A Bad Deal, or How AutoNation Almost Screwed Me
This is going to be a long story, and it isn’t related to Photography, but if you don’t want to read the whole escapade, here’s the crux of my debacle:
No one is innocent in this story, but I barely escaped being taken for (potentially) $6,000 on a car “deal” with Mercedes Benz of Oxnard in California, an AutoNation dealership. I thought I was being a smart consumer, I thought I had done my homework, but in the end I was treated like a sentient pig at a slaughterhouse.
Edit: The $6,000 figure above is only valid if the addendum at the bottom of this post would come into effect, otherwise I would have been taken for a ride of $4,000 or so according to a helpful (gasp!) 3rd party sales manager.
In September of 2010 I bought my first new car: a white Honda Civic Si coupe. It is fun, economical, and small. Since then I have found an affinity for camping, biking (and transporting my bike), and other activities that don’t necessary fit well with a tiny little car. Has the Civic worked so far? Yes. Should I have been happy with that? Yes. I didn’t have a good reason for wanting a change, I simply wanted a change.
I have wanted a Toyota 4Runner or Land Cruiser for years. I love the idea of taking one of these beasts camping, fording rivers, crawling rocks, and generally having a grand time in the great outdoors. Never before have I been in a position to actually buy one, since they are both quite expensive new, but I thought Friday, June 23rd, 2012 was my lucky day. I just didn’t have the foresight to understand that I wanted the 4Runner… I most certainly didn’t need it.
There was a 2007 4Runner Limited with leather interior, heated seats, a big V8, four wheel drive, downhill ascent control — the works — selling for $17,950 at Mercedes Benz of Oxnard. Sure, it had high-ish mileage at 92k, but I’ve been on Toyota forums long enough to see these still quite strong at 200k and higher. So I started doing my research to figure out how to come home with the truck.
I had to take my Fuji road bike in to Oxnard to get cleaned up, so I figured “what better time to check out an affordable 4Runner?” I fired up Kelly Blue Book, found the trade-in and retail price and figured the dealership probably bought it for a few thousand less than the sticker price. Hoopdi.com has some extremely helpful car buying tools — loan calculators, amortization aides, etc — which helped me to find numbers I was comfortable with.
I checked the Carfax and see what should have been an immediate red flag: a reported accident. The title remained clear but a frontal collision was reported a year after it was initially purchased. The single original owner must not have been too worried though as they kept it for 5 years (and nearly 100k miles). I put my trust (bad move) in the idea that a dealership cannot legally sell a vehicle that isn’t roadworthy. I coaxed myself on, excusing this black mark as much as I could.
With my budget in mind and a printed PDF of a reasonable deal in my hand I drove the 50 miles from Valencia, CA to the dealership.
I arrived at the dealership around 10:30am with the intention of looking at the car and perhaps coming back the next weekend (when my bike would be ready) to buy. Salesmen don’t like this idea: once you walk off the lot the salesman has generally lost the sale, but I like to build a relationship with a salesman, earn a little bit of trust in that relationship, and then stay true to my word and only deal with them if I buy a car. I’m a bit old fashioned that way.
Before I continue I need to make one thing clear: I’m not out for blood. My intention with this blog post is not to tarnish any one persons’ reputation. I’m not using anybody’s real name. Everybody involved in this deal was doing their job (perhaps except myself) and arguably did a very good job of it from the dealership’s perspective. I am as guilty as the people at the dealership in terms of not looking close enough at what I was signing as they were for not explaining what I was signing (which, as it happens, is required by law).
When I pull on the lot I am introduced to James. I tell James that I am interested in the 4Runner but not interested in buying that day. If a deal can be worked out I will come back later to buy the car. We test drove it and it was basically fine — the stereo worked, the leather was supportive (if not worn), the brakes and gas worked, I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. We ran some numbers back at the dealership but they couldn’t match what I wanted. After a couple more goarounds of too-high offers I got up to leave, telling James that I’d be back in a week, at which point we could give it another try.
