- Know what you can afford.
- Narrow your search to three makes and models.
- Find out what you should be paying.
- Check the car’s history.
- Pay with cash.
First things first, we decided on a budget we felt comfortable with, which was $20,000 out the door. Next, we narrowed our search to three makes and models: the Mazda CX-5, the Toyota RAV4 and the Toyota Highlander. Of course, narrowing it down to those three models meant we ruled out a minivan, much to my dismay. Although, I think deep down, she knows she’ll inevitably lose this war. But this battle was hers.
Before we started our car hunt, we looked up which cars we wanted to go look at in our area and checked their price against what we should be paying for cars like them. Then we checked their CarFax history and nixed any cars that had been fleet or rentals or had salvaged or branded titles. In this price range, this is a fairly common issue, so when prices looked too good to be true, they usually were.
And then we were ready to start our hunt. We woke up bright and early the Monday morning after we moved into our place, anxious to begin our 48-hour car search. Since we were in a major time crunch, we stuck with dealerships knowing private sellers would have limited time availability during the day. We needed to see a lot of cars in the shortest amount of time. The car closest to us geographically just happened to also be the most expensive car on our list: a 2012 Toyota Highlander with low mileage, all the extra bells and whistles, and a price tag of $28,000. It wasn’t even a real option, but it had somehow made the list because it was kind of our dream car. Because it was so close by, we said to the heck with it and decided to just go look at it and get ourselves in car shopping mode. We even said to ourselves, “We’re not buying this car, so there’s no harm in just looking at it.”
When we got to the dealership, the usual dealer/buyer song and dance began. We took the car for a test drive while the sales guy sat in the back seat and emphasized how little pressure their dealership puts on people to buy a car. The car itself was flawless, a bit bigger than we needed, but even more perfect than the pictures. I found myself imagining us having it for the next ten years, adding another kid to our brood, and never needing to buy another car again. And by those standards, we both began thinking maybe it was worth going over our set budget.
After the test drive, we were invited inside to talk numbers, which seemed harmless enough since we already knew what our decision would be. We were given a print out with the taxes and fees, and the total for the car came to $30,000 out the door.
So now the car was officially $10,000 over our planned budget. But we weren’t considering it, so no big deal. Suddenly, the sales guy was leaving the two of us alone to discuss. Wait, were we considering this car? Maybe we were. No, we definitely weren’t. A few minutes later, the manager came over and spoke with us. He started telling us to give him a number we’d be okay with and he’d work with us. He started asking us if we’d be financing. Then he left us alone again for more discussing. We found ourselves saying out loud that we could finance for a few months if we didn’t want to spend $30,000 today, and then we’d have it paid off by December. Wait, were we considering this?! It sounded a lot like we were considering this. The manager and the sales guy came back and asked us what our number was and how they could help us buy this car. What was going on? We both hesitated for a moment. We were definitely considering this. But then our eyes met, and the look Joanna and I gave each other said more than anything we could have said aloud — we were leaving and we were leaving now.
We thanked the dealers for their time, told them we were going to look at more cars before making a decision, listened to them tell us how Highlanders get bought up lightening fast, watched them make sad puppy faces, and then we hightailed it out of there, not looking back.
As soon as we walked away, a huge rush of relief washed over us. The spell had been broken, and we said goodbye to that perfect Highlander with zero regrets. We took that feeling of relief and made our way to a few other dealerships with cars much closer to our price range.
That night, I had a few nightmares of our brief dance with the Debt Monster, but we both woke up feeling amazingly relieved that we resisted the urge. But that also meant that we were still carless and quickly running out of time with our generously offered loaner car from a family member. We pulled out our laptops and revised our search to only list cars squarely in our out-the-door price range and threw each car in a spreadsheet with the asking price, the target price, and the location. So learning from our previous day’s mistakes, we dropped our resident tantrum-extraordinaire, Miss Sally, off at a family member’s house and set off feeling pumped up and confident that we’d find our budget-friendly car.
