How I Bought a Car in 2016

When I was ten, I was furious at my dad for not taking me with him to complete the final negotiations on our 1985 Oldsmobile station wagon.  I wanted to see it all: the salesman’s harried trips to his “manager’s office.”  The walkout threat that finally closes the deal. The shady fees tacked on after the handshake.  

Thirty years later, I finally had the opportunity to buy my first car.  Having lived in New York and Cambridge during my post-college years, I either didn’t need a car, was happy with a used one off my parents’ lot, or was content with the VW Passat that my wife brought to the union.  But with the VW approaching its eleventh birthday and our second kid on the way, we beat a path to our nearest Subaru dealer.  Look up sensible in the dictionary, and you’ll see the picture above.

My ten year old self would be disappointed to know that how I went about purchasing the Subaru was exactly the opposite of how my dad bought our Oldsmobile.  Here’s how I did it:

Most important: You are buying a commodity: The Subaru Outback is a runaway success story for Fuji Heavy Industries.  Back in January 2010, Subaru moved 5,467 Outbacks in the US.  By January 2016, the number had more than doubled to 11,197 units.  Subaru has thoroughly replaced Volvo as the official car brand of New England.  I shopped Outback colors by riding my bike around my Cambridge neighborhood. 

All this being said, remember: you are buying a commodity.  Subaru is churning out hundreds of Outbacks from its Indiana factory every day. The identical car is available from any dealer.  So just as you’d shop for diapers or milk, you are shopping for the best price, period.

Identify the exact model you want to buy: Color, trimline, options, MSRP.  Know exactly what you want before heading to the negotiating table. The MSRP is a great number to confirm that you and the dealer are talking about the same vehicle.

Use Truecar to give you a price to beat: Truecar promises a much simpler way to buy a car.  Tell them the car you want, and they give you a handful of dealers willing to honor a fixed price.  But the Truecar user is paying a premium for ease of purchase.  Instead, look at the bell curve of prices that Truecar highlights.  The price you agree to pay should be either on the far left of the curve, or off the curve completely.  

Remember that the Truecar price doesn't include state sales taxes and title/tag fees, so be sure to add those in to ensure you're comparing apples-to-apples. Once you get your first itemized quote from a dealer, you'll know what your state wants to title and put a plate on your new car.

Wait until the end of the month, quarter, or year: Common sense suggests that many people aren’t buying a car in the dead of winter.  But salespeople and dealerships are still trying to hit their quotas.  I decided that the day to buy our Subaru would be the last Tuesday in January.  A bit of Googling indicated that January is the slowest month for Subaru dealers, so I was betting on the fact that a few would be anxious to cut a deal.

Call about 10-12 dealerships: That morning, I called about a dozen dealerships within a 75 mile radius of Boston.  I asked for the Internet sales department.  They are happy to take your call, because they don’t have to pay Truecar $300 for your contact information.  I described the vehicle I wanted, and asked for an “out-the-door” ITEMIZED price to be emailed to me. Mass. sales tax, dealer fees, tags, everything.  Or put another way: “What is the number on the check I will hand to you when you hand me the keys?” 

All but one dealer played ball.  The oddball told me that “the manager gives the best prices in person.”  I miss our Oldsmobile, but not the sales practices from 1985. 

The cheapest prices were from dealers far from Boston:  The out-the-door quotes I received ranged from $29,547 to $28,015.  The low bid from a New Hampshire dealer was off the Truecar chart and $1,200 less than the “invoice price” quoted by Truecar.  I was prepared to drive an hour to save thousands, but it turns out I wouldn’t need to.

Take your lowest quote to a local dealer: That afternoon, I presented my lowest quote to the salesman that had worked with us during my test drives.  I presented the opportunity to match the quote immediately and close the sale.  He initially balked, saying that his dealership doesn’t work like that. 

But there was a sale to be had, and a sale at a super low price is better than none at all.  These days, dealers earn bonus payments by hitting sales targets, so if the dealer wasn’t making much money on my deal, my sale was still contributing to his overall sales figures.

The salesman asked for the low quote in writing (I sent him a photo of the email from my iPhone), and asked for a $1000 deposit to place the order.  I asked for a signed contract to be emailed to me before any credit card information would be shared, which he reluctantly did.  Contract in hand, I gave him my credit card details. 

Deal done. Miles driven to shop price: 0. Total time spent on phone: 3 hours over one morning.

