Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How we bought a car

Buying a car can be a frustrating and time-consuming process, but you have to do it once in a while. My wife and I had put it off, but with our oldest car repeatedly needing repairs, it was clear that we had to buy a replacement. Here's how we got it:


My first stop on any car hunt is Consumer Reports, far and away the best source for thorough and unbiased car evaluations. After some consideration of the magazine's recommendations and our preferences, my wife and I honed in on the Toyota Rav4, the Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester as our leading choices.

Our first inclination was to get a used car, to save money, so I spent a week or two trolling through AutoTrader and looking at what was available under $20,000 or $22,000 (I tried various search parameters).  We wanted a car with not too many miles (under 30,000 would be good) and not too old (no older that 2014 model). 

One of the first things that became apparent was that while there were plenty of used RAVs and CRVs available, there weren't many Foresters that fit our criteria. Gradually, that car slipped out of consideration.

I was getting geared up to start actually looking at used cars when I read that new car sales were down and that some manufacturers were offering rebates or other price cuts to bring in customers.

Hmmm, could a new car be in reach?

The hunt begins in earnest

Day 1 (Saturday): I'd heard some good things about the Costco Auto Buying Program, so I decided to give it a shot.  Supposedly, under this program, with Costco acting as your middleman, you can get a good price without a lot of haggling.

I submitted two requests for price quotes via the Costco Auto site, one for a Ray4 XLE and one for a Honda CR-V. 

Within two minutes, my phone rang. It was Braa Jermi from Toyota Torrance, who asked a few questions to confirm what I was looking for. We talked for a bit, and a few minutes after we hung up, he emailed a price quote for a RAV4 XLE: $22,489. 

I was pleased with his quick response. This Costco deal was off to a great start. I replied to his email quickly, asking a few basic questions: "Is this a new car? What trim? What color?"

He did not respond. Hmmm.

Soon after, I got a call from Gladys at Downey Honda. She said she couldn't give me a price quote until I came into the dealership and showed my Costco card. Hmmm, really? I told her I don't think that's how the Costco program is supposed to work.  If I wanted to go around and visit dealerships hoping for a good price, I could do that without Costco.

Gladys said she would have someone call me about providing a price quote. No one did. Hmmm.

Day 2 (Sunday): I sent another email to Braa Jermi: "Hi Braa. Don't know if you saw my email yesterday. I just had a few questions on the price quote you gave me: Is this a new car? What trim? What color?"  He did not reply.

I texted Gladys at Downey Honda, asking if someone was going to call me as she had promised, She didn't reply, and no one called.

It seemed weird that car salespeople who were so eager for my business at first wouldn't do something as simple as respond to an email or a text. After all, I was genuinely interested in buying a car; I wasn't just playing around. The right response could have brought me into their showroom. 

Day 4 (Tuesday): I received a feedback request from the Costco Auto Program. They said "We take our members' feedback seriously,"  Good. It was becoming apparent that the program didn't work very well. I filled out the survey, describing the lack of response I was getting from Braa and Gladys. 

Day 5 (Wednesday): 
I still hadn't gotten a response from Braa or Gladys, so I emailed and texted them again. To Braa Jermi, I said, "Would Thursday evening be a good time to come in? What time is good for you?"  I sent a similar text to Gladys. Again -- even with a customer apparently eager to come in -- neither of them responded.

Day 7 (Friday): I got a text from Gladys. She ignored my question about finding someone to give me a price quote, and instead said, "I was off Wednesday and Thursday and missed your text. Were you able to make it in." (No question mark.)

I replied, "Saturday you said you'd try to find some one who could send me the Costco price. Any luck?"

Again, she didn't reply. So I called her and asked directly. She seemed surprised by my question, as if she hadn't heard it before. She transferred me to Alma Alba. Alma said the Costco price was $100 "over invoice." She said it as if it were big deal, though of course invoice price is a complete fiction. She gave me a price that was something like $23,800. 

At that moment, I didn't have anything to write the price down with. Alma said no problem, she would email me the price and the colors of cars that they had available.

She never emailed me. 

Day 9 (Sunday): 
By this point, I realized the contacts made through the Costco program were a joke. Trying a new tack, I submitted a price quote request through One of those who replied by email was none other than Braa Jermi.  He offered me the Toyota RAV4 LE (the base model) for $20,777 plus tax and registration.

