Common Setups and How to Turn the Tables:
Let's start by making it clear that not every car salesperson
is a con artist or scheming liar. In fact, more and more used-car
dealers are trying to build a loyal customer following by being
completely up-front, fair and honest in all negotiations and dealer-to-buyer
relations. But since you can't know if your local car dealer is
one of these salt-of-the-earth saints, you must be prepared for
Even salespeople with the best hearts are trying to pay the bills.
It's not rocket science: the more you spend, the more money they
make. Salespeople have lots of experience dealing with many different
types of customers, and they know all sorts of tricks and techniques
that will work on different types of people. It is best to avoid
dealerships with salespeople that play these games, and don't
be afraid to call them on it when you see it. But if you do encounter
one of the tricks below and are informed about the techniques
that might be used, you will be much better off when it comes
to combating them. Below, we've outlined some of the games that
you might encounter in your quest for a new or used vehicle.
Always take along an extra set of car keys. If you're a serious
buyer and you know that you'll likely trade in your current car,
the dealer will also need the title in addition to any extra sets
of keys you may have.
But even if you don't plan to buy a car that day, taking along
an extra set of car keys to the dealership is a good idea. That
way, if you decide you are curious about what the dealership would
offer you for your current car, or if you get fast-talked into
letting them have a look at it, you'll still be able to drive
away in the event that the sales staff "loses" your
When our features editor first moved to Denver, Colo., in 1997,
she and her husband decided to see how much a dealer would offer
them for their two-year-old Ford Explorer. The salesman promptly
took their car keys and disappeared with them. They had clearly
stated they were "just shopping around," but when they
wanted to leave, the salesman suddenly couldn't "find"
the keys or the person who was supposed to be looking over their
sport-utility vehicle. They were stuck at the dealership while
a string of salespeople tried to pressure them into buying today.
If you bring another set of car keys and this happens to you,
you can easily walk around the lot, find your vehicle and leave.
Tell them to mail the other set of keys back to you.
Take it or Leave it
These are powerful words that can convey strength and resolve.
However, when a car salesperson says "take it or leave it"
at a price you don't feel comfortable paying, don't panic. He
is just trying to force you into an early decision. A good rule
of thumb is always to leave it before you take it. Regardless
of what the salesperson may say, you can always come back and
take it later. Chances are if you say, "Sorry, I'll leave
it," and get up to leave, that salesperson will be on your
heels offering to "work things out" or "see what
I can do." Even if the salesperson lets you leave and you
can't get a better price at any other dealerships, you can still
return and tell them you've thought it over and changed your mind.
Once in a very, very great while, you may have to take it at the
price offered if you really want the vehicle (such as with high-demand
New Kid on the Block
In this scenario, a salesperson will tell you "in confidence"
that she just started this job and is a little "green."
By doing so, the salesperson places herself on your side of the
table, so to speak. It's as if they're saying, hey, we're in this
together--I don't know much more than you do about the car-buying
process. In this way, they try to make you buddies--victims of
the same crazy world--like your old college roommate. Well, they're
probably lying. He is probably a veteran at the car-selling business
and thinks he can win you over using this tactic. Don't be fooled.
A common prop in the "New Kid on the Block" act is the
blank business card. The salesperson always needs a business card,
but the card may lack their embossed name and title. "See?
I'm so new, I had to personally sign all of my business cards!"
Odds are that if you return to that dealership in six months,
the same "new" salesperson will still be using the same,
personally signed business cards.
"What do I have to do to get you into this Car Today?"
This question may pop up over and over during the negotiation
of a sale. Most people buckle under the pressure of this question
because it puts the buyer on the spot, which can make many consumers
The immediacy of this question is as old as the profession of
selling cars. If a customer is on the lot looking at a car, why
isn't he or she buying? That's what the salesperson is there to
find out. Is it the price, color, financing? What's the problem?
The salesperson's job is to find out and help you overcome your
If you answer, "I'm not interested," the dealer won't
believe you; because if you weren't interested, you wouldn't be
there, checking out that shiny red Acura. So the dealer will continue
to ask you until you say something dumb like, "I can't afford
the monthly payment."
Never, ever, talk about payments. Instead, your response should
be, "Well, I'd get the car today, but the price is a bit
too high." Then you've given the salesperson something to
work with. The "buy today" question is actually your
invitation to start negotiating, so use the opportunity to your
advantage and start talking about the most important factor: the
Good Guy/Bad Guy
This technique is a play on "Good Cop/Bad Cop" and
requires two salespeople. The first salesperson becomes the "good
guy," acting like your friend. A second salesperson, the
"bad guy" (usually the sales manager), keeps bringing
up problems while the good guy tries to help you solve them. For
example, the first salesperson may agree to certain prices and
services with you, then go "check" with his manager
and return saying his manager won't OK the deal, leaving you to
negotiate all over again. The most frustrating aspect of buying
through a salesperson is that the sales manager has final approval
of the sale. So just when you think you're done, the salesperson
comes back to the table only to say: "I made a mistake! The
correct price is actually $999 more. My manager told me I had
to change it." The purpose of this tactic is to slowly wear
down the consumer.
