Things I learned about buying a car

. . . (for the first time in years).

  • There aren’t enough cars. Inventory is low, both for new and used cars. If there’s something particular you want or a special trim package, you may have to wait or hunt for a while.
  • There aren’t enough personnel. The dealerships are not finding it easy to hire good people, so they’re stretching folks thin. You’ll probably find gaps in customer service, car preparation, and other areas. If you have researched a given car model closely, you may well know things that your sales associate does not know. There are some great and hard-working people in the business but they’re finding it hard just to get everything done.
  • The dealers have added a lot of IT but often they don’t use it well. Example: I booked an appointment online to test-drive a car at 3 p.m. one day. Wow, that was easy. When I got to the dealership in Harrisonburg just before 3, two off-the-street customers interested in the same car were given a test drive ahead of me. I was told I could wait half an hour and the car would probably be available. I declined. But it was clear to me that the dealership’s information technology had a different idea of what an “appointment” was.
  • New cars still lose a lot of value in the first year, or even the first week, of ownership. I checked the numbers again and the old saying is more true than ever — you lose a lot of value the minute you drive it off the lot.
  • You’re not as good a bargainer as you think. Survey evidence suggests that well over half of car buyers think they’re “better than average” at negotiating a deal. They’re not all right. There’s an 80-20 rule in car selling — “the dealer makes 80 percent of the profit from 20 percent of the customers.” How sure are you that you’re not in the 20 percent?

And finally,

  • CarMax is still the best for customers like me. There’s no negotiating, as the price is preset at a reasonable (but higher than average) price. Offer $1 less, and you walk away. And about those high prices: Sure, they’re higher than you’d pay at some dealerships, but I’m convinced the average quality is better. I can’t tell you the number of times in my hunt that I saw a car advertised as having two or three accidents but “no damage.” What? Doesn’t add up for me.

So — bottom line, I had a great experience at Harrisonburg CarMax. The car itself was a sweet one-owner (low-mileage) car originally bought from a Maryland Honda dealership and, I think, garage-kept in Northwest DC. (This was the fourth car we had bought from CarMax, and each time, the purchase worked out well for us over the long run.)