I could’ve probably knocked off a few hundred dollars more by playing dealers off each other, but I wanted to compensate our local dealer for the great test driving experience we’d had.   It was painless, as I indicated on the survey I got from the dealer a few weeks later (they earn bonuses for excellent survey results).  I also emailed thanks and regrets to the other dealers who I'd worked with earlier that day.

Keep the deal simple: Pay cash and don't have a trade-in (our beloved Passat sold in less than 24 hours off Craigslist after I took delivery of the Subaru).  If you do finance, do the deal as if you’re paying cash and have no trade-in.  Once you agree on a price, then talk financing and/or trading in your old car.  That way, the dealer can’t play one number off the other. 

Ignore the last minute upsells when you go to pickup: When I went to pick up our new car, the dealer tried to upsell an extended warranty and a car service package.  Ignore the upsell and find yourself a reliable local mechanic to service your vehicle. 

Optional: When closing the deal and before I picked up, I insisted that the dealer not place any dealer stickers on the car.  It's my car, not a free mobile billboard for the dealer.

 

One link I found particularly helpful in doing my research: http://www.automatchconsulting.com/how-to-beat-the-sellers-market.html

 

Two Thoughts from Texas

 

We piled into one of the back rows of an American 737 and flew down to Dallas a few weeks ago. Two thoughts from the trip:

Comfortably using y’all in public: According to Wikipedia, “’Y'all’” fills in the gap created by the absence of a separate second-person plural pronoun in standard modern English. Which makes it particularly useful when I’m presenting to an audience.  An example: “Y’all have heard of the tech unicorn Slack, right?”

In my case, using “y’all” also productively confuses those in the audience who know I’m from New Jersey.  I’ve been using it to great success since my trip to the Lone Star State.  Try it, you’ll love it.

A thought on the word “peace”: One afternoon, we visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a really well done museum depicting the events leading up to and immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy.  The museum occupies the floor from which Oswald fired the fatal shots.

At the end of our audio tour, my cousin turned to me and remarked how confidently Kennedy (and even his political opponents) used the word “peace” back then.  We were both struck by the contrast to today’s political discourse.  Both the President and presidential candidates talk about “destroying ISIS,” dumbing down what needs to be done, as if a sick ideology can be bombed out of existence.  Senator Ted Cruz’ promise to “carpet bomb them into oblivion.  I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we are going to find out,” was a particularly odious attempt at humor.

We should ask ourselves why “peace” seems to be a word that’s been stricken from our politicians’ speeches, and why a proper application of violence now seems to be Job #1.

Y’all chew on that!

To Understand a Fan

Last Sunday night, around 12:45am, I morphed into a cliché. Having watched the New York Mets lose the fifth game of the World Series, I turned off the TV in the man cave, and trudged upstairs towards reality.

Ascending the first flight of steps, Devin’s stroller came into view, poised to take its charge to the park later that morning.  This floor seemed cooler than the cave, but the chill did little to soothe the shame.  The lights were off, and I eased my way up and around to the next flight of steps.

Devin’s bedroom was the first door off the landing on the second floor, and I peeked in.  The one year-old was out cold, the only indication of trouble a slight wheeze as he worked to get over a mild case of the sniffles.  I gazed at the sleeping baby, hoping to snap back into reality.  Tomorrow morning, Devin would greet me with a smile and orders to raise his room’s window shades, I would catch the T to work, and the Earth would continue to spin around its axis. 

This was the perspective I desperately wanted, not the hollowness and angst of having a magical baseball season snatched away from me.   But I wasn’t going to find what I wanted in Devin’s room that night.  I switched off his light and headed to my room.  Not to sleep, but to ponder what might have been.

What is it about dedicated fandom that drives such irrationality?  Is it the contrast with a Hollywood-imagined world where we win far more often than we lose, while in fandom, even Yankee teams lose far more often than they win?  Is it the clarity of the win or loss laid out in a box score, while real life’s wins and losses are far harder to tally? 

Fully aware of my inability to casually follow a sport, I’ve limited myself to the Mets for the past 25 years and to Roger Federer for the past twelve.   During the football season, it’s such a pleasure to hover above the madness, not caring whether a team wins or loses, but being aware of the local team’s record just enough not to embarrass myself at the gym or bar.  For the last few years before Devin came along, my wife and I would have dinner at a popular restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday, enjoying the good food and service in solitude before making our way home for the third quarter.  I couldn’t tell you who won the last Super Bowl, but I could describe the spin on the fastball thrown by the Mets' closer in Game 1, and the exact spot that game tying, ninth inning home run landed in Kansas City.

