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Car Buying Has Changed

With this article, the saga of the demise of my 1999 Ford Escort wagon comes to a close. I bought my new car about two months ago, and in the process I learned something.

The process of car buying is quite a bit different than it was just a few years ago.

As a long-time devotee of a non-profit consumers’ organization, my guide to this new world was their April monthly magazine which is always devoted to cars. Not so long ago, the key to effectively negotiating the purchase of a car would have included an insider’s report that I would have bought from this magazine, telling me what the car that I wanted actually cost the dealer to buy.

Now, thanks to improving computer technology, it’s easy to learn for free exactly which cars are available at which dealers, and for what price. Of course, the competing dealers can make use of this knowledge as well. (Whether they use it to drive down prices or to fix them I really don’t know. I’d be interested to hear from readers who might have the inside scoop on this detail.)

But the biggest deal for me wasn’t knowing where the cars were, or even what they cost the dealers to buy. More revealing by far was learning what other buyers had actually paid for their cars. By targeting the lower part of this range, I was able to start my haggling with an advantage:the negotiation skills of recent buyers who had already closed their deals.


The salesman I bought my car from seemed to take all of this in stride. Speaking of my choices about where to buy the particular year, make, and model I’d settled on, he shrugged and calmly said, “There are four dealers within 20 minutes of here.” So he took the high road. I’d made it clear I wanted a respectful sales process, and unlike every time I’d bought cars before, I got it with no drama.


I also got a purchase price that was just about at the bottom of the range I saw online. It helped that the two dealers closest to my house each had a car I wanted: same model, same features. Different color, but so what? Even if that had been important to me, I didn’t have let them know as I called first one dealer, then the other. After a few iterations, we asymptotically arrived at the bottom-line contract price I paid. And based on my research, given the supply, demand, and time of year, I did fine.

So I’m now the happy owner of a Toyota Prius Two. And if it lasts as long as my previous cars have, I’ll be ready to go car buying again in 15 or 20 years. Just as technology has continued to change car buying–and virtually every other aspect of our North American lives–no doubt I’ll have a new set of car buying skills to acquire by then.

Until that time, if you’re car shopping, do your research, consult the wisdom of consumers’ organizations, and take your time. And don’t assume that this experience will necessarily look much like the last time you bought a car.

–Ken Robinson