car. It has a sun roof, which I knew he’d accidentally leave open in the rain, and he has indeed done so. Also, we have owned four of this same make/model, and this is the only one I have a hard time getting into: the roof is LOWER. I am between 5’8 and 5’9″, and I feel SQUISHED. I am shorter than the average U.S. man; I should not have a hard time getting my height into a car. Also, I can’t figure out how to turn on the radio, let alone select a station; there’s some complicated computer-screen display. But it is a success because he likes it and he is the only one who has to drive it.
This time we were buying a car to replace our dear old 1999 sedan, which has over 230,000 miles on it. It was Paul’s commuting car before we replaced it. We’ve kept it on as a car for Rob and William to use, because if they were to smash it up, it would be no big deal to lose it. But nearly a year ago, our trusted mechanic told me that it was time to say our long goodbyes: he doubted the car would last another year. This is the same mechanic who has kept it running for so long and has resisted previous hesitant suggestions that it might be time to let it go, so I accepted that it really was Time.
Here is the first thing you need to know about buying a used car, if your circumstances match ours: it takes four hours, and there is no good reason for it to take that long. You just have to go into it expecting to lose that time. We bring fully-charged phones, a back-up battery, snacks, and books.
I start by going online to the dealership’s site, and making a list of cars I’m interested in. When we were shopping for the minivan, I found two minivans on the site, and only one was actually available, and we bought it. When we were shopping for Paul’s commuting car, I found five cars on the site, and only one was actually available but they also had two others not on the site. When we were shopping for this car, I found six cars on the site, and three were available, and they didn’t offer any others. So I don’t know if I’d recommend the pre-shopping or not. Maybe you should just show up.
The second step is to find a salesperson, but worry not: a salesperson will absolutely find YOU. Sometimes before you are all the way out of your car.
The third step is to say what you want (in this most recent case, “a car of this make/model but before the 2012 redesign”), and maybe shove your careful list of color/mileage/stock# toward the salesperson. The salesperson then goes to search for availability/keys, while you stand awkwardly in the middle of the sales floor wondering if you should move or if you’re okay where you are.
The fourth step may or may not be to give some information about yourself and show your license. This didn’t happen on occasions 1 and 3 for us, but did on occasion 2.
The fifth step is the test drives. Especially when they ask no information from you, it is a little surprising to be handed the key to a car and have them say “See you back here in 10-15 minutes, okay?” Sometimes the prep for this step takes awhile: they have to put a temporary license plate on the car, and they have to find the key, and they have to make sure the car has gas in it. Our most recent experience was pretty great: she got all three keys at once, and while we were testing each car she got the next car all set to go—even left it running with the a/c on so it would be nice inside. Last time, we got a newbie and he had to walk through the lot with us trying with mixed success to find each car.
Fifth step, sub-category: It can be a little difficult to do a test drive. I mean, what are you looking for? It drives, yes? Good. This most recent time, when we drove the first car Paul said it drove a little rough/loud, and I said I didn’t notice anything. But then when we drove the second car, it was much quieter and there was less vibration, so then I saw what he meant. You can also be like, “Ug/yay, I hate/love the sunroof,” and/or “Wait, what is that stain?,” and/or “I have no idea how to work these buttons,” and/or “These seats are extremely slippery, and this headrest is worn down to the fluff,” or WHATEVER.
Sixth step is choosing one—or leaving, if you don’t find anything. But all three times we HAVE found something.
Wait, the real first step is financing, if you are not going to be paying by check or by paper bag full of cash. When we need financing, we get a loan ahead of time online (we used the same site we’d used for our mortgage); the lender sends us a blank check to use to pay for the car. We have seen fellow customers getting financing through the dealership, and it seems to involve a very long additional session.
The seventh step is sitting down at the salesperson’s desk. This is the start of the unbelievably long process. Why does it take so long? Maybe one among us is a car salesperson or related to a car salesperson and can tell us. Because from the customer point of view, it seems like a lot of waiting. The salesperson takes some information: whose name will the car be in? Okay, let’s see your license. What’s your address? phone number? How will you be paying? How will the car be used—commuting? scooting about town? Sign here that you understand this. Sign here that you understand that. Sign here that you understand privacy. There is some small-talk about children, and about a recent day when things were so crazy here. Meanwhile we are “just waiting for the…” paperwork/inspection/cleaning/title/keys, and for the options guy to be available.
There is apparently no way to avoid the eighth step, which is “seeing the options guy.” In our experience he is always the slickest, highest-pressurey, salespersonyish person of all. He will try to sell you a three-year parts/repairs plan for $3400: it covers parts and repairs! I mean, not all repairs. And not all parts. But lots of them! It’s such a good deal, even though it costs a third of what you’re paying for the car. He has a booklet with a semi-transparent overlay that shows you how great this plan is. When you say no, he will ask if he can ask why. You’ll tell him it’s because these are such great cars: you’ve bought two of them before at this very dealership, and neither one gave you any trouble for YEARS. He will then say, listen, you’ve bought cars here, you’re valued customers, he just wants to see you happy: he can give it to you for $2900. He’ll underline it AND circle it. You will say no again, and he will say he is not trying to make a profit here, he just cares about you and your car. He doesn’t want to see you stuck with the costs. Look at the costs! He will show you a chart of a car with arrows pointing to the expensive places. You will say no again. He will sigh. Listen. He can offer it to you at HIS cost, $2300. He’s not making any money here. Listen, as a former mechanic, he can tell you: car repairs are expensive. He would hate to see you stuck with that. He’s not trying to sell you anything unreasonable—he’s not going to suggest the theft insurance, not in our nice city! and you don’t need the nick-and-ding insurance, not for a used car. But he can see you’re smart consumers and you know even one visit to a mechanic can cost what three years of insurance cost, amirite? …Still no? Are you sure? Okay. Sign here, and please write out longhand that you are declining all the available safeguards at your own risk. He’ll shake his head, feeling sorry for your future expenses. He’ll print out the final paperwork. And then, he will turn to your husband: “I know you’re the one who really makes the decisions” (he’ll say it like it’s a winking joke, but it will not fly)—and he’ll show him a paper with $1900 written on it; he’ll slide it furtively, as if he is really not supposed to be doing this but he LIKES you(r husband), even after only a few minutes’ acquaintance. This is after YOU have signed something saying no to $2300, which he said was “his cost.” Oh, so he is going to take a personal $400 loss so that you can have this plan? Your husband is not going for it, and you are not pleased with these shenanigans. Sign here and here.
Finally, finally, you are released from the grips of the options guy and sent back to your salesperson and the ninth step. She has you sign a few more things. She offers you water. She leaves to find the spare key. She leaves with your credit card. She leaves to get a manager’s signature. She offers you water. She leaves with your credit card signature. She leaves to check on the progress of the cleaning. She leaves to find out how the final inspection is going. She leaves with your check. She leaves to find a piece of paperwork she needs. She leaves to check again on the inspection; are you sure she can’t bring you a water? or a ginger ale? You catch Pokémon and read your book in five-minute segments between her visits.
Tenth step: What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long? What is taking so long?
Now things finally look promising; maybe we are at the eleventh step? Papers and copies of papers are being put in a folder. You are being handed a business card and a form that explains that if you refer anyone to this dealership you will get $100 per referral—she hopes you’ll refer to her, ha ha! And then: THE KEY! It’s THE KEY! The car is yours and you can LEAVE! …Oh, but call and make an appointment to come back for the inspection, because they didn’t actually do that yet because they were so backed up.