07/15/2008 06:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Car Buyer's Tale: Shticker Shock

Not long ago, I thought I was buying a new car.

I knew my preferred colors (what the heck is "Cypress Pearl?"); I knew my preferred options (third row seat, cup-holders, sunglass holder, junk-that-never-gets-thrown-away holder); and I knew the subtle differences between the GLS, EX, SE LE, LX, ES, VP, TP, EZ, FYI, and the Jay-Z.

I was set.

I identified three "local" New Jersey dealers and got the official Blue Book value on the car. I knew the price I wanted, and vowed not to put up with any "I want to sell you this car!" and "I'm gonna be straight with you" dealer shtick.

I went back and forth on the phone with each dealership's "Internet managers" and received a range of tales, the tallest of which was that one dealer had "seven or eight" versions of what I was looking for because they had over-purchased that exact model and style.

"Great. What colors do you have?" I asked.

"I got all kinds of colors, plenty of cars, whatever you want. Come on in."

"Dark Cherry Red?"

"No. Not that."

"Deep Water Blue?"

"No. But why don't you come on in?".

I did, against my best judgment.

At the dealership, I met "Wally," the youthful and religious jewelry-loving salesdude/Internet manager. Wally and I took a cautious test drive, probably the most boring vehicular journey of his entire life. While I played with the dashboard buttons, Wally salivated over a shiny new crimson Ford Mustang idling next to us. I knew Wally would have given half his bling for it if he could.

We got back, and sat down in what was clearly someone else's desk. Wally looked earnestly for a pen. Contrary to what I heard on the phone earlier that afternoon, Wally informed me the car we drove was the only one on the lot that fit my specs...and that "another guy" happened to be there at that very moment who wanted the very same car.

"The first one in, wins," Wally the Internet Manager told me as he feebly attempted to navigate his own website.

The "other guy" who wanted my car -- I think his last name was Claus, first name Santa. He was never mentioned again.

Wally began his spiel, writing numbers down, underlining them aggressively, circling them over and over. They must learn that tactic in car dealer school: "Doodle, doodle, doodle until the customer begs you to stop wasting ink." Perhaps multiple re-circling of numbers gives the illusion the price is magically going down.

Wally didn't want to talk about add-ons like taxes, title, plates, destination fee, window etching, etc. -- he was way into that price. He was head-over-heels in love with that price. He wanted to marry that price and take her to Atlantic City.

Yet he was offering it to me, like a king presenting his daughter.

"You're lucky, Joel," Wally said.

Some people actually like negotiating with car dealers. These are generally the loudest and most annoying people at dinner parties. I'm not one of them.

"Look," I said coolly. "I like the car, but we just need to agree on a price."

"What's your price?" Wally asked, as if I hadn't told him sixteen times already.

I told him.

"You're never gonna get this car for that price," he said.

"Then tell me your lowest price," I said, adding, "out the door."

The out-the-door price, what my parents called this the "walk-out price," includes every penny a customer will pay to bring that car home. Dealers hate giving out-the-door prices for the same reason e-commerce sites don't advertise their shipping rates until the very last page.

My parents have occasionally walked away from showroom negotiations, all the way to the parking lot, with salesman finally chasing them down, calling their bluff. My parents aren't champion negotiators, but they do have "the walk" down cold.

"Let me check with my manager," Wally said.

He left, and shortly came back with a number. I came up a bit in my offer. He came down a bit in price. We finally agreed.

"So, is this the price? Are we good?" I said.

"Let me check with my manager."

This time, when Wally came back from his manager, he gave me a NEW number, which was about $2,000 higher than what we agreed on. Wally began to explain about the MSRP, the invoice, his commission, the truth behind the sub-prime mortgage collapse, the price of tea in China, who shot Kennedy... anything to convey that I could do myself a big favor by just trusting him.

That's when I channeled my Dad.

"I'm gonna have to walk," I said. Wally sighed.


Wally did not check with his manager. He just gave me his card. He could have been thinking about dinner.

As I slowly walked away, I felt Wally's eyes following me. Was he going to stop me at the front door? At the parking lot? At the side of my 1994 Sentra, which I'd been waiting to offer as a trade-in until the last second of negotiations?

Nope. I just drove home. Wally called my cell about fifteen times over the next 36 hours, but I never saw him or his jewelry again.

I know New Jersey car dealers are not that different from car dealers anywhere. They'll say anything to get you into the store, and almost anything to get you to buy. They'll cozy up to you, listen empathetically, talk about solving your problems, and look deep into your eyes as if sharing a secret -- or for that matter, the truth. It's not unlike dating, except no one gets dinner.

A few weeks later I ended up buying a used Toyota from a community website. It was everything I needed, the negotiation lasted four seconds, and the cup-holders worked perfectly. It was all very comfortable and refreshingly different, because in this transaction honesty was not just an option -- it came standard.

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