How We Bought a Car

This is the story of how my wife and I purchased our new-to-us car from a local dealership in Carlsbad. It’s a long process, and a long read. But if you give it some time, you will find that there is some insight along the way that may help you buy a used car in 2019, and perhaps beyond.  

We did a lot of research.

My wife is a type A organized person. She makes spreadsheets and tables, highlights web URLs, saves sites as bookmarks, and constantly refers back to comparison sites like Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, and others like and USNews. We sold our 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan a few months ago and knew that we wanted to buy the right car for us. We wanted it to be reliable, have low costs of repair, include a warranty or is certified (though there are varying degrees of certification), and be a good deal that is at or below blue book value so we could have built in equity. We were paying in cash, so we knew we needed to get over the hurdle of financing and haggling (dealerships prefer financing at every time except at the end of their year).  

After researching vans and SUVs for months, my wife found a few vehicles that would work well for us over the long haul. While we could have made a decision sooner, we were not concerned with find a vehicle right away; we wanted the right car. She narrowed the focus to the Buick Enclave, a Honda Pilot, an Acura MDX, and a Dodge Grand Caravan (yes, another one 🤷🏼‍♂️).  

Let’s start with the Buick Enclave.

After several unsuccessful chats with online retailers, we decided to forgo that process and just walk on lot and test drive the vehicle. We drove down to North County Buick GMC on one of our date mornings after breakfast, and found the Enclave of my wife’s dreams. While that was a spectacular car, it was an almost new car (2019) and there was no way we wanted to pay near new prices. We asked the salesperson if they had more inventory, and they took us inside to the sales office to check. While confirming the availability of other Enclaves, the sales manager looked at my wife and I and said quite audibly, “They’re not Buick people.” We heard this, as we were only ten feet away wearing t-shirts and shorts, as it was my day off. The salesperson looked at us in fright, and proceeded to follow us out of the building, as that was certainly the nail in coffin for our experience with that dealership.  

“Be a nice human.”

My sister in law has this t-shirt. Never before was this a life motto than today, when we had cash to buy a used vehicle from this dealership, for the right price, under the right conditions. These were not auspicious conditions, and did not exactly give us the warm fuzzies. We left and immediately drove to Hoehn Buick in Carlsbad. After walking the certified lot for thirty minutes, asking for help and finding no one, we left. Again, cash in hand and ready to make a deal.  

After speaking with GMC corporate, I found that this is quite common, though gravely apologized for: there is a significant lack of trained employees on site at all times. Sometimes you get the best of people, and sometimes the worst. That day, the sales manager was at their worst. While GMC corporate took note of this experience, accepted responsibility after confirming the case with the dealership, and handed us off to another Buick dealer, we were done here.  

There were and are no hard feelings with Buick, but they are right; we are not Buick people, or rather, they are not our people. If we are dropping tens of thousands of dollars in cash on a vehicle, then we need to be able to trust the people we are buying from, as they will be the ones most likely servicing the car.  

Maybe Honda will be a little different.

In all honesty, I really felt like this was the winner. It was fully loaded, the tech package was apportioned appropriately for the price, it was comfortable, all leather, the wife and kids thought the SUV was good, and it wasn’t a minivan. The salesman at Hoehn Honda was knowledgable, friendly and courteous, and was willing to help us negotiate a decent price. We even walked next door to the Acura dealership and drive a newer MDX and discussed that as well. They were close, but we both thought the Pilot could be it (the rear seat of the MDX was a tad too small for our kids to be comfortable on vacation trips). This seemed like a really good thing, until we got home that night after the test drive.  

“It’s so vanilla.”  

My wife and I were thinking the same thing here. If we weren’t going to awed by our new to us car, then why pull the trigger and make it happen for $30000? This brought us back to the baseline: Will this be a reliable car at a good price over the years? The Honda fits it, but it did not excite us. We were primarily getting the van to transport kids for the school commute and to travel with the grandparents. If we were both lukewarm to it, then perhaps we just focus on the right things for us and take it slow.  

Hoehn Honda was great and their salespeople were solid, but it just wasn’t for us at this time.  

We came full circle back to the Dodge Grand Caravan

I did not want another minivan, but goodness; they just work. Our last one lasted well for a decade for us, we sold it on the cheap to a lovely young family, and were happy with it every step of the way. It was a minivan, but it worked for us on our vacation trips to our cabin in West Yellowstone, during commuting trips to and from school since our daughter was in re-school, suffered a move from NorCal to the heavenly city of San Diego, and for six plus years going to the beach every other weekend. Now it was all about finding the right one today.  

