What I learned shopping for a used car
Despite initial optimism, writer discovers why some say industry has shady reputation
Shopping for a used car? Or, as marketers prefer to call it, a pre-owned vehicle? Not only does pre-owned soften the harshness and the not-so-freshness associated with a used product, it may also help soften the reputation of the used car dealer — or will it?
I was new to the used car market. After my daughter was denied a bank loan to purchase a car, I became the Bank of Mom, and the hunt for a car began.
I tried not to let my bias toward the used car industry colour my thoughts (based solely on hearing about a few unfortunate experiences of others). I’d be the first to defend any profession from painting all its members with the same brush. Bad news travels fast and far and can overshadow the good — I get it.
My search for a car began online, by researching used car reviews and ratings in Consumer Reports. I created a chart in Excel with makes and models in the compact car category. I inserted my findings: on fuel efficiency, crash test results, lumbar comfort, cabin loudness, rear visibility, acceleration, handling of transmission controls, warranties, price and best overall rating. (Obsessive? — I prefer to call it “doing my homework.”)
With my “vehicle list,” I checked out Auto Trader. I typed in the specs: make, model, price range, maximum kilometres, automatic transmission, certified, etcetera. From the limited car ads that provided a CarProof (a vehicle history report), I was able to see insurance claims, liens, maintenance, cost of repairs, and more. Although the CarProof did not take into account unreported accidents and DIY repairs, there was some comfort in receiving the car history that was recorded.
I visited local brand-name and used-car dealerships, and I phoned about cars of interest that I saw on Auto Trader. I received a mixed bag of responses: there were salespeople who answered my questions, and what they couldn’t answer, they found out and phoned me back — yet others left me with the sense that they were in a big hurry, and answering my questions were a waste of their time.
One salesperson said that I might be interested in a soon-to-be trade-in car at his dealership. But when I asked the price, he told me that he would only give me the Black Book value, unless I was ready to purchase. I left the dealership thinking, if I ever come back to this dealership, I’ll make sure I get another salesperson. Another dealership would only provide me with the CarProof details if I came to see the car. Really? What are you hiding? So, no, I didn’t drive 40 km to see that CarProof. I struck that car and dealership off my list.
Only a few days into my search, I began to understand why the used car industry had a shady reputation. After spotting a Toyota Corolla on Auto Trader, I drove to a dealership in a nearby city just before closing time, and took the car for a test-drive. I told the salesperson how very interested I was in the car, and said I’d call him at a set time the next day; I needed to think about it over night. I gave him my phone number and asked him to call me if anyone else was interested in the car before I got back to him the following day.
By the next morning, I had decided to purchase the Corolla, and I was excited about my decision. I drove to the dealership. That’s when I saw the sign stretched across the Corolla’s windshield that read, “Sold to a very nice person.” I was stunned. I hunted down the salesperson and asked him why he hadn’t contacted me as he had agreed to do. He said, “A lady came in with a wad of cash as a down payment for the car and the manager said to let it go.” He told me, “That’s the way this business is.” I would hear that phrase a few more times over the next four weeks of car hunting.
A salesperson at another dealership told me, “People say all the time that they’ll come back — usually they don’t. We’d be out of business if we waited.” By then, I understood why a serious buyer would put a down payment on a car, then have a mechanic inspect it, before making the final purchase.
In the end, I purchased a 2009 Toyota Matrix from a dealership, practically in my own backyard; a fair deal that included a mechanic’s inspection, some repair work and an extended warranty.
The process of looking for a used car is over — happy daughter — relieved Mom. I now have a short list of dealerships that I would recommend. All in all, the phrase that comes to mind is “only a few bad apples.”
When I asked the price, he told me that he would only give me the Black Book value, unless I was ready to purchase.
When shopping for a used vehicle, Oakville writer Patricia Stephenson recommends solid research and some basic steps to weed out the bad apples.