Let's Make A Deal

Tim Marrs

Thousands of years ago, man invented the wheel. And then, a few minutes later, man sold that wheel with full undercoating and extended warranty protection against flat-spotting, stone cracking, and mammoth damage. "Extended warranty cost only two tiger pelts," said man. "You smart to get. Now we talk service agreement."

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I know that not all car dealers are scheming villains, but the car-dealer culture is such that even the honest organizations resort to tricks that would shame a carnival barker. When I recently bought a car, negotiating a price was the easy part. The real battle begins when I attempt to collect said car at that price. I have a neighbor who ended up paying $5000 over sticker for a Honda Element, and now that I've set foot in the lion's den of a dealership, I can understand how that happened.

First, the salesman hands me a piece of paper detailing the price breakdown. Buried within that list is a $795 charge for a service agreement. "I didn't agree to this and I don't want it," I say. "I live two states away. Hopefully, when I drive out of here you'll never see me again, for service or otherwise."

My rejection of the service agreement causes no little consternation between the sales guy and the manager. They really want me to have the service agreement. "We can't take this off," says the manager. "It's the law that we have to provide it." At this point, I might have laughed in his face. I'm no legal scholar, but I'm pretty sure there's no law requiring car dealers to charge $795 to send me oil-change e-mails.

I don't know whether there's some company incentive or manufacturer kickback at play, but I ultimately agree to keep the stupid service contract if an equal amount of money is deducted from the price of the car. They doctor the forms, and I venture deeper into the belly of the beast to talk to the title guy.

The title guy's job is to finalize your paperwork while selling you all sorts of other stuff that you don't need. First he tries a move I'll call the double-upsell. He proposes some really ridiculous add-on warranty. When I reject it, he says, "OK, then we'll just go with this cheaper one," as if I'm obliged to sign up for something. "I don't want that either," I tell him. I'm buying a certified-preowned model that already has a six-year/100,000-mile warranty.

"But that only covers the powertrain," Title Guy argues, proffering the second major lie I've heard in the past half hour. I reply that, in fact, the warranty does cover everything, bumper-to-bumper, with a modest deductible. "That sucks," he says under his breath. "I mean, it sucks for us. It's good for you." What sucks for me, sir, is that you would've just happily sold me a warranty that duplicates the warranty I already have, if only I'd let you.

Eventually, I escape with the car I wanted at the price I agreed upon, but they don't make it easy. And that's why people abhor car dealers. You know that you'll be forced to run a gauntlet of charlatans attempting to mug you each step of the way, ideally to the point where you pay more than full retail. Like a pirate flying the Jolly Roger, one GM dealer I visited had every car marked up over MSRP, right there on the window sticker, which was amended with a "low availability cost adjustment." Because those Chevy Traverses are so rare you should definitely pay over sticker to get your hands on one.

Unfortunately, where dealer ethics are concerned, it seems the market has spoken and the shenanigans-based business model wins. And thus, car buyers and car dealers remain adversaries. A friend once told me that his first step when buying a car is to use the bathroom, deliberately refrain from washing up, and then go shake the sales manager's hand. That's not a real healthy dynamic.

Used-car dealers are another breed entirely, but I feel they tend to be more comfortable with their slick persona, even defiantly proud of their collective shady rep. When I was eighteen, I visited a small-time used-car lot to check out a Chevy S10 Blazer. Regarding the warranty, or lack thereof, the dealer told me, "Once you drive out of the lot, if the car breaks in half, you own both halves." I didn't buy that car. But I appreciated his honesty.

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