Our 48-Hour Car Hunt


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48-Hour Car Buy
 Upon arriving in Utah a few weeks ago, Joanna and I found ourselves carless. Our number one priority aside from purchasing milk and cereal was to purchase a car as quickly as possible, while still sticking to our car-buying rules (which we laid out in this post). As a quick refresher to our car rules, they are as follows:
  1. Know what you can afford.
  2. Narrow your search to three makes and models.
  3. Find out what you should be paying.
  4. Check the car’s history.
  5. 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.

Day 1

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.

Day 2

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.

The end.

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?

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20 Comments

  • Reply carlotta August 20, 2015 at 8:36 am

    you guys, i’m indirectly in the middle of this.
    with the boyfriend oversea trying to buy a car that will be ok to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. :)
    hopefully this will all happen this weekend!
    good job on negotiating; despite my years in Asia, I suck at it.

  • Reply Insourcelife August 20, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Congrats on the new car and hopefully you got the 4-cylinder and not the gaz guzzling v6. I was wondering why you didn’t include CRVs in your target group? It’s a direct competitor to the RAV4 and is a perennial winner across the CUV board.

  • Reply Heather August 20, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Good for you for sticking to your guns. Buying a car is horrible!

    Just for future car buying information, we have a Mazda CX-5 and love it. It doesn’t look roomy, but holds our bikes and skis quite comfortably. And it is really fuel efficient. We took it on a cross-country road trip a couple summers ago and we got amazing mileage out of it.

    My partner used to own a Rav4, though, and he loved that too.

  • Reply Ali @ Anything You Want August 20, 2015 at 9:28 am

    You guys are tough! Great to read about how you were able to negotiate this. Gives me some good tips for when I do my own car search!

  • Reply Meg August 20, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Love this post (as always)! Big purchases can be so emotional and the feeling you had at the first dealer is such an anxious, gut-wrenching (yet exciting) one. Good for you guys for sticking to your guns and principles! I’ll be remembering this when we go for our next auto (and house!) purchase. :-)

  • Reply Suzanne August 20, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Congratulations on the new wheels! As my brother says (who has a Toyota)…”even if they break, they still go”…such a contradiction I know! Great job holding firm with the salesman.. I always insist on new car mats for the interior and mud flaps on the tires or no sale from me! I know they probably don’t cost much but its the little victories isn’t it!!

  • Reply Sarah August 20, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Oh God–so many nightmares remembered with this post! Haha! We had to buy a new car suddenly last year when my car decided to call it quits…..TWO MONTHS after I had paid it off. Because we’re still on our debt pay-off journey we did have to finance our new car, but we did learn the best way {in our opinion} to buy a car: over the phone. My husband looked for cars within a two-hour radius of our house and did all of the negotiating over the phone. It took so. much. pressure. off of us. If we didn’t like the deal we just politely hung up…..and then waited for their impending return call with “a brand new offer.” We weren’t sitting in an office with the keys dangling in front of us. We weren’t worried about leaving the lot without a new shiny car in our possession. We could take our time and talk through the numbers and make sure we got everything we wanted for the price we wanted too. Plus, lots of the dealerships had a special “online discount” that we were able to get as well. I’m telling you, I will NEVER AGAIN try to buy a car by going to the dealership. Instead I will hide behind my laptop and avoid confrontation by negotiating over the phone. 😉

    But yay for you guys-sticking to your guns and getting a great deal! 😀 Y’all stood your ground much better than I would have been able to!

  • Reply jolie August 20, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I am curious how much the auto policy is, if that is not too nosy. Up here in Saskatchewan, the base price to license your vehicle is set by the provincial government based on body type (the car’s…not mine :-) . Folks can then find an independent insurer to get additional coverage if they wish. My SUV is $1200 to get the base insurance on.

  • Reply Becky August 20, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Oh my goodness! I wish that I hadn’t given up my blog, because I wrote a post just like this 18 months ago! What is it about those hypnotizing dealers??? For me, it was a trip to the bathroom that got me to remember, “you are not going to finance! This car is above your budget!” Thank God for bathroom trips! The thing that we did the next day was negotiate over the phone, and I was surprised by how effective this was! We got 2 dealers to agree to fair “out-the-door” prices, and then visited both to test drive. I think they know that once you’re there that the mind-warping powers take over, so we had to go through much less angst to get a fair price over the phone! 18 months later and my all-cash paid car is still great!

