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Legal VIEW

Applying the Brake to Car Purchase

February 11, 1988|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

This is a warning to prospective car buyers. Be careful out there. There are lots of sneaky, fast-talking vultures waiting to pounce.

I drive an 8-year-old car. The reason I haven't bought a new one lately is that I absolutely abhor the thought of stepping foot on a car lot. So now you know my bias.

I wish cars were sold like furniture, or groceries, or clothing--with a price tag that means what it says. But they're not. We all know that the price tag is just the starting point--we're supposed to spend hours wrangling before we learn the price of the car.

More Than Sticker Price

Or maybe we all don't know that. At one Los Angeles dealership, one-third of the customers paid more than sticker price for a popular American model, according to Herschel Elkins, senior assistant Attorney General of California, who has filed numerous lawsuits against unscrupulous car dealers. Unsophisticated buyers who don't realize that everything is negotiable may pay $4,000 more than a buyer who is willing to shop around, compare prices and negotiate fiercely, Elkins says. (Sticker price is the manufacturer's suggested retail price.)

Recent experiences have convinced me to keep my old car. One weekend, I stopped at a Mazda dealer because I wanted to see the new sedan.

The salesman was a pleasant enough young man. He described all the features of the car in his carefully trained parlance. And the car was an impressive product. But when he mentioned that the Los Angeles Times had rated the car very high, I told him he must be confused--The Times doesn't rate cars. He showed me the "article" from The Times when we returned. Actually, it was a Mazda advertisement that had appeared in The Times. Maybe he was just mistaken.

After visiting several other dealers, I tired of hearing each salesperson approach me and say, "What are you looking for in a car?" I didn't want to recite a wish list, I just wanted to see a particular model, drive it and let them tell me about it.

When I decided to buy the Mazda, I negotiated the deal on the telephone. That was probably a mistake, but I didn't want to wait in the showroom while the sales representative "negotiated" with the sales manager for the price. (I always assumed the sales rep knows the bottom price in advance, but in many cases the management doesn't tell him, according to Elkins.)

I described precisely the car I liked. He talked to his boss and came back with a firm price "out the door." What a pleasant experience, I thought. Buying a car on the phone. I said I would come in the next day and sign the paper work.

When I arrived, the car they had ready for me was not the one I had described over the phone. And we'd have to negotiate more if I wanted to buy the car I thought I ordered.

I had that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding, a simple mistake, and not the "switch," I screamed at the sales manager.

I wasn't about to buy a car that day. What else could I do? I couldn't sue. An oral agreement worth more than $500 is not enforceable.

Just an Excuse

It is true, according to Elkins, that some car dealers will use any excuse to get customers in the showroom to try to make a sale. Sometimes, one car will be advertised at a low price, Elkins said, and when customers call, they are told that the inexpensive car is still available. When the customer shows up, the car is gone. If that happens only once it may be a mistake, but if it happens to many customers, the state Attorney General's office may sue the dealer for unfair business practices and seek civil penalties, an injunction, or even restitution for the hapless buyers who paid too much.

If you want to register a complaint about such tactics, write the Office of the Attorney General, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90010.

It would all be so much easier if a few of the people who sell cars would just start using price tags that were realistic, fair and firm. But because that is not likely to happen, I'll offer some tips in a future column on how to go shopping for a car and discuss proposed new legislation directed at the unfair business practices of car dealers.

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