First disclaimer, cars aren’t important to me; except for when I can’t get to places without one. I haven’t thought about cars, or even looked at a car closely for more than a decade. Last year when one of my best friends visited me and saw my car, she exclaimed, “How quaint! You still have the same car after all these years!”
My little Golf finally gave out after 12 years. It needed a new transmission. After several car repair shops and Kelley’s Blue Book research tools, I was informed that the cost of replacement was double that of the cost of the car. That made me intensely sad. After all, my Golf has been with us when we brought newborn Plumster home from the hospital. It patiently accommodated all renditions of children’s car seats until Plum was finally car seat-free. Last year I had to stop driving for two months when a complex ruptured thumb ligaments necessitated delicate hand surgery. I still remember the exhilaration I felt the first day I was able to wrap my injured and surgerized thumb around the smooth leather-bound steering wheel. The freedom from sitting behind the driver’s seat!
But life must go on. After a week of trying to figure out ways to keep my old car going, the monkey clan decided that we needed a new car. Oh the decidedly stressful process of finding a new car. After two weeks of dealing with what to do, what to get, which dealership can give me the best price; basically, two weeks of mental abuse, I would like to impart some wisdom I gained from these two weeks of torture. If you are knowledgeable about cars, and know what kind of cars you like, then this post is not for you. If you are a car novice, then I hope you find this blog post helpful. So here is: my car non-enthusiast’s guide on “how to buy a car”.
First, decide on what kind of car you NEED.
How big and how tall: This depends on how many people do you regularly transport in the car, what else do you need to fit in your car, and how easily do you need to maneuver your car into a parking space, and out. For instance, a single lady with an acoustic drum set to log around for gigs in New York City needs a different car compared with a Mom of two children who lives in Texas. For the life of me, I remained completely ignorant of the types of cars that were out on the road. My knowledge of cars resemble children’s book on cars: “Look! A RED car! Here is a BLUE car! Look! A Black truck! Here is a TRAIN!” Believe it or not, Monkey King gave me a pop quiz on the road for me to identify what kind of car was around us: was it a crossover? minivan? SUV? truck? I couldn’t care less: small-ish ones were sedans and big-ish ones were trucks. So yeah, here’s my very simple guiding principle to choosing a car that is right for you: if you live in a city and you want to be able to see the incoming traffic as you back out of your driveway, get a car that is higher off the ground. If you have more than one child, you might want a car that can accommodate more than five people for days when both children have their respective play dates (Lexus, LR4 all can accommodate seven people easily enough). If you don’t need the height, a regular sedan will do quite nicely. If you don’t need the height nor the space, hey, live it up with a two-seater sports car.
How many wheel-drive: That depends largely on what kind of winter condition you live in. For us, even though we live in sunny California, we decided that we needed the new car for safe snowboard trips. It was no fun putting on tire chains in frigid cold air in the middle of the night. So we chose an all wheel drive (AWD) car. Ok, so far, we need a car that was large enough for snow gears, to transport one child and her play date, all wheel drive, yet small enough to get in and out of parallel parking spots for quick morning drop-offs.
After you narrowed the choices down to cars that can accommodate your life style, then ask yourself how does it relate to the environment.
How efficient do you want your car to run: I broadened my research to not only include hybrid and electric cars, but also hydrogen fuel cell cars as well. The long waiting period for electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars was prohibitory for me. I needed a functional car right away. But if I had the time to wait for one, Honda’s Clarity was on the top of my list.
How much: Ok, now we are getting into the nitty gritty on how to close a deal. If you don’t care how much you pay for your car, then skip this part and move on to the payment department. But if you don’t want to get ripped off, here is what I did to get the best price: first, go to the car manufacture’s website and virtually build your car. Go through all the different models and colors and packages. The add-on packages were quite eye-opening for me. This was where I discovered certain things that I assumed were basic enough that they would come with the car. You know, things like the carpet on the floor, or cup holders, or truck covers, were actually add-ons for some cars.
Once you know the exact car maker, the model and the add-ons, price them out online. Now, set that as your maximum value. Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, pay that price.
