Next to a home purchase, a new vehicle ranks right up there among the biggest purchases of someone’s life. You would think that people would do the proper research–and I’m not talking about research on the car itself; I’m talking about learning how to buy one–but many don’t.

Jim and I didn’t, when we first started buying cars. We have been screwed by car dealers* several times, and each time was maddening. However, we have learned many things through those terrible experiences over the last 23 years, and since the car-buying process is now an exciting one for me**, and because so many people walk into that situation with their eyes closed, I thought I’d share my super powers with you.

Lesson #1: Keep your emotions out of it, and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

When he graduated from high school, Jim was driving a great little car; it was a 1973 Capri. After graduation he entered Navy boot camp and then was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. The Capri wasn’t going to cut it as far as getting him reliably home to Knoxville on many weekends to visit me (awwww!), so he wanted to get new wheels.

We went to the local Ford dealership and he picked out a brand-new 1986 Ford Escort EXP, a cute little two-seater very similar to this one:

He test drove it, fell in love with it immediately, and was on the phone with his Dad to ask him to come and co-sign for the loan (Jim was 19 at the time and had no credit history whatsoever!) within 45 minutes.

The car? Of course it was great! But the second Jim sat his bootie down in the driver’s seat, it was all over. Did you know that a car salesman’s best way to sell a car to you is to get you IN IT and to let the emotional part of your brain take over the logical? That’s why, when you’re test driving a new car, the salesman (or woman) is sitting there next to you or in the back seat saying things like, “She’s a smooth ride, isn’t she?” and “The sound system in this baby is phenomenal!” They are, many times without you even realizing it, trying to make you feel like you can’t live without the car, especially if you have volunteered information to them ahead of time that they can use against you, like “I’m so tired of my old car”, “My old car has chronic electrical problems”, or “I can’t wait to get a new car!” Plus, if you are feeding them during the process by saying things like, “I love this color!”, “This stereo system is waaay better than the one I have now!”, or “This car is suh-weet!”, it’s all over and they know their chances of making the sale are pretty good, and that, my friends, is going to adversely affect your negotiations later.

Your best bet? Do NOT test drive a car unless you are

1) seriously interested in buying it, or
2) the type of person who can go into a pet store and play with puppies, and then leave without buying one (I am that type, and by the way, so is Weaselmomma!)

Keep quiet for the most part at the dealership, and don’t offer up ANY information to them that they can use, because they will use it. Check out this classic (FF to :50)!

What happened with Jim and the EXP? When it was time to negotiate, we didn’t. As a 19-year-old (with a 17-year-old sidekick) who didn’t do any research, he ended up paying sticker price. Yikes!

Lesson #2: Get it in writing.

Paying sticker price on that EXP would have felt better in the end if we had been able to drive it until the wheels fell off, but as luck would have it, we were in a wreck with it eight months later. Shortly after we got married, an 81-year-old man named Mr. Looney smashed into us, and the car was totaled. We lost the court case (don’t even get me started), and because of the depreciation, we ended up having car payments on that thing for almost two years after it was long gone.

In the meantime, we lived without a car at all for almost a year. Jim got rides to the ship with friends (when they were in port, of course), and I walked or got rides from neighbors.

The following Memorial Day weekend, we asked a neighbor to take us to the Dodge dealership so we could buy a car. Our salesman knew immediately that we needed a car, because we told him (DUMB).

All we said we wanted was a cassette player. (Yes, I’m old.) The salesman said that would be no problem. Not only did we pay the sticker price for the car (DUMB), but he also talked us into signing the paperwork for the totally overpriced undercoating package (DUMB). He told us that, it being a holiday weekend and all, we’d have to bring the car back later that week to get the cassette stereo installed.

Guess what? When we called to make the appointment, we were given a price on the stereo. We insisted that our salesman promised it to us as a part of the deal, but they wouldn’t do it. Because we didn’t get it in writing.

Lesson learned.

Lesson #3: Check your paperwork carefully. ALL of it.

A couple of years later we found ourselves in a position where we could get a second vehicle if we could keep the payment low. We headed off to another local dealer and checked out the used car lot. We knew that we were keeping our mouths shut about our private business, and we knew that we had to get everything in writing. We had an idea of what the most we could afford monthly was ($150)(remember, this was a long time ago!).

Jim found a 1985 GMC S15, like this one:

Because this was 1990 and the car was five years old already, the dealership was unable to sign us up for a five-year loan on it, which is what we wanted. We didn’t understand that at the time, but it does make sense now, of course. I remember the “negotiations” like they were yesterday: they gave us the figure that our monthly payment was going to be, which was a lot more than we could afford, and we said no. There was quite a bit of the “Let me go talk to my manager” back and forth stuff, and they said that we could make it work. We went into the office belonging to the guy in charge of financing, and they printed up a contract for us to sign.

As I was signing it, I looked at the monthly payment amount. It was STILL TOO HIGH. I stopped, mid-signature, and said, “No! This is higher than what we told you we can handle. You said you could make this work!”

The jacka$$ guy took the contract back and then put a new one through his printer. He handed it to us, and as we checked it over, I realized that vital information wasn’t printed on it, like, UH, the monthly payment amount.

We should have walked out.

But didn’t.

We told him we weren’t signing it until it was completely filled out. On the third try, he got the monthly payment within $1 of what we said we needed, and we were so worn down that we signed it and drove off with our new truck.

A couple of months later, I looked at the contract for some reason, and discovered how they got the payment down. It wasn’t because they gave us a better deal, like I had thought.

Our interest rate?


We couldn’t refinance it and had no choice but to pay the twenty-four percent for the duration. Ugh.

Lesson learned.

Click here for Part Two, which has much happier endings and will show you how we’ve evolved since the 90’s!

*I guess this is the part where I say that of COURSE all car dealers and their salesmen and women are not slippery, slimy, crooked, lying shysters. (There may be a few honest ones out there. Maybe.)

**We are not in the market for a new family car; the older boy is starting to look around for a total clunker. That process is totally different from buying a new car, but it made me think about the times Jim and I have bought cars and…oh, never mind.