  • Reply Megyn August 20, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    We bought a new car last year, and it was the easiest process ever. My hubby knows a lot about cars, so he did the brunt of the research in terms of engines, safety ratings, longevity, gas mileage, etc. I researched the financials. If you have a Costco membership, they have a great car buying program. We have USAA too, so we compared prices between both of those sites along with sites about the cost of how much we should pay. We narrowed it town between a 2014 Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra. Since we had to buy the car before we sold our house, we did have to get financing for a month or two, but then just paid it off. We contacted several dealers to find the Corolla we wanted (test drove the Sentra, and it was far less roomy and just felt cheaper). With the Costco and USAA prices it allows you to get a good price without haggling. Once we found the dealer who had the car we wanted for the price we wanted, we took the emails and went to the dealer to fill out paperwork. We were in and out of there in less than an hour. We also go the fancy mats and primo tinting for nothing more. We were really happy with the process. When we plan on getting another car in a year or two, we plan to go through the same process.

    With everyone so techno-savvy these days, I highly recommend not stepping foot into a dealership until you’ve done your negotiating through email. Especially with kids, it makes the whole process so much easier. Plus you have proof of the agreed upon price and car (they’ll supply you with VIN etc.). No need to sit at a dealership all day anymore :)

  • Reply Rachel August 20, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Oh man I hate buying cars! The thing I hate most is that I, a girl, am the driver in this house and my lovely partner, a boy, is a passenger. I am also the negotiator. I hate how salesmen talk to him, offer test drives to him, try to negotiate with him. If they make that mistake once we politely correct them that it’s my car and my money (Ok, its ours but I’ll be handing it over as the docs will be in my name…). If they make that mistake again we leave. The lovely boyfriend knows nothing about cars so they are wasting the hard sell on him! I also drive an automatic these days due to an injury and that limits my options a lot.

    I’m starting to get itchy feet wanting to change my car so the plan for the next 12-18 months is to save hard so I can have the best option. I’ll look forward to the new (to me) car but not the process.

    Well done for winning against the sales monsters and coming away with the best deal for you.

  • Reply Julia August 21, 2015 at 4:43 am

    This was so interesting, thanks for sharing your car buying adventures! I’ve never purchased a car before, so now at least I have a glimpse into the process.
    I’m curious if paying cash is always treated the way it was at the dealership you went to, with financing seemingly being preferred?

    • Reply Courtney August 26, 2015 at 12:54 am

      Hey I just thought I’d clarify a little, my husband worked in car sales for 18 months and I told him this story. At the dealership he worked at, something like this was strictly forbidden (advertising a sticker price that included a discount only if you financed), because yeah- it’s kind of dishonest and makes people angry. He learned a lot during those months about how the car business works, and there is a great discrepancy between different dealerships on how shady things can get! (His really prided themselves on being honest) The discount for financing the car actually comes because the bank that finances the deal gives the dealership a kick-back- so they can then in turn take a little more off the price of the vehicle. Many people will finance it for like 3 months and then pay the whole car off at that point so that they qualify for that discount.

  • Reply Caity August 21, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Way to go not buying the Highlander! It’s so hard to walk away, but then you’re not stuck with buyer’s remorse! We had a horrible experience with the first new (to us) car we purchased about a year after we were married. The salesman made us to believe that we’d get a super low interest rate and before we knew it, we put down a down payment. Once we went with the finance guy, he told us what our monthly payment would be and how much the APR was and it was WAYYY above what we were expecting. But, after sitting at the dealership all day- we didn’t know what else to do but to sign papers. Neither of us could sleep that night and I wrote a (kind) letter to the manager explaining our disappointing experience. We ended up getting a check for the difference of the APR that he told us we’d get vs. the one they gave us. When we bought our second car, we felt SO much more prepared. I feel like we’ve learned the hard way about so many things, but I try to look on the bright side- we get to share our experiences with friends and family and help other people not make the same mistake!! Congrats on your car!

  • Reply Amber August 21, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    I’m about to pay off my car after 5 long years… sad but true! I’m looking forward to never doing that again! I want to drive this car as long as possible.

