It’s funny, at least to me, to think about how the experience of buying a car can be remotely connected to self-care. For starters, it’s not exactly what I’d call a “fun” time. Walking into a dealership and haggling with a salesperson will surely drain you of all your joie de vivre. But then you think about driving off the lot in a brand-new car, and if you’re anything like me, you come alive.
Maybe that’s shallow. But when you live your life in routine, it’s the little things that spice things up. And getting a new car isn’t a little thing, it’s a sea change, especially when you spend the equivalent of almost 20 days a year driving it. So yeah, it’s a form of self-care to me — getting to play with all the new tech, getting an upgrade in horsepower, moving from a sedan to an SUV for the ride height.
Unfortunately, though, before you can experience the fruits of your labor you have to actually, ya know, labor. And like I said, dealing with that salesperson is real frustrating labor. Better put, buying a car is a maddening, disheartening and dirty job, if your goal is to not get completely bamboozled, which is exactly what will happen if you’re not careful. After all, the car-buying process is meant to be as confusing as possible, designed to separate you from a considerable chunk of your money.
And so, when the time came this summer for me to turn in my lease and find a new ride for my daily commute, I aimed to do as much bypassing of the shitty parts of the leasing process and just get to the exhilarating, life-affirming end point as quickly as possible. Admittedly, I had no idea that car brokers were a thing — I’d been under the impression that every three years my meager bartering skills would be tested, and like past visits to the dealership, would likely end in tears. So when my girlfriend told me her dad’s been using a broker for 15 years, I decided months in advance of my lease maturation date that I’d let a professional handle the seemingly endless haggling and negotiating for me. All of the fun, none of the headache — that was my goal.
Didn’t exactly turn out that way, though.
The Problem: Buying a car sucks.
The Alleged Cure-All: A car broker, a guy (in my case, at least) or gal whose whole job is to find you the car of your dreams, and hopefully, a deal on said automobile. The idea is, you pay them — either a flat fee (typically in the $200 to $1,000 range, depending) or a percentage difference between what they can get and what the MSRP is, or they’re paid out by the dealership. In any event, they do all the hard work of finding you a car. It’s a win-win, theoretically, and it removes the one variable that could spoil all the fun: You.
You see, when I got my last car, a Mazda 6 Sport in 2016, I made the mistake of getting too attached to its sporty handling, robust power and roomy cabin, instead of walking away when, for reasons, the salesperson at the last minute told me I had to pay a little extra. In the process, I likely gave up an extra thousand dollars over the life of my lease, a misstep that’s haunted me for the last three years. And that’s after thinking I’d learned something from buying the car before that: A used Volvo S40, which I took the first deal they offered me, a purchase I stupidly agreed to finance with a nine percent interest rate.
A car broker, on the other hand, isn’t supposed to make these kinds of mistakes. A lot of the time they’re former salespeople themselves, hip to what the dealership is putting down as far as tactics, and seasoned at getting you the best deal possible. Plus, they’re perfect for “busy” people who’d rather poke out their eyes than research their next new or used car online, or spend their weekends grinding out deals at area dealerships.
Nope — just tell them what you want, skip the bullshit, sign on the dotted line and drive off into the sunset.
Dealer Tip #1: Never accept a first offer. If you’re handing it yourself, always check online for what others are paying for your exact make and model so you don’t get ripped off.
The Science: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Obviously there’s no science to hiring some dude to do all your negotiating for you. But there is a science to the kind of game salespeople are trying to run on you the moment you step into the dealership — a mix of strong-arm tactics, sleight-of-hand and beating you into submission, all in the name of preventing you from ever knowing how low they’ll actually go on a car — which is reason enough to consider using a broker.
Dealer Tip #2: If they tell you the deal they’re offering is going away and this is your last shot, they’re full of shit.
The Experience: Desperate to avoid getting taken for a third car in a row, when I heard that Steve, my girlfriend’s father, had been using a broker for decades to procure transportation for him and his family — six to eight cars with his current guy, by his count — and would happily connect me, I jumped at the opportunity.
