Monday, December 31, 2007

New year with a new car and new questions about internet research

Been car shopping for the past week, and yes, yes, I did my research. Did I research! I got the consumer reports pricing guides on a few cars; I checked out the obsessive threads on Edmunds, listing all the prices various people paid all around the country. I compared honda's and toyota's and audi's and vw's and saab's. I test-drove a half-dozen cars. I learned about invoice prices and holdbacks and money factors. I got my credit score and researched independent financing. I waited until the end of the month, today in fact, to finally purchase: the supposedly best time to buy a car. And I think I got a good deal on the car I wanted (more on that later) but I have two comments on this whole experience:

1) If you're a car person, I'm sure this is deeply satisfying. Getting deep into the dynamics of the business at the same time as you work your angles to bring down the price. For a bunch of people I'm sure it combines several of their greatest pleasures (technology, cars, money, negotiating, comparing stats). But if you're not, and if you have three kids bouncing off the walls as you surf endless car-buying guides and insanely unusable dealer websites, there is definitely a point of diminishing returns, in which added research doesn't necessarily add more value, because, and if i have a point here beyond my own exhaustion with car shopping, it's that:

2) The information didn't always help. In fact, the info I found from multiple sources was frequently inconsistent and misleading, even from super creditable sources like consumer reports and equifax, even on stuff that is supposed to be fixed like residuals and money factors. One dealer insisted he was giving me the official residual and money factor from the brand but I got a totally different ones from online sources and different dealers. And the differences were dramatic.

2a) Even my credit score turned up better at the dealer than it did with a service one day before. I know this is because there are multiple credit services and different companies update their rates at different times, and I know if I wanted to go an even deeper level into this whole deal-pursuit I could have found this out too, and perhaps used it for additional leverage.... And I'm sure if some car enthusiast happens to read this blog he or she is going to inform me why my data might not have been accurate and if I'd only multiplied the number by the consumer confidence index and divided it by the number of dealers in a hundred mile radius I would have gotten the exact number!

2c) But the deal finally came down less to all my research than my willingness to drive all over metropolitan Boston to a dozen different dealers and talk cash and refuse to pay most of them until finally, in an act of old-fashioned brinkmanship, I called one dealer about 70 miles from my house and told them if they could sell me this car at this particular price I'd buy it today (today being today).

2d) My point isn't that the research was wasted. It helped provide useful context and some important facts; but it certainly wasn't all accurate or helped my negotiations. You couldn't, as the saying goes, take a lot of it to the bank. At a certain point I was just rearranging the deck chairs. I knew what the car cost at invoice over a week ago. I just had to decide what I was willing to pay for it and then keep asking until someone said yes.

Everything else, I'm beginning to think, as I look back over the literally 100's of hours I put into this great American project of car buying was something you'd better enjoy to make it really worthwhile.

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