  • Reply Arin August 21, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    I love, love love my Rav4. Mine has over 200K miles on it, and runs great, with normal upkeep on it. I have had it 12 years, and still think its the best thing I have ever bought in my life! When it finally bites the dust, I am hoping I can find another that is very similar.

  • Reply Mrs. Crackin' the Whip August 23, 2015 at 8:01 am

    I am so glad that you guys came out of your starry eyed daze! It happens so easily when you get that shopping momentum going! I know I started considering spending a few thousand more when we were buying our Mini Cooper but Mr. Crackin’ stayed strong. In the end we stayed within our budget and got an awesome deal buying from a private seller. Plus, there were no hard negotiating tactics or dealing with all the dealership fees and taxes. We pulled out our cash envelope and made an offer which was immediately accepted. Next day we transferred it at the DMV and exchanged cash for car. 15 months later I can say that it was an awesome purchase. We’ve done the required oil changes and replaced the oil cap; which I think was a hazard of me learning to drive a stick shift!

  • Reply Vanessa August 25, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Awesome post and a subject that I wish more people would read about before falling prey to the emotional tactics and trickery dealerships to sell cars. Paying cash for a car is the only way to go. Your post reminded me of our car buying experience. When my husband and I got married last year (and began our financial shape-up after both being divorced and basically financially ruined), we drove 1 car- my 2006 Audi hatchback that looked pretty slick but was falling apart. He drove to work and I worked at home. Anyway, we thought we should attempt to sell the hatchback before she completely died because we had just dumped another $900 into her and figured we could get a more reliable, all wheel drive car for not much more than that (cash). The day we got the quote from the shop for the $900 brake and thermostat job, my husband did a somewhat impulsive online search for Volvo Cross Country wagons- his dream car. To our surprise, he found two in our area – and one was at a dealership right down the road from our apartment for $2500. It was a 2002, but completely loaded and with AWD- a must in our northern state. We drove it and it was in perfect condition. We imagined it was an older couple who owned it the whole time (the carfax said 1 owner) and that’s why it was in such great shape. We went to the dealership and bought the car, for cash. I wish we would have known about all the fees and everything they try to pull when you’re sitting in those uncomfortable chairs at the dealership. We (regrettably) paid some stupid “document fee” for over $100. But, we had our Volvo for under $3000 out the door and we were happy.

    The next day, we decided that we would (if it was in good shape) buy the other Volvo he found online, because I loved his so much and knew the Audi would die soon without putting some serious cash into her. We drove a little bit from our house and ended up loving the second one too. She was a bit newer, and a little bit more money but with our knowledge and experience of the day before, were able to get her with license plates and everything for $3100 out the door. I was so happy that I had a reliable car to drive and that he did too. No more worries about the winter or ruining the stupid low profile tires. I love driving my grocery getter (they’re SO UNDERRATED).

    We ended up selling the Audi to some tuner-type guy who clearly wanted the car BAD because of what it was, and we got a really good price for it. So, all in all, we basically went from driving 1 crappy car to driving 2 much nicer cars for a net cost of about $2000 cash. I felt like it was a HUGE victory for us, because we both had struggled so much in our single years post-divorces and it has made me feel so proud that we made the decision to ‘trade up’ on these cars- while not financing a single cent of it.

  • Reply Rebecca March 8, 2016 at 11:36 am

    A few weeks back my car got totaled after someone lost control of their car and t-boned mine. I’m lucky enough that myself and my friend weren’t seriously injured- but my Toyota RAV4 sadly couldn’t say the same. I loved that car! It was a great size and it fit myself and my husband- 6′ and 6’8″ respectively- we need room! I was also lucky that my payout on my car covered a decent down payment and paid off my old loan.

    So onto my car search which was also a rush since I needed a car- we work 2 different schedules and with him in the military if he had to go for work, he had to, no questions asked or working out our schedules. I researched all the options that we could afford (though not all cash sadly). But I got rid of the idea of another SUV- nothing here was priced like my old RAV4 was so no affording it. I ended up with a Toyota Corolla and I love it! Ironically it has more leg room and head room than the RAV4 did- which is a top priority for us. And since right now it is just us two and our dog we have plenty of room. Granted we might need more room later if we have more than 1 kid in the next few years- but right now we are good to go!

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