I had no idea what to expect when I called the broker about a month and a half before my lease was up. I did know, generally speaking, what I wanted in my next lease: An SUV, under $350 a month, with some toys and a bit of oomph. But I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to give him the exact make and model, or just a list of what I was interested in. On the call, I told him that one of the SUVs I was hyped on was a Jeep Wrangler. “Yeah, that’s probably going to be out of your price range,” he replied back.
“What about a Jeep Grand Cherokee?” I asked.
“Same deal. You might be able to get into a base model at what you’re willing to pay, but not much better than that,” the broker informed me.
“So why don’t I do a little research and come back to you with a list of cars in a week or so,” I said.
So here, already, was where things started to go a little sideways. I’d thought that my best move was to bring my guy cars with lease rates that were slightly out of reach, so I could watch him haggle down the prices to something more palatable. But I was already being told that I was likely still too far off, which was a signal to me that I needed a different approach to this whole broker thing, something I call the “last mile” approach: Instead of revising my list down from what I wanted and providing a list of cars I wasn’t totally psyched over but were more in my price range, I’d just go to dealerships myself, negotiate a bit until the lease rates were closer to what I thought I could pay and then hand off everything to my guy and let him bring it home.
Over the course of the next month, I hit up seven different dealerships: Jeep (twice), Mazda, Hyundai, Chevy, Audi and BMW. I test drove cars; I figured out what I liked (the Audi Q3 and the BMW X1) and what I didn’t (the Wrangler, while cool-looking, isn’t a daily commuter). I sat down with salespeople, got offers and countered them. I realized that the cars my guy told me might be unattainable were actually a lot closer to what I could afford than I feared.
Everything I negotiated I forwarded along to the broker, thinking that all he needed to do now was use my deals to get even better deals from the dealerships he works with. My research, his expert negotiating skills — it was only a matter of time before I was speeding off the dealer lot.
Instead, I received this in reply:
In the end, I went with the BMW.
Dealer Tip #3: When they ask you what you want to pay, that’s a trick. Don’t negotiate against yourself — get them to tell you what they’re willing to let it go for, and start there.
The Takeaway: The whole point of this futile little exercise had been to avoid all the time, effort and frustration that comes with negotiating for a car yourself. Looking back, even if he had taken it the last mile as I’d hoped, I still would have done 90 percent of the legwork myself. It’s a fact that reveals an interesting thought: How was this supposed to work, exactly?
The way I look at it, it’s a chicken-or-egg scenario: If your broker needs your input on what to negotiate for, and you can’t know what cars to look at without researching what the prices or lease rates might be, who exactly is doing the heavy lifting? I suppose there might be brokers out there where you tell them what you want to pay, and then they tell you what you should be looking at. But something about that seems wrong — I’m an adult who is fully capable of picking out what I want all by myself, thank you very much.
“I was somewhat surprised by that response,” Steve tells me when I ask him about what the broker had emailed me back. “But when I really thought about it, you were willing to do the work, and I’m not sure that’s what he was expecting.”
“When I’ve used a car broker,” he continues, “it’s been because I was really busy with work and I didn’t have the time to grind it out with dealers myself, and I trusted the broker to do it for me — easy, one-stop shopping. But a broker isn’t necessarily going to get any better of a deal than you can get on your own, if you’re a good negotiator.”
Now that it’s all over, I guess I could’ve just handed him a list of cars and let him run with it, instead of going into the dealerships myself. Maybe he could’ve done even better than I did — as good a deal as I think I got on my X1, I don’t exactly have a frame of reference, either, and who knows whether the salesman hid some bullshit in the deal I’ll only find out about later on. I mean, he was excited for me to sign, which is rarely a good omen.
All I’m really confident about is, I’m good with what I’m paying, and I surprised myself with how I did when push came to shove. There are still little things I’ll learn from for next time. But ultimately, what’s most important is that, when I drove off the lot, there was a big smile on my face.
Jeff’s Rating: 3/10