By Kristin van Ogtrop
Updated January 22, 2015
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When it comes to buying a car, haggling is ( ahem) nonnegotiable. “There’s about a $3,000 difference on average between the invoice price of the car and what the dealer is likely to agree to sell it for,” says Philip Reed, a senior consumer-advice editor for the auto-buying site Edmunds.com. If you hate playing hardball, you might consider outsourcing the task. That’s easy to do if you’re a member of AAA or a warehouse club, like Costco, or if you subscribe to ConsumerReports.org—all of which offer an auto-buying service for no extra charge. (Most AAA clubs offer this program; check with yours for specifics.) Tell the service the make, the model, and the extras (like a sunroof) you desire. The service will match your specs with vehicles from at least one local dealership (and often more) with which it has partnered. Within a day, you’ll receive details on any deals that meet your criteria, all at prearranged discounts.Pluses: These programs claim to knock anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 off the sticker price. And they do indeed save you from haggling.Minuses: Most services work with a limited number of dealers, so it’s possible you could score a better deal elsewhere. (Go to Edmunds.com to verify the true market value of the car.) Also, if you have custom requests, you’re better off going solo.The bottom line? Worth it if you don’t want to go back and forth with a dealer about costs. And if nothing else, it can help you get a better sense of how your car is priced, which can ultimately help you drive a hard bargain yourself.
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This week has been such a disorganized mess on the home transportation front, I hardly know where to begin.

We have two cars. One has 104,000 miles on it, and the other has 105,000 miles. No, we did not plan it that way. But the expense of fixing the cars has really begun to look like some sort of signal; actually, a giant flashing neon sign that says “GO GET A NEW CAR ALREADY!”

We won’t get into the fact that my husband has an expired license, so he can’t actually test-drive anything. Or the fact that when he tried to renew the license, he learned that the Social Security office and the DMV have two different birth dates for him. Or that when he went to Social Security to try to rectify this, he found out that he actually has two Social Security numbers! Whee!!! Is it cocktail hour yet?

So after some test-driving on the part of yours truly and lots of online research, we settled on a dealership and a car. And then proceeded down this long, torturous path that led straight to the mysterious land of Dealers Who Inexplicably Do Not Really Feel Like Selling You a Car. It is a strange, awful land, inhabited by strange people who may or may not be androids.

The scene: desk-side in the showroom

The time: last night, 7:55 p.m.

The players: me, my husband, the salesman

**Important to know: We have settled on a model, price, color. There is $500 in cash—our deposit—on the desk.

Salesman: “Oh. I’ve made a mistake. This car is a 2011, not a 2010.”

Me: “Oh no.”

Salesman: “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

Me: “Oh no.”

Salesman: “Really. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know why I thought it was a 2010.”

He hands the money back to us. Looks at his watch. The dealership closes at 8. The price difference between the 2010 and the 2011 he has to offer is $1,200. Did he genuinely make a mistake, or was this a bait and switch? Who knows?

What he does not say: “Listen, folks, you clearly want to buy a car. I’m sure we can work something out.”

And so my husband and I left. No, he did not follow us out to the parking lot, like car salesmen do in the movies. He did not seem particularly sad to see us go; if anything, he seemed happy that we reached this disappointing conclusion before 8 p.m., so he could leave on time.

I have read and heard scores of stories about the horrors of buying a car. About the mystifying behavior of car salesmen. And now I’ve experienced it, and I still don’t get it! If anyone out there has any advice—well, clearly I could use it.