Before I could leave James introduces me to his Sales Manager, Derrick, a rather unhappy looking man who shook my hand and hardly gave me another look. I told him the only way I’d leave with the truck that day is a deal that I didn’t think he could do — after briefly looking at my offer he said he could get more for it at auction. Returning to James’ numbers, “This deal is only good for today,” Derrick said in his best Ben Stein impression. “The Carfax says it’s been here since march, I don’t think another week will change that.” As if it were a Pavlovian response, he countered with “Well it won’t be here.” It was as insulting as it was ridiculous, and I left.
On the way home I received a text, after I explicitly asked them to email me. I am glad I have a texting plan, otherwise the dealer would have been costing me money in order to buy a car from them. A little backwards, no? Soon there after an email arrived with a offer: $463 per month.
Let’s just break down what I currently have going on: A 2010 Civic Si with 24k miles that I am paying (roughly) $350 per month on at 0.9% interest. I have just under $14,000 left on the loan and the car is worth (according to Kelly Blue Book) over $18k as a trade-in, $21k at private-party, and is selling from other dealerships in California with more miles for $23k. I was bargaining from a good position trade-in wise with what I thought would be $5,000 equity as a down payment.
The offer was appalling. They “valued” my civic at $15,000 and were going to charge me a $500 reconditioning fee. After my “try again” response that number magically went to $17,000 — yet the reconditioning charge persisted.
I wrote them a rather lengthy response, listing my concerns about the car’s resale value, especially as a private party affair (who would buy a car with an accident on the Carfax except with a huge discount?). I noted that the car did not come with the remote (a $275 problem), and that after speaking with an independent financier a 2.74% rate would be attainable with my credit score. In the end I offered them a $324 per month payment which included an additional $1,500 down payment in addition to the trade-in!
The sticker price of the 4Runner was $17,994. The “Excellent” value on Kelly Blue Book for that vehicle comes in at a little over $23k, but this vehicle was certainly not in excellent condition. With a frontal accident on the record, the trade-in value at “Fair” (which is indeed fair given the condition it was in) comes in at $14,712. I figured a $16,400 sale price would include a fair profit for the dealer and a good deal for me. Apparently making a “fair profit” isn’t enough.
James responds with an offer, which I soon learned was a non-binding estimate, that included the 2.74% rate, which seemed a little too easy. The payment went down to $395 — no where close to where I needed to be. I offered to bump the rate to 2.99% so the dealership could earn a bit more on the backend, “The bank rate gives the bank the profit” he replied. I offered to bump the down payment to $2,000 cash, he said “down payment makes no change in the price of the toyota”. That didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but I would soon learn the meaning behind those words. “I have no doubt the car is going to sale we are beyond fair on this deal with you (sic).”
I counter offered and received James’ next response an hour later: $339 per month at 2.74%. “My coworkers have appointments on the car, do we have a deal?” his email read. I bit, but I noticed that my Lien Payoff had magically reduced itself to $11,987. I questioned James about it but didn’t receive an answer in his reply — I let it slip and drove yet again to Oxnard, 50 miles away.
That night my friends were helping me pick up a massive bed from another friend who was moving out of the country. I told James that I had to be back in Valencia by 5:30 to meet and would need to leave mid-signature if necessary. “Must take delivery today we can be done in 1hr” was James’ text.
I arrived at the dealership to find everything ready. The 4Runner had been prepped, the papers were waiting signatures, and everything else was in place to make this the most painless deal I’d ever made. I was introduced to the Finance Manager Jack and we sat down in his office. Somehow that 2.74% APR disappeared to be replaced by a 3.99% rate even though after I had confirmed the “deal” with James. I agreed out of frustration (never do this). James didn’t tell Jack about my time limit and he was only pretty sure that we would be done in time. His printer started rambling through the myriad of documents that are involved in the sale of a car and he highlighted the signature points, “here, here, and here please.” I signed without question — I had let down my guard in exchange for a quick experience, and nearly got wrung out to dry.
4:30 came and I was in the 4Runner. I waved good bye to my beloved Civic Si and pulled out of the lot. I had noticed some condensation in the front headlight (where the collision had been) but didn’t take much notice. It was still bright daylight as I drove the next 50 miles back to my house. I met my friends and we took the next four hours moving a California King with a short bed truck (thank you guys so much!).