At this point, we felt like we needed to get a better feel for the final two cars under consideration: the Toyota RAV4 and the Mazda CX-5. So we stopped at a couple dealerships and gave each a test drive. It’s probably worth noting here that Joanna and I are not “car people.” I mean, we can appreciate a cool feature, but as far as how a car handles and trim types and engine distinctions? Nope. If it has tires and enough room so that Sally can’t kick Joanna’s chair the entire drive, it’s good for us. So there wasn’t a major discernible difference between the two, although the Mazdas in our price range were all few years newer. We visited a few more dealerships and got some preliminary numbers on pricing before deciding to visit the most distant dealership on our list that happened to have the best options for both cars.
On our half-hour drive, Joanna and I talked about the tradeoffs between the two cars we were about to look at. The Toyota was five years old, had 30k more miles, and wasn’t super hip looking given that it was an older design. The Mazda was only two years old, had some flashy perks like leather interior, and looked freshhh. But when it came to price, the RAV4 came in $6,000 cheaper. That’s a considerable amount of dough. But we still couldn’t make a decision by the time we arrived, so we asked to take test drives in both. Our sales guy was taking care of another client, so he gave us the keys and let us drive them sans backseat sales companion.
We started with the Mazda. It was a really nice car. It was the kind of car that makes you feel cool just sitting in it. Joanna and I loved the leather, we loved the Bluetooth audio, and we loved the idea of riding in style. We brought it back and then got in the older RAV4. As soon as we started driving it around and browsed the mostly basic stereo console and cloth seats, we started realizing how little we cared. We started imagining ourselves throwing some bags in the back and our rock climbing gear and not worrying if it got a little dirty. We started talking about how nice it would be to come in so far under our budget. And in just a matter of minutes, all of those aspirations of being the hip young family in the cool Mazda CX-5 washed away in the name of practicality. Because we can’t undo the uncoolness that we possess. (We’re validating every assumption you’ve ever had about how boring we really are, right?)
We were going to buy the RAV4. We headed into the sales center and sat down at our salesman’s desk. We cracked our knuckles, pulled out our phone calculators and research print-outs, and started talking numbers. He immediately told us that his manager said it was already priced at a loss and he wasn’t going to be able to move at all on the numbers. We didn’t acknowledge the comment and asked him to draw up the out-the-door pricing. He left to go discuss with his manager and then printed out his number: $15,900. That meant they were charging us 15% on taxes and dealer fees. No way, broseph. I told him that percentage was three-to-five points higher than every dealership we’d been to. I asked him to break down the numbers and he retreated to his manager’s office.
A few minutes later, he came back with a print-out and brought an especially grimy sales manager with him. They presented the itemized offer and explained the different fees. Sales tax, doc fees, registration. Fine. Dealer fee, rescinded financing discount, vehicle theft sticker insurance program. Uhhh, heck no. I told him we didn’t need the sticker, so knock a few hundred off there. Then we attacked the financing discount that we wouldn’t be receiving. Joanna took them to task on being misleading with the sticker price if a financing discount was baked into it. We argued that we shouldn’t and wouldn’t be penalized because we were giving them cash. We made sure to be nice, but firm. The manager gave us some lousy “Look. At this price, I might as well just send this car to auction. That’s the best price I can do.” They left us to talk it over and we decided to call them on their bluff.
When our salesman returned, we told him we were tired of the runaround and we were going to call it a night. We weren’t going to stick around and negotiate when they were fudging the sticker price number based on our payment method. We asked him what time he would be in the next day and we’d be in touch after we slept on it. He asked us to give him a minute and he hustled back to the manager’s dungeon and returned with the number we were gunning for — $15,400. Done and done. We called up GEICO and got a new auto policy with a great rate, signed some papers, handed the financing officer our check, and drove off the lot with our new-to-us 2010 Toyota RAV4 AWD with 50,000 miles.
Phew! So glad that process and novel we just wrote are over. After all was said and done, we came to the realization that the car we choose shouldn’t dictate who we are. Our budget should do that. And if our budget doesn’t allow for a flashy new ride, then it’s just not meant to be. Just a reminder: we do like nice things. But oftentimes, nice things don’t like our budget. And that’s just fine.
We’ll be sharing all our car buying tips and tricks in an upcoming post, so stay tuned. Did this bring back nightmarish car buying memories for any of you?