I recently had the opportunity to purchase a new car. This is only the third new car that I purchased in the past 11 years (and this time it was my son’s car). The purchase process for the first two cars, a 2000 Dodge Intrepid (still alive at 155,000+ miles) and a 2003 Ford Windstar (died last year of Transmission Failure at 95,000) was very straight forward and not all that painfull. Back then I used CarsDirect.com, a car buying website, for both purchases. The beauty of CarsDirect was that they gave me a highly competitive final price for the car right there on their site, before I ever stepped into a dealer. In fact, the only time I visited the dealer for each of these purchases was when I went to pick up the car. The other feature that I liked was that each time I went back to the site to ‘build’ the car (change color, options, etc.) the price stayed the same. No games, no bait-and-switch, same great consistent price for everyone, every time. Unfortunately someone bought CarsDirect.com and changed the model a bit. To be polite, it’s just not the same. I was however, determined to replicate my on-line car-buying experience once again. I was looking purely to purchase a vehicle at the lowest possible price, without having to drive more than 200 miles to pick up the car.
My quest began with a search of car-buying sites. I didn’t want a ‘referral’ site, where someone just fed my name to a local dealer – and in essence fed me to the sharks, to begin some kind of (one-sided) negotiating process. No, I wanted to avoid the dealership until absolutely necessary. I wanted to finalize the deal before I walked into their door, just as I had before. I knew it could be done. I had done this in 2000, way back in the early days of on-line e-commerce, surely things must have dramatically evolved since then!
The short answer is yes, and no. There are a plethora of websites that arm the average car-buyer with above average information. Some sites gave me price histories. They told me what other people paid for the same vehicle and gave me a ‘target’ price, but still required that I negotiate with the dealer. Let’s face it – you and I negotiate for a new car once every 3 or 4 years if we are lucky. The dealer does this all day every day. Who do you think is going to win this one?? Other sites provided a lot of in-stock inventory information. Allowing me to negotiate for a vehicle already on the dealer’s lot, which theoretically improved my negotiating position (funny how those cars were always ‘just sold’…). Others gave resale, repair and maintenance histories to give me an idea of the ‘total cost of ownership’ of the vehicle. The vast majority, however, just referred me to the sales person. I did, however, manage to find one site that gave me almost exactly what I was looking for.
After trying a bunch of sites and not getting the result – or the price – that I wanted, I decided to try AAA. As a long-time member of AAA, I went to their site and used their car-buying tool. They gave me a very good price, a ‘certificate’ and a list of local dealers that had the car we were looking for. They still required me to visit the dealer with the certificate, but I felt comfortable with their price and approach and the fact that I could contact them if I had any problems. After visiting one VERY bad dealer on their list (a story for another day), I decided to contact a second dealer, located a little further away. I was able to complete the deal over the phone and fax and only visited the dealer when we picked up the car. In the end, the process went extremely well and was as close to my earlier buying experiences as could possibly be. In fact I went from one of the very worst experiences with the first dealer to the absolute best experience with another in the span of three days.
What’s funny about this whole process was that the company that developed and runs the AAA service is called ZAG.com. They are the same guys that built and then sold ‘CarsDirect’. Their motto is “When others ‘zig’, we ‘zag'”. They wound up building an entirely new system with a new approach. I liked them so much that we are trying to make their system available to you through our website. They had a lot of good information, very competitive prices and a straight forward buying process.
The moral of the story is that there are a lot of options out there. Shop around on the web just as you would at various dealerships. Each of the sites has different pricing models and plans. Go with a trusted source so you have someone to contact in the event of a problem and arm yourself with all the knowledge you can – plus, don’t fall in love with a particular car. There are lots of cars in the sea. Be prepared to walk away if the deal sounds bad or feels bad, or seems too good to be true. You have many, many options; more than ever before. And ALWAYS get your financing arranged with the Credit Union ahead of time; you’ll be surprised at how much time, effort and money you can save.