We finally returned to Valencia around 9:30pm, the very first time I saw the car at night. I showed it off to my friends and noticed the condensation hadn’t gotten any better, “maybe it just needs a day or two to dry off” I reasoned to myself. These were my first projection headlights so I turned them on expecting to see a clean line of light against the wall across the street, only to find the left side (with the condensation) was out of alignment. I popped the hood and began looking around, at which point I realized the entire headlight assembly was not securely fastened. I turned the fog lights on and found out the right bulb wasn’t even in the socket — it was just dangling freely underneath the engine! I drove my friend back to his house and realized the automatic dimmer was only sporadically working. The nearly blinding light from the car behind me was only occasionally tinted green.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked myself. There was no way a dealership would take control of a vehicle and not inspect it, and if they did inspect it how do you possibly miss a dangling light bulb? During the initial drive home I found the car listing to the left but thought it was just how the road was built. Sure enough, no matter where I drove I had to keep steering right in order for the car to track true. That was the last straw. My old Honda Prelude was in an unreported accident on the front left side and it ended up being a horrid experience shortly after my first mechanic visit, I wasn’t about to go through that experience again.
The next morning I took it back. AutoNation has a “3 Day or 150 mile” return policy where you can simply unwind the deal and take possession of your old car without question. I still wanted to keep the 4Runner but couldn’t possibly let the problems slide: you don’t buy a car from a dealership just to take it in and get fixed. I met James in the showroom and he was clearly not pleased. My friend Matt and I showed James what needed to be looked at, “or I’ll unfortunately have to have my Civic back”. He told me to bring it back on Monday (since the Service dept was closed on Sunday) and I replied that I needed it in writing that it was acceptable to breach the 150 mile mark. At this point I had driven 250 miles between both cars. He brought me in to see Jack who wrote “customer to return to service dept monday 6/25”. I nearly walked away until I noticed the miles weren’t there, “No, I need the miles authorized in writing”. Jack apologized, wrote it down, and handed it to Derrick to sign (interesting Derrick didn’t need to sign it the first time, isn’t it?).
I left feeling slightly better about the situation. Before driving out to Oxnard I had found another 4Runner at a nearby dealership to check out just in case this deal fell through. I went by and met with a salesman who, at first, was a bit pushy. I explained the situation to him, that I wasn’t buying a car, but wanted to see potential numbers if it the 4Runner (which I loved) was indeed returned. After a few goarounds loosely explaining the deal I got at the Mercedes dealership — it wasn’t my intention to shop the numbers, just to have a backup plan — the salesman came back with a puzzled look on his face. “This doesn’t add up,” he said, “you cannot be getting the deal you tell me they gave you.” He started explaining…
I realized that Jack, the Finance Manager at Mercedes, didn’t really follow the Truth In Lending Act when I signed the contract, he simply said “sign here… here… here… and here, we’re done!” The few explanations that were offered were questions that I asked. Am I absolutely responsible for making sure that I understand contracts I sign? Yes, no question there, but the full contract was not explained as required by law and I got the wool pulled over my eyes.
I showed the contract to the salesman, which I initially declined to do until it became clear something was fishy, and his first words were (naughty language coming up) “oh man… they fucked you bro.” As it turns out that $2,000 down payment was not going to the cost of the car, rather it was going to make up the money that magically disappeared from my Lien Payoff amount (remember when it went from $13,000 to $11,987?). Mercedes never wrote down what I actually owed on the car, which was $13,987, just this $11,987 figure (see the addendum below). Here’s how it looks on the contract:
- Agreed Trade-In Value: $17,250
- Less Balance: $11,987
- Net Trade-In: $5,263
- Cash: $2,000
- Total Downpayment: $7,263
What was really happening, however, was that $2,000 cash figure was making up for the Lien Payoff amount they made up, and was going straight to Honda as if I had just made $2,000 worth of car payments. The salesman at this other dealership took me in to see their sales manager (when I made it clear I was in no mood to buy a car), who explained in no uncertain terms that Mercedes Benz of Oxnard would have made nearly $6,000 on me through accounting tricks and shady contractual figures. As a sales manager he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t pitch me a deal — 3.49% on his 4Runner. “Is that through Chase?” I asked. Indeed it was. Somehow an extra .5% was added at Mercedes, who also used Chase, even after the promised 2.74% couldn’t be reached… interesting.