After researching for two more weeks of online research, we found a few that would work from three reportable dealerships. Norm Reeves in Vista had one that was low miles, Jack Powell in Escondido had a few certified that looked reasonable, and Bob Baker in Carlsbad had one that was a sure winner if the others fell through.  

We walked the lot and drove a Caravan at Jack Powell (as well as a comparably equipped Chrysler Pacifica). The salespeople were like some of the other better dealerships, so we felt comfortable. The price was a little higher than the others, so we knew we wanted to lower it if possible. It wasn’t about lowballing people; it was about getting the right deal where everyone walked away a winner. Ultimately, they could not lower the price to match the others, so we kindly walked away and drove to Norm Reeves. After agreeing to a price on a used Grand Caravan in writing, we arrived to find that the price was actually going to be $2000 higher, or we could drive away in a comparable Odyssey. This was a non-starter for me, as trust is the baseline of all relationships.  

We were wiling to give it one more shot before walking away from the process and be content for now being a one car family. That last shot was going to have to be Bob Baker. They did not disappoint. After starting a chat and getting a call, we agreed on a price.  If the van drove as advertised, we would purchase the car that day. From that call to driving off with the van, it was three hours.  

The salesperson had everything ready to go for us on the 2018 Dodge Grand Caravan GT: gas filled up, fully detailed, paperwork in hand,  etc … The finance department knew we were paying cash. The management and support staff were friendly and offered the kids drinks and snacks. From top to bottom, this was how it should have been from the beginning. While we were willing to spend $10000 to $15000 more for the right car, we were happy to spend less and have more margin. More than that, we were grateful to have had a positive experience with a dealership.  

What made the difference for us?

People. It always comes down to people. If we can trust you, then we can get a deal done. Everyone knows that the margin on used and new cars is minimal right now, and no one is out to undercut. We just want what is best for everyone. If you respect me, then I can respect you. If you cannot, then I can still respect you, but also respect myself enough to walk away. This happened at a few dealerships. But at a few others, they had good deals that we almost moved on. Ultimately, it just came down to the right car for us at this time. In a few more years when my daughter is ready to drive, we will be repeating the process all over again. I hope that when that time comes, people have learned some hard lessons and have gotten better at being nice humans, and giving the customers what they need and want.  

Other things we learned along the way: 

  • Online chat is rarely handled by on-site salespeople.  
  • Chats are primarily used to gather your personal information, not finding the right car. 
  • We completed dozens of online forms and received responses from less than 5% of the dealers we messaged.
  • Most salespeople who responded to our online forms did not remember what vehicle we inquired about.
  • Most dealers will only work out a deal with you in-person. 
  • You need to ask for help when you arrive on a lot and not expect people to see you. 
  • Dealerships prefer financing, as they get a cut of the interest on the sale.  
  • Most salespeople are not fully trained on the processes from start to finish.  
  • Bait and switch tactics are alive and (not) well.  
  • Some people just want a sale, while others have your best interest in mind.  
  • Patience is critical in finding the right car, as much as it is critical in finding the right dealer.

This post is about our process and how we came to drive away with our Dodge. It’s not the car we wanted from the beginning, but it is the car we have now and are more than satisfied with. I truly wish things could have been different. I wish my wife could have gotten her dream car from a Buick dealership. I wish the Pilot excited us like the Enclave did. But I am glad we saved tens of thousands of dollars.  

But you know what?  

I also wish things could have been different for the dealerships and their salespeople. Deception is a low bar sales tactic and has no place in modern society. I want to buy a car from you, so you can put food on your family’s table; and I want to save money, so I can put food on mine. Do not agree to a deal, change the price when we arrive, and then offer us another car instead. That kind of bait and switch is not good for anyone. And respect people. Just because we walk in wearing comfortable clothes does not mean we lack money; it means we want to stay cool on a ninety degree day.  

I want to help you get better at your job.  

Selling a car in 2019 and beyond is far different than selling one ten years ago. Customers have all the tools of comparison at our fingertips, places like CarMax and Carvana who have figured out a way to sell better in a modern online-first culture. We can and should all get better at this. Start with being open and honest in your communication, find an equitable price that works for all parties involved, clearly communicate costs and expectations up-front, and ultimately, be a nice human.  

If I can help you process through this, let me know by completing the comment form. I’m not here to cast stones, but rather make systems and processes better for everyone involved. If you are one of the dealers who is reading this, know that I have your best in mind as well. I want to help you get better, so people can build trust in dealerships again. You can do better, and after reading this, you should want to do better.  

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