The rational observer might chastise the fan for rooting for a colors on a uniform, and woudl certainly note that the overpaid, coddled men-children that play the game could care less about the fan.  It’s just a game, the saying goes.  Have some perspective.

I suppose that’s right.  But I was in Chicago the night the Cubs won the right to play the Mets for the pennant, and I was engulfed by the raw passion of a fan base that just knew that 107 years of futility was near an end.  The Mets put an end to those dreams in four quick games, and celebrated in Wrigley Field while Cubs fans looked on in a daze.  Watching that night and reveling in the Mets’ win, I couldn’t help but think that on an absolute scale, having your team win isn’t even close to seeing them lose.

So yeah, Devin’s a great kid, we’ve got another on the way, I’ve lost a few pounds over the last few months as the business travel load briefly lightened, the stock market’s up, and the family is healthy. 

All true, but dammit, it would’ve felt so great if the Mets had won it. 

 

Consider: The Asian Educational Tourist

Summertime in Boston is unique.  Students are away, leaving a relatively empty city for the rest of us to enjoy.  It gets hot, but it’s also a touch cooler than New York, allowing frugal homeowners to kill the a/c and enjoy the fresh air for nights at a time.  The eleven feet of snow we shoveled last winter now seems worth it as a story to tell the grandkids.  Almost.

But the summer does bring tourists.  Boston’s not the tourist mecca that Paris or New York is, but we do get our fair share.  And those of us who live in Cambridge experience a particular brand of tourist: the Asian Educational Institution Tourist.

Over just the last few years, the number of tour buses that bring thousands of families from China and Korea to tour MIT and Harvard are growing, to the point where Cantabrigians are complaining about buses hogging parking spots in Harvard Square and violating “no trucks” rules on narrow residential streets.  But in my experience, the tourists are polite, curious, and (most importantly) great for the local economy.

But there’s a dark cloud to these visits from the Far East: for every ten tour buses of Asian tourists I see parked at MIT, I don’t see a single one delivering American tourists.  Sure, there are Americans on the campus tours, but our numbers are dwarfed by our foreign counterparts. Cambridge is a global mecca of educational excellence, and this idea is clearly something that the Asian tourists understand and seek to experience.  With every double parked tour bus, the value that a rising continent places on education is on vivid display. 

With a global economy that increasingly values creativity and devalues muscle, these values are probably in the right place.  Perhaps the Duck Boats should make a quick stop at 77 Massachusetts Avenue every now and then.

 

Beestenmarkt

I’ve just returned from a business trip to Western Europe.  The Continent was in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures approaching 100°F/40°C.  It gets that hot there only once a decade or so.  Even so, the evening breezes and long solstice nights made for relaxing evenings.  Sitting in Delft’s Beestenmarkt, quaffing a local beer over a nice long dinner, I felt like an extra in an independent film.   

 

Although it’s tough to be away from home, one’s perspective on the real issues facing humanity does tend to broaden after crossing an ocean.  You don’t realize just how often you hear about the impending menace of ISIS until you stop hearing about them for a few days. Someone in a Syrian cave must be writing a playbook on easy it is to scare the hell out of us Americans.

 

CNN International does simulcast some of the mother ship’s shows, and I found myself watching Wolf Blitzer while on a treadmill in Zurich.  Wolf was busy hyping the “lone wolf” threat posed by ISIS-inspired terrorists over the long July 4th holiday, and tossed what he thought was a softball to former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.  When Ridge pointed out that thousands of Americans will be killed or injured by drunk driving and fireworks over the weekend, and tried to place the lone wolves in the proper perspective, poor Wolf didn’t know what to do.

 

Luckily, my workout was done, and we headed into Zurich for a traditional meal of a wurst, potato salad, and a glass of Swiss wine.  The dollar was strong, the evenings long, and the work done.  

The Re-Launch.

The summer solstice is upon us, with the sun due to set at 8:25 this evening.  The longest day of the year seems an appropriate time to re-launch nihal.com.  This reincarnation was developed and hosted on the squarespace platform. For now, the photostream is hosted by flickr, but I'll port my best work over shortly.  

Initial content will include a written blog and photo journal, with more to be added based on consumer demand and creator whim.  

You're welcome.