I returned to the Mercedes dealership, found James, and curtly informed him that I would be needing my Civic Si back. James did not look happy, but I could tell he probably knew why I changed my mind. He pointed me to Jack’s office and I waited with Matt for 15 minutes. Jack, always with a smile, started the process, left for a minute to grab the file and returned, “Your car has already been taken to one of our Honda dealerships in Valencia.” Pleasantly surprised, I responded “Well that works out.” He had forgotten that I live in Valencia (my billing address is in another town) and said “Sure, you can just drive our truck to that dealership and pick up your car.” Instantly my mood lifted. I was expecting much more of a fight.
A few minutes later Derrick came with James and informed me that they could not unwind the deal and have me pick up my car in Valencia. There was no way I could drive the 4Runner to Valencia without that deal. Now I can understand this to a point, but it now meant that I would have to drive back to Oxnard again after work on Monday. I work in a customer service industry and this is not a customer focused answer. “What about a loaner car to drive back to Valencia?” “We don’t do loaner cars to people that haven’t bought a car” was essentially his response (not verbatim). He even had the gall to remind me that they had to turn people away from buying this car while I had it (a needless and insulting remark). I told Derrick that I would need in writing authorization to exceed the 150 mile window of return and he agreed without question and initialed the same paper he did the previous day authorizing me to bring it in to have it inspected.
Four hundred miles of driving. Derrick wouldn’t budge. There was no wiggle room. I finally acquiesced as my blood pressure was receding. “I’ll be here at 6pm Monday.” I couldn’t wait to see my Civic again.
At 5:00PM I rush out of work with Matt (who was there just in case I lost my cool/nerve) to keep my 6:00PM meeting time with James and Jack. Traffic was a bit thicker than expected and we ended up arriving 10 minutes late. James met me a few yards inside the showroom, “Your car isn’t here yet.” Stunned, I responded “What? We said 6, where is it?” He muddled about making a call, fiddled with his phone, and went to apparently make a phone call.
Well the car must have made record time, or we just had impeccable timing, as James returned a few minutes later, “They are giving it a quick wash.” It was nearly 6:30 at this point and still had no papers signed, nor a car, nor any idea when this debacle would conclude. I still don’t understand how, if you have made an appointment with a business, a deliverable isn’t absolutely ready to go the moment that appointment comes time. Matt and I took a seat and waited for my Civic to come out of the rear area.
10 minutes later James comes around to the waiting area: “We have your papers, but there is a deal being done right now, and another coming up next, you’re third in line.” I couldn’t believe it. I paused for a second as my normally non-confrontational inner self was swiftly getting out the way of the fury that was building behind it. “I have to get out of here, man… that isn’t going to work.” James replied with a limp shrug and I almost believed his flaccid “I can’t do anything about it” reply. Now I’m really a peaceful guy, I value honesty in business, virtue in friendship, and not to be fucked around when all of a sudden money is off the table. My Id was screaming at me to start throwing chairs while my Super Ego desperately tried to restrain his compulsive counterpart.
Judging from James’ “we’ll have you out in 1hr” statement from Day 3 (which wasn’t close to enough time) I roughly estimated “so what, we’ll be here another 2 hours?” James came back with yet another lie, “45 minutes.” Simply wishing for this nightmare to be over I acquiesced and sat down. Meanwhile Derrick was brought over to another salesman’s cubicle to meet a nice looking family while he wore the biggest smile he could possibly muster, “they must be getting fucked too” was the only thought that made sense. Talk of “we need to eat too!” flew out of that cubbyhole like the lines that convinced Eve to finally eat the apple. “Will you be giving us cash, check, or a credit card” came slithering out of Derrick’s mouth like a seasoned street hustler. It was all I could do to not get up and usher those people out.
Out of the blue my beautiful white Civic coupe came blasting around the side of the building. “Whoa they’re going a bit fast,” I said. I let it slide, one less thing to worry about now that I can see my beloved White Lightning. Like a lustful lover gone astray and caught red handed I was filled with happiness and guilt to see two doors once again. Matt and I transferred over what little I had in the 4Runner.
