Preparing for Battle

Buying a Car
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Welcome back, Fool! All done with your homework? You've now built from scratch the exact car you want, detailing every last feature -- emerald green exterior with tan leather interior, A/C, automatic, power steering, hand crank windows and a five-CD changer. You know from visiting manufactuers' web sites (many have direct links from the sites we listed in Step 5) that the options and packages are available to you.

With your top three choices written down on a clean sheet of paper, you're now ready for the test drive.

First, you must give us your word not to purchase any vehicle during the test drive phase, no matter what earth-stopping deal is fanned in front of you! You need to make this personal commitment now, long before you set foot on a new car lot.

We know you're nodding in agreement, but are you sure you won't take pen in hand when that turbocharged truck is offered at $20,000 in a today-only tent sale? It's in the heat of the moment that we want you to remember your promise, so do whatever you have to do to keep it. Write it down. Speak it to your significant other. Have it tatooed on your ankle. Whatever it takes: just keep the promise, for in the end you'll be glad you did.

Now, before we head out to the Land of the Lots, let's talk a little strategy. First, by virtue of the fact that you are the buyer, you have the upper hand. It is not something you want to give up during the test drive. Thus, say very little about yourself, your financial position, and most of all, remain outwardly neutral to any enthusiasm you have for the vehicle you're driving. Top salespeople are expert at extracting information from even the most reticent buyers, as they try to qualify you. An old proverb in the art of negotiations, which applies equally to new car buying, is, "whoever speaks next, loses." Keep that in mind as the salesperson runs off at the mouth during your test drive.

One of the best ways to keep the upper hand is to arrange an appointment with the dealership ahead of time for a vehicle test drive. Very few buyers do this, but then again, very few vehicle buyers are Foolish! Call up the dealer and ask to be transferred to the sales manager. When he picks up the phone, say in a monotone, "Hi, are you the sales manager for Joseph Isuzu-Kia-Ford-&-Foolmobile?" Don't yet give a lick of info about yourself. He will probably answer with something like, "Yes, who am I speaking with and what can I do for you today?"

"I'm interested in buying a vehicle in the next few days, and I'd like to test drive that Foolmobile, but I'm only interested in the DX RL6000 with the 2.3 liter, ABS, leather, and power everything. Do you have one that I could take a look at and drive?"

It is important here that you arrange to drive the specific vehicle you want with respect to "hard" features. Cosmetic differences don't mean a thing at this point. In other words, don't worry if he doesn't have the emerald green seats. Do worry about "hard" features that may have several options, such as engine and transmission. Even leather seats should be considered a "hard" feature in that they give a particular "feel" that you might be looking for.

Only accept an appointment to test drive your "hard" featured car of choice -- not one feature less -- and be careful about driving one with a lot more features than you listed. Don't lose sight of the fact that YOU are in control, you are the customer. Remember too that new vehicles are commodities, the dealer ten minutes down the road has the same thing on the lot, so if you don't like what you hear, move on.

At this point the sales manager on the other end of the line might say something like, "Sorry ma'am, I have a large inventory, I'll have to check on that specific vehicle for you. Would you like to just come on down to the lot and see what we have? We'd be happy to let you drive your pick!" (A sales manager who doesn't know his exact product mix?)

You: "I'm on a tight schedule, and I'm only interested in that specific vehicle. Why don't you check your inventory and see if you have it?"

Them: "Tell you what ma'am, let me check just to be sure, and I'll call you back?"

You: "That's fine, but I'll only consider your dealership if I get a call back within the next hour. My number is (give it to them at this point, although they probably already have it because they're using caller ID). My name is Phoebe Fool, and that was the ... (list your vehicle specifications again). I'll be waiting for your call."

Them: "Thanks Phoebe, we look forward to serving you here at Joseph Isuzu-Kia-Ford-&-Foolmobile, and we'll be talkin' to ya soon!"

At this point, look at your ankle tattoo, which reads, "whoever speaks next, loses." Hang up without another word.

Move on to the next of your three choices; keep your calendar handy, because some dealerships may say they have the exact vehicle in stock and would love to have you "come on down" and take a look-see. As you make the appointments remember to schedule them fairly soon. Don't delay more than 2 days, or you may find yourself at the dealership with no car and a salesperson saying "We sold it, but we have this..." Don't give them this sort of room to switch you. Give yourself about one and a half hours for each test drive, which allows you time to watch the salesperson's demonstration of the car's features, to drive it and to check out the dealership; in short, to collect all the data, get out of the joint, and write down your impressions.

At this point you may be wondering just which Foolmobile dealership you should visit. Not to worry: it really doesn't matter, they are all selling the same thing! A lot of experts offer up strategies for checking out the lots and the service bay, judging them against each other and figuring that into your final equation. Remember that at this point you don't want to talk about price; you're just attempting to get your "feel" for the vehicle.

One way to determine which dealerships to call is to use the Internet. Just go to the Yahoo! dealer locator web page, and plug in the make you're after and your zip code. Voila! In a few seconds you'll have a list of dealerships. You can even find dealerships up to 500 miles from your location. Print out the search results -- phone numbers are included, and you can even print out a map -- then pick one that is relatively close.

Anticipating your every desire, we figure you're going to want to know what to take along with you, what questions you may be asked, how to answer them, how to actually do the driving, what to write down, and what to take away from the dealership.

What to take?

Hmm, some experts say take a friend, someone that "knows" cars. We beg to differ. Why? Well, if you've done your homework properly you know a lot about this particular vehicle already. What is an expert friend going to do for you at this point, other than get in the way and prove how valuable he or she is? Your time is too limited for this type of circus.

Next, remember you made a solemn promise not to buy yet. If you're at all wavering in your resolve, remember another car Confucianism: "One of your strongest assets in car bargaining is not, in your mouth, but in your feet. Simply walk away!" What are they going to do, tie you up?

Of course there are some people you should take. Take anyone who will be driving/using the vehicle with any regularity. For one thing, other drivers/users make great scribes; you ask the questions, they record the salesperson's answers. In addition, several heads are better than one, so have everyoney independently fill out a worksheet for each test drive. The differing opinions could be an eye-opener and a money saver. Yep, even if you have a 16-year-old who changes hair color more frequently than Dennis Rodman. Heck, put him in charge of testing the sound system.

We have our drivers, our checksheets, and our clipboards. Anything else? Yes. Take the vehicle(s) you may be planning to sell and two sets of keys to each vehicle. You may not plan on trading your old vehicle today or any other day, but while you're on a test drive why not do a little market testing of the vehicle you're planning on selling? See Step 10 for more Trade Secrets.

Now it's time to hit the road and see what's up with our dream machines. That takes us to Step 7.

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