The sad thing is that the salesperson has no authority to sell
a car. They can say whatever they want, but final approval must
come from the sales manager. This is frustrating to anyone who
takes the salesperson at his word, only to find that the sales
manager doesn't agree. If you end up caught in this trap, negotiate
only one item at a time. If you're talking about a trade-in and
the new-car price and options all at once, the sales manager will
likely have a few objections to the deal. If, on the other hand,
you use the salesperson as a simple messenger, getting one item
OK'd at a time (in writing), then the whole process gets reversed.
Problems tend to arise when the negotiations affect several items
at once. Then, you may negotiate a better price only to lose the
value of your trade.
By deadlocking one item at a time, the sales manager has more
to lose. One simple item, such as the cost of an equipment package,
could ruin the whole deal, and by itemizing everything and getting
written quotes, the good guy/bad guy technique is far less effective
for the dealer.
The Written Word
The written word--or number--may seem like it is non-negotiable.
But you should always assume that anything written is negotiable.
Dealers' prices and rules should be questioned, because any item
can be adjusted with a simple stroke on a computer keyboard. Even
an invoice sheet can be typed up in a matter of minutes, and don't
put it past some of these guys. The fact that a dealer has written
something down, typed something up, or hung some "rule"
on a wall doesn't mean it is so.
One example of the written word technique is something called
D&H fees. D&H, "Delivery and Handling," is nothing
more than added dealer profit. Some dealerships we've visited
have had this term framed right on the wall. "Delivery and
handling charges in the amount of $249 per vehicle are added dealer
profit and apply to every vehicle sold at this dealership."
They admit it right on their little printed sign: ADDED DEALER
PROFIT. The secret is that the charge is bogus and does not need
to be paid. What is "delivery and handling" anyway?
It's a nebulous term, meaning anything the dealer wants it to
Control Through Questioning
Remember that annoying guy from high school debate class, the
one who always had something to say, even if it wasn't relevant
or important? But because he was always talking or hurtling questions
at you, he always seemed to be right. Well, he wasn't right, but
he was tricky. That guy was using a simple negotiating tool that
car salespeople use, too.
In the art of conversing, the person who asks the questions is
the one in control. While salespeople do need to ask some qualifying
questions to find out what you need, what you want, and what you
can afford, you also need to be asking questions and participating
in the flow of the conversation. When trying to control a situation
through questioning, a salesperson will answer all of your questions
with a question. A good response to this tactic would be to say,
"You haven't answered my question." Or don't respond
at all; just repeat your question until he answers you. If he
is a slow learner, you could try reminding him that it isn't polite
to answer a question with a question.
"Over-allow, under-allow." You want $3,500 for your
trade, but they've offered you only $2,000. They have to recondition
(recon) the trade vehicle or wholesale it out, or keep it on the
lot at a huge markup, etc. They know you'll walk, so they say,
"Okay, we'll give you the $3,500." But watch closely,
because the price of the vehicle you are buying just went up by
that much. Don't concentrate too much on the price of your trade-in
and then go and pay too much for a new used car. The best way
to avoid this is to negotiate one transaction at a time. Don't
talk about the purchase price when negotiating trade-in, and vice
versa. Concentrate your energies on the task at hand--getting
a good price for your trade and a good deal on a car. These should
be two separate transactions that have nothing to do with one
Another term for OAUA is disappearing trade. If you wait until
the end of the negotiation to price your trade, it may vanish
before your eyes. To pull off this stunt, a used-car dealer will
have given you quite a deal on your purchase price of the car
you're buying. By the time you are finished working out the details,
you are so happy with your superior negotiating skills that you
have completely forgotten about your old car. The dealer knows
this by the glazed look in your eyes, and they will take advantage
of the situation by giving you less than you deserve for your
trade--or nothing at all!
Things to watch out for are arguments like this, "But we're
already giving you $2,000 for your trade," referring to the
$2,000 discount on the price of your new car. Unscrupulous dealers
will turn their loss on the sale into a substantial gain: namely,
your old car - by claiming that the money you saved on the new-car
purchase was part of their payment for your trade. To keep things
in perspective, it is best to separate the negotiations on the
car you are purchasing and your trade-in. And, you may have to
be the one to remind the salesperson to stick to the topic at
This technique is used during the trade-in negotiation. Car dealers
will sometimes lowball your trade-in or offer you less than what
it is worth. This way they make a bigger profit on your trade-in
and sell you another car for what you think is a good price. Lowballing
allows salespeople to concentrate on giving you a good deal on
the car you want to buy while making huge profits on your old
car. If they determine that you are concerned about the used car's
price, but are relatively unconcerned about what you get for your
trade-in, they will focus you on an attractive price for the car
and then lowball you on the price for your trade-in. It's very
important to be cautious and alert when trading in a vehicle.
Knowing the value of your car is mandatory.
