Used cars are offered for sale at a dealership on July 11, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
The pre-owned car market is still in a weird place. Some segments like electric vehicles have some hefty savings, but most pre-owned cars are still selling for inflated prices. If you happen to come across a used car that seems too good to be true, make sure the dealer can answer these questions.
Often when I search for used cars I am not just shopping the car, I am shopping the dealer. What that means is that certain stores are far more likely to be professional and cooperative with the process, while other dealers will pull out the stereotypical dealer playbook.
The old “bait and switch” is sadly a tactic that a lot of unscrupulous car dealers still deploy. The strategy is they bring you in on a car that looks really good at a competitive price, only to tell you “that one just sold” and they try to push you into something else that is not as compelling.
However, even if a dealer isn’t trying to be shady about it, with the way internet listings work, it’s not uncommon for an advertisement to be active when a car is sold. This is why I always recommend calling to confirm that what you want is still on the lot before you make the drive. It’s also not a bad idea to request some closeup pictures or a walkaround video of the vehicle and ask the dealer to highlight any cosmetic imperfections.
2. Can You Show Me The Vehicle History?
When I search for cars I’m not only looking at the vehicle itself but also how the dealer advertises the car. Most dealers will have a vehicle history report, such as CarFax or Autocheck, linked on either a third-party listing like Autotrader or Cars.com and/or on the dealer’s own website. When I don’t see either of these present or if the history report is behind a paywall I get suspicious.
Often dealers that sell salvage title cars or units with accident histories don’t want to post the vehicle history because they know that information will drive away most buyers. So, if you don’t see any history reports on the ads request one from the dealer, if they don’t want to provide it, move on to other leads.
Keep in mind that history reports don’t tell the whole story. Often multiple-owner cars aren’t don’t really have as many “owners” as the report may indicate. Sometimes dealers trade vehicles or owners move to other locations and re-register the car. Most importantly, accident histories may not show up on the report, so further investigation may be necessary to ensure you are getting a quality car.
3. Can I Get It Inspected?
Once you confirm the car is actually available and the history report looks solid, ask the dealer if you can get it inspected at your expense. How that process works is you would find a local shop in the region that would be qualified to inspect that make and model and schedule an appointment, you would then take the car to that shop and wait for the inspection. If the dealer is really far away, you can request that they drop the car off for you. That way you can get some quality information before you take the long drive to the dealership.
There are also remote services that will send technicians to the dealer and inspect onsite. These types of services might not be the most ideal for high-end specialty cars, but for your standard models, they are fine. They are also convenient for both parties since the dealer doesn’t have to go anywhere. If a dealer puts up some resistance in regards to the inspection, especially if you offer to send a service tech to them, that’s a red flag.
Be aware that most dealers are reluctant to hold a car while you wait for the inspection results so there is a possibility that some other buyer snatches it up in the meantime.
4. What Is The Total Price?
The sale price of the car doesn’t give you the whole story. Your total cost or “out the door” price should consist of the sale price plus your local sales tax, DMV and registration fees, and any other ancillary charges the dealer adds to the total. Most dealers that run a good operation will just charge a doc fee, DMV fee, and tax on top of the sale price. The fee structure for will vary from region to region and dealer to dealer and I wouldn’t recommend getting into a back-and-forth battle over a few hundred dollars in processing fees.
However, some stores base their entire profit strategy around advertising a competitive price only to make up for it with bogus fees like “certification fees” or “reconditioning fees.” Sometimes the dealer has a fine print in the ad that says the internet price assumes a certain downpayment or trade credit. You always want to request an itemized out-the-door price from the dealership that clearly lays out the complete cost of the vehicle. If any dealer refuses to send you a quote or says you have to “come in for a price” is a sign to take your business elsewhere.
5. Can I Pay Cash?
Unlike private party sales where offering “cash” could be a motivator for a seller to drop the price for a quick sale, having cash at a dealer doesn’t give you any bargaining power. Dealers want you to take their financing as they make money from the bank to get you that loan. Furthermore, being a cash buyer means that it’s harder for the dealer to upsell you things like extended warranties and service plans.
Most buyers will likely need a loan to pay for a car, but I always encourage folks to shop their loans around ahead of time using their local banks, credit unions, or even online lenders. Having that pre-approval gives you leverage against the dealer’s financing and encourages them to match our beat your rate. If you are bringing outside financing to the table most dealers will consider you a “cash buyer” meaning you are not taking any dealer financing.
Make sure that the price you have negotiated with the dealer isn’t contingent upon financing with them. Some stores will offer a good price, but with the caveat that you finance with them, and usually, this means a really high interest rate. Of course, you can take the deal and then immediately pay the loan off with cash or have your own lender refinance the loan at a lower rate.
Tom McParland is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. Got a car buying question? Send it to Tom@AutomatchConsulting.com
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