I replied and asked if I could come in that day. He didn't respond (of course), so I called. I didn't speak to Braa, but the woman I spoke to put me on the calendar.

I got another response from Dianne Whitmire of Carson Toyota, who offered a better price: $20,588 plus tax and license. I liked the price, and I liked that when I emailed Dianne with several questions, she responded promptly. Imagine, actually responding to emails! 

Then I got an even better offer: $20,563 from Cabe Toyota of Long Beach. This was good, but also confusing: The email came from a John Bombauer, but was signed by a Kenny Rossi.  When I called to talk to Kenny, I was told he wasn't working that day. Huh? How had he sent an email? I ended up talking to a salesman named JP.  Who was I supposed to be dealing with?

Working in our favor was that Toyota was offering a $2,000 rebate on the RAV4 at this point. This was figured into all the price quotes we received. 

I then got an email from Torrance Toyota confirming my "appointment" that evening. I responded that I wouldn't make it. Apparently, no one at that dealership reads email because they called me later to confirm I was coming in. 

I visited Carson Toyota that evening and test drove a RAV4. It seemed good, if unspectacular, but when I brought up my trade-in -- a 2003 Mazda MPV -- they wouldn't give me anything for it. Zero. I had too many doubts, so walked out. 

I stopped at Cabe Toyota and JP showed me a RAV4. I told him I wanted $1,400 for my trade-in. They offered $600. I walked out.

It was disappointing not to make a deal, but since this was a big commitment, I was comfortable not rushing into a decision.

Day 11 (Tuesday): 
 My wife went out and test drove a RAV4 at West Coast Toyota in Long Beach. They offered $20,800 -- not as good as the other three offers, but the dealership was closer to our house. 

The salesman told my wife that if we came in, he thought he could get us a lower price. I was dubious, but willing to give a shot. Still, when we did show up, the price didn't change. 

He brought us a complete price breakout, including tax and registration, but it didn't match up with what I had. I'd calculated the tax and registration from the California DMV's website that day, yet West Coast had come up with a price that was $50 higher. 

The salesman couldn't explain the discrepancy, so he took me to the manager.  When I explained the issue, the manager just shrugged and said, "That's what our system says."

I showed him specific differences in the taxes.

He shrugged again, and said, "I just go by what the system says."

"Well your system is wrong," I said. 

He shrugged. 

Looking for a compromise, I said, "Well just lower the price of the car $40." 

"I can't do that," said the manager.

We walked out. We already knew we could get a better price elsewhere, and besides, this manager was a dick.  (I later looked at online reviews of West Coast Toyota and was astonished at how many of them were negative.)

Day 13 (Thursday): My wife had developed some stronger opinions on car color, and now wanted a blue RAV4.  Dianne at Carson Toyota said she had one. Again, she was very prompt in responding to emails, which I appreciated.

We showed up at Carson Toyota that evening. Salesman James showed us the car. We inspected it for scratches and flaws, but found none.  We were ready to buy -- we'd given up on the idea of trade-in -- and soon it was time for paperwork. 

We filled out some forms and they ran our credit. We had to show our current car insurance.  The price, supposedly, was the original quote of $20,588 plus $190 for roof rails, plus tax and license.  But in the end, they slipped in two extra fees  --- $29 for "electronic vehicle registration" and $80 for "document processing."  

These are garbage fees, but the dealers know that almost no one is going to walk out this late in the game. The best thing as a consumer is just be ready for them; anticipate an extra $100 or so on top of whatever price Carson Toyota has given you.

Weirdly, with me standing with checkbook in hand, they didn't have anyone available to take our money. We sat for a half hour, and I was thinking about just leaving and coming back another day. A finance gentleman did become available just as I was heading to Dianne to say we were going to leave. 

Finally, we drove out with out new car. Total price: $23,384.


The next week I got an email from Braa Jermi asking if I was still looking for a car. No, I said, and pointed out that had he replied to any of my previous emails, perhaps I would bought a car from him.  Apparently, he didn't read this email either, because he called a few days later and asked if I was still looking for a car. 

Gladys called too, and I explained that Alma had never sent me the email she promised. With one email, I said, things could have been different.

I eventually talked to Katherine Pasimio of the Costco Auto Program and explained the problems we had had.  She apologized.

I later sold our old car, via Craigslist, for $1,650.


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