The first dealer told me that he didn’t do deals. The supply of the hybrid car that I wanted was so low and the demand so high, that there was no deal to be made. The second one told me to make an appointment and just come in, “we will work out the numbers that work for you. Don’t worry!” Humm… ok, at least this one was willing to work with me. When we showed up at this dealership, there was a nice lad who let us test-drive the car. Then negotiation began. To say nothing of the “Art of War” written by the Chinese philosopher Lao Zhi, or the deceit and betrayal conveyed by “The Game of Thrones”; let’s just say, these men can outdo any of the Lannisters. After realizing that our budget was a hard line, the boss of the boss of the nice lad printed out the specs of a car with the wrong car model, wrong color, wrong add-ons, but look! It’s the right price! Since I had built the various combinations of models online, I knew exactly how much this other model and all the add-ons he tried to sell me cost. After a quick mental math (thank you Mom for making me take abacus in Taiwan!), I realized he was not making a deal at all! He was, in fact, upselling a less desirable car that he can’t get rid off in his lot, while making us pay for all the upgrades to make it look like the model we wanted. This man had the audacity to tell us we got ourselves a great deal! By this point, the shop was closing and poor little Plumster was hungry and tired from hanging out in the dealership all day.
It was at this time, a co-worker informed me that both Costco and AAA have deals with carmakers. I checked the AAA website and lo and behold, the price was four grand lower than the MSRP! The catch is you have to buy it from the dealership specified by AAA. By the time I called this third dealer, I was a seasoned, jaded, car-buying pro. I rattled off the exact model I wanted and asked if he can give me the price quoted by AAA. After a lot of back-and-forth of checking inventories with other dealers in the area, the KBB value of my old car, negotiating on the phone, text, and emails, YES, they can match that price! We worked out a trade-in deal and scheduled for an appointment for car inspection and purchase of the new car in the upcoming weekend.
The drive over to the dealership was bitter sweet. My old Golf had a turbo injected engine (GTI), so it drove like a dream after the said ailing transmission had a 10-15 minute warm up period where it choked along in first gear. By the time I left my neighborhood, and onto the spacious road in Beverly Hills, I was really enjoying my ride. I took the picture above at a STOP sign, wanting to relish this last sweet moment with my beloved Golf.
I would like to say that the rest was easy. That I came, picked up the new car and everyone was happy. NOPE! Well, the Golf inspection was fast, efficient, and straightforward. Since we’ve already negotiated the price before showing up, you’d think we’d be out of there in one hour tops. You see, after saying that they will sell me the car for that price, they still had to pick up the car from a different dealer’s lot. This car was not in their inventory. Apparently, by me calling around different dealers, there was now a bidding war among the dealers for this one-and-only car with my specifications. So while we waited in a nearby restaurant having lunch (this time, I was smarter than to make Plum wait in the shop during meal time), I got a call from my dealer saying the carNO!). Then all of a sudden, my text box lit up, the first dealer wrote, “let’s talk. I have the car.” There was a fourth dealer who texted, “I can bring the car in today. Shall we proceed?” The second dealer called directly to let me know that they had the right car now, can I come in? It dawned on me that they were all talking about the same car. “No thank you!” I copied and pasted that phrase five times to the various dealers I came in contact with. Then… “bing!” I got the text from my official dealer, “we have the car!” Wow, I have not been to the stock trading floor in New York nor have I been to live auctions; but this one felt pretty intense and nerve-wrecking just the same.
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After seven hours (yes, you read that right, SEVEN) spent with this dealer which included inspection, then the LONG hours of waiting for the new car, us inspecting the new car, test-driving it, they sent us to finance. The good thing about purchasing cars in California is that you get your car registered at the car dealership without stepping foot in the DMV! The bad thing about it is that you ended up in the dealership for a very long time. Lots and lots of paperwork after, yes, I finally stepped into my new car and let her take me home.
As I followed along Monkey King and Plumster on the road, they kept waving at me. Later on they told me that they were worried that I’d be sad. They were right. I was sad. It was the end of an era. This new car made a lot of alerting noises, trying to communicate to me like a newborn baby with cries that a new mother has yet to learn to decipher. I am sure I will come to love this new car very soon, since it makes me feel safe on the road. Best of all, I got the right car with the space, height, and price tag that I needed; with the fuel efficiency that our environment needed.
I hope your find these car buying tips helpful! I would love to hear about your shopping tips!