Playing on Your Emotions
It doesn't matter if she's your best friend. If a salesperson
tries to "guilt" you into buying a car, don't fall for
it. This is an especially obvious ploy that salespeople use to
get you to feel sorry for them. They may say, "I really need
this sale to make my quota," or even, "I might lose
my job if I don't make some sales this week." Tales like
these are used to play on your emotions and good nature. Don't
give in to this tactic. It is not your job to keep a salesperson
employed--or make him happy. In fact, it's the other way around--she
should make you happy. If you encounter such a tactic, refrain
from showing any emotion; simply change the subject in a businesslike
manner. Everyone goes for the underdog. That's why, to quote one
dealer, "The dumber the salesperson, the better off the dealership."
If the salesperson is bumbling their way through the entire process,
and keeps telling you they're getting in trouble with their sales
manager for getting you such a good deal, you are likely to side
with the poor idiot and give in to the dealer's demands.
If this is the case, just make the salesperson a simple messenger
between yourself and the manager. Then get down to real negotiating.
Bait and Switch
If you are not careful, you could walk into a dealership to buy
the car that you have thoroughly researched and come out instead
with one that you didn't want initially but just fell in love
with. This is called the "bait and switch" game. Basically,
you were "baited" with one car and "switched"
to another. What makes this technique so powerful is that auto
salespeople are skilled at it. You may even be happy and drive
away thinking that the dealer actually did you a favor.
Here's one setup: a bright red convertible sits in the front
row of the dealership's used-car lot attracting plenty of attention,
and you decide to have a look. Upon closer inspection, you realize
that the car would end up costing more than you could possibly
afford. The dealer's response? "Hey, I think I have a car
for you that you can afford, so let me show it to you."
Or, perhaps you enter the lot knowing exactly which car you are
interested in, but that shiny red convertible looks too good to
pass up, and the dealer talks you into spending "only"
$100 more per month on it.
If you find yourself in the midst of a switch, stop and think
about what is going on. Can you really see yourself in a decade-old
sedan when you came in looking for a two-year-old convertible
sports car? Sure, it might be only $99 a month, but it's not what
Another common bait-and-switch technique is the car that is advertised
in the paper for only $199 a month. In the fine print, you'll
notice the car has no air conditioning, no leather seats, and
likely no aluminum wheels. Or, in extra fine print, the ad will
state that there is only one vehicle available at that price,
and may even list its VIN number. But for those who didn't notice
these little tiny conditions and got suckered in by the ad, the
salesperson will try to get you into something a little more luxurious
- something with leather seats, A/C, cool wheels and a tan top
- and for only $50 more per month!
This bait-and-switch is a move up and may even be accompanied
by a switch to leasing. "Oh, you can't afford the payments
for $529 a month? Well, how about leasing it for $409 a month?"
But the bait-and-switch only works on gullible fish. So don't
Salespeople are not shy. They are kind of like your irritating
friend who is constantly asking you for favors. And after you've
given a few inches, it suddenly turns into a mile. If you feel
you are being nibbled on in this way, the best retaliation is
to beat him at his own game: counter nibble. For example, if a
salesperson asks you to agree to a higher price before the offer
is again presented to his manager, use it as an opportunity to
ask for free floor mats, a steeply discounted extended warranty,
or a stereo upgrade. They just may give it to you! Never let a
nibble go unanswered. Every time they ask you to concede, you
ask for something else right back. Otherwise, you'll find that
the salesperson has gotten everything he asked for, and you're
left with a huge bill.
"If I ... Will You?"
The purpose of this bargaining technique is for salespeople to
get a commitment from you. They can find out if you are a real
buyer and single out your limits or weak spots. A typical "If
I" question is: "If I can get you that car in green,
at your price, will you buy it right now?" The best way to
handle this tactic is to resist answering. A reply to the above
could be, "Can you get it in green?" If they give you
what you want, you will probably buy right then. You can always
change your mind later, even if you've agreed to something verbally
because you're the customer and it's your money.
Leasing is Less Expensive
To make leasing a used car more attractive, some dealers will
suggest that leasing is less expensive than buying. They may have
software or charts that depict a line graph detailing exactly
how much money you will save by signing on to a lease. You need
to keep in mind that leasing is cheaper only when payments over
the same term are compared. By extending the term of a loan, you
can often come very close to the quoted lease price (see
Leasing Information and Advice).
It's happened to the best of us. You've just spent two-and-a-half
hours negotiating a great deal on your "new" used car.
You're paying a reasonable fee that matches what the car is worth
in Edmund's Used Vehicle section. Now all that's left is to sign
the paperwork, and you're on your way! You can barely contain
This is where you'll get (what we at Edmund's call) "sporked."
The salesperson's price sheet now shows a list of items you've
never heard of, and you don't know whether you should just sign
off on them or really negotiate further. One false step could
throw the deal, so be calm, and review anything that looks like
an extra charge. We coined this technique the "spork"
because when used against you, the spork isn't strong enough to
kill, but it still hurts.
There are several prongs to the "spork" technique,
including such things as handling charges, administrative fees,
appearance/protection packages or other add-on equipment. Check
the dealer's list of charges for the following items:
Delivery & Handling-------------------$249
As you can see by these examples, these fees can quickly reach
thousands of dollars. All of these items are negotiable, and most
should simply be removed.