Two gentlemen got out of my Civic and I thanked them since the car really did look better than what I had brought it in. One of them, a kid no older than 19, asked “How much did you get it for?” I explained that it was mine originally, “you were going to go from this to that?” “That was the plan, but the contract wasn’t right and they tried to fuck me.” He sympathized, told me if I ever come back to ask for him. He was the sincerest person I had dealt with, the one that garnered the most trust, and he wasn’t even a Salesman.
Twenty minutes (and a short walk outside) later I decide to sit by Jack’s office, which was near the cubbyhole, to listen to the rotten sales patter some more. A very short time later Jack comes around the corner, “we’re about to take care of you” was music to my ears. It is sad when the best thing a business can do is tell you that you’re about to be able to leave the building.
Either James finally grew a conscience or Derrick didn’t want me anywhere near the new “deal” he was closing because he waltzed over as if nothing had gone on with some paperwork. Understanding that I was about to trust these crooks yet again he slid three sheets my way, none of them filled out, and told me where to sign. With nothing for them to gain (and a guaranteed legal headache if they were to screw with the paperwork), I asked Derrick “so we’re signing this on faith that it’ll be filled out correctly?” “Yeah” was his halfhearted response. I signed. “Get me out of here,” was the chorus line through my head.
Keys were exchanged and I shook Derrick’s hand and thanked him. I try to treat everybody with a basic level of respect, regardless of what has transpired. I was really hoping he would have quipped again “we had to turn people away from this car because of you,” because I was ready to go off. Getting back in my car I felt the shift knob, the bucket seats, and most importantly, the comfort of my clutch, and we drove off.
Lessons I have learned:
- Do as much homework as you can. Find a deal that you are comfortable with (that includes profit — dealerships are businesses, remember!) and stick with it. Do not budge. At all.
- Do not buy the first day. No deal is “valid for today only”. That always bullshit. Sleep on the deal and come back to buy.
- The best time to shop for a car is when you don’t need to buy one. I didn’t necessarily learn this lesson but it most certainly got reestablished in my head.
- Plan to be there an entire day. This was my biggest mistake. I had a schedule that I had to keep, which made me more likely to trust the dealer and finance guy to know what is going on (terrible, terrible decision). Make the process go as slow as is necessary for you to completely understand everything you are signing. If you have even a sliver of a doubt as to what a number means or where it came from, make them explain it however many ways you need.
- The dealer is not your friend. This is the most obvious lesson. The salesman couldn’t care less what happens to you after you leave. The only time this has been proven wrong is at Vista Honda (where I bought my Civic Si — they are not the dealer who had the second 4Runner). One of their finance managers, Lee, is incredible. I highly recommend working with him.
#1: I just realized that there may have been a secondary explanation for the $2,000 discrepancy between the Loan Payoff amount and what I truly owed. Mercedes Benz of Oxnard could have, potentially, only paid Honda of America the $11,987 they listed on the contract. If that is indeed what would have happened, I would be on the hook from Honda for that $2,000.
So in addition to the $330 per month or so I would be paying for this 4Runner I would still have been paying Honda $350 per month for a car that I no longer owned. This dealership would have then pocketed even more money from the deal, making off with that $6,000 figure. I have no idea if this is what would have ended up happening, but at this point I wouldn’t put it past James, Jack, or Derrick.
#2: I figured, throughout the entire ordeal, I spent roughly twelve hours of my time bargaining, driving, post-purchase researching, and waiting with the Mercedes dealership. I value my time at $30 per hour, time that is generally spent working for photography clients or at my position at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Over these past five days I effectively lost $360 of billable working time to be treated in one of the worst ways I have ever experienced. This is yet another example of how one bad dealership can tarnish the reputation of an entire industry.
#3: I forgot to mention that a very good friend of mine, after relaying my story, had one of their own. She worked for a national insurance company and dealt with MB of Oxnard on several claims. After hearing my story I heard theirs: every single claim that went through them was shady. You read it right, an insurance company thought the dealer was shady.