An Etched Lesson in Car Buying

By Crystal Baldwin

When I searched to purchase my first used car as a freshly licensed teenager in the late ‘90’s, I was fortunate to have an experienced mechanic and negotiator with me.  Our first stop was a used car dealership that was holding a huge blowout event complete with flag garland and free large-print calculators and five salespeople per customer.   I can remember the swarm of eager dealers approaching to this day. We showed up in our ten-year-old Ford LTD.  One salesman approached so daringly that he might have opened the door for me had I not willingly exited the vehicle.  My dad held up the flyer he received at home as he promptly asked about the promised freebie.  The dealer took the flyer from his hand and then pointed to a long line.  He advised us to look at cars while we waited.   

An etched lesson in car buying at blog.uvm.edu/cap

I wanted something simple.  The criteria I stated was, “Four doors and not a hatchback.”  It went without saying that I wanted a reliable car to get me around town to my job and all my activities.  We were led to a seven-year-old white Ford Tempo marked $2,000. For all appearance purposes, it seemed perfect.  I could see myself driving that kind of car.  While the dealer encouraged us to buy it based on price alone, my dad pushed back as if speaking straight from a consumer protection advice manual, “We aren’t putting any money down without thoroughly looking it over and having a test drive.” 

That’s when he crouched down in the crowded dealer lot, nearly pushing his entire body under the car.  From what he could see externally, it looked good enough for a drive, but confirmed that we wouldn’t have a clear sense of the car until it was put up on a lift.  Then, I drove it.  It handled okay in the lot and on the main road.  But, when the dealer called from the back seat for me to take a right turn on another neighborhood road, my dad advised me to take a left onto the thruway.  The car could not reach highway speed and sounded as though it might combust at any moment.  “How does it feel?” my dad asked.

I called back in my loudest octave, “Like it doesn’t want to go anywhere.”  

He followed, “Do you want this car?”  

“No,” I said flatly.   

He turned to the dealer, “We won’t be buying this car.” 

When we got back to the dealership, we quickly got out and were ready to leave, but my dad still wanted his calculator. The salesman said he would go get it.  When he came back, he did not bring the calculator.  Instead, he brought three more salesmen that encircled us with shaming jabs aimed at my father that he was letting me down.  While my heart raced with anxiety and anger, my dad remained calm.  At one point, I heard my dad reply, “I can’t believe you are selling this car.  It sounds like it could break at any minute.  I am not letting my daughter in that thing again.”  By the end of their banter, we walked away with three things:  

  1. My dad was offered a job at the dealership—he did so well saying “No” they wanted him to work for them.  
  2. A large-print calculator (My dad did not stop asking for it).   
  3. An etched lesson: Purchasing a quality used car is best done with backup and calm shrewdness. 

Car buying is something most of us will do only a handful of times in our lives.  How can we properly prepare for the moment we come face to face with a car seller?  While you may not have the benefit of having my father present, there are some things consumers can do to prepare for the big purchase.  The Consumer Assistance Program’s Assistant Director Lisa Jensen recently appeared on Across the Fence to share car buying tips.   

Across the Fence 10/15/2021 – Car Buying Tips from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office

Here are some of the used car purchasing tips highlighted in the show: 

  • Secure financing ahead of time. 
  • Do thorough research on the make/model of the car; search reliability and ratings. 
  • Look up the Kelly Blue Book and NADA and online marketplace values 
  • Check out similar vehicles at multiple dealerships
  • Scrutinize the car: Test drive, get an independent pre-purchase mechanical inspection 
  • Look for the Buyer’s Guide and decipher warranty information; there may be none. 

Buying a car can be complex, time consuming, costly, and emotionally taxing.  Because buying a car is not something we do frequently, having a supportive person present who understands your financial picture and supports your interests can be beneficial.  If you are in the market for a car, consider bringing a trusted companion with you to the sale, such as a friend/family member, who understands your financial picture and supports your interests. 

The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is another resource that you can call for tips before car buying.  If you do experience a problem with the purchase of a dealer purchased vehicle, new or used, CAP provides a letter mediation service for Vermonters and works in partnership with the Vermont Auto Dealers Association’s mediation/arbitration program.  

Did I ever get my first car?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.  It took another week or two, but in time, we found the perfect car for me for half the price.  A metallic blue Mercury Topaz—the off-brand twin of the Ford Tempo.  A test drive and thorough check-up proved the car to be a worthy fit for me.  After many reliable miles, the car was repurposed for parts in the early 2000’s.    

Best friend riding in style in my Mercury.
My best friend riding in style in my Mercury. Circa 1998.

My Online Shopping Plan

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been buying a lot more things online than I used to. If you’re like me, you might be having a hard time keeping track of it all.  I buy things I need, but since I’m purchasing things I’d normally buy in brick and mortar retail, sometimes it’s hard to remember what I ordered and when it is supposed to arrive. There were times this summer, too, that I realized I never did receive a couple of items that I ordered.  One item had even been recorded as delivered.  I was lucky to notice so I could rectify the issue with the vendor and recoup my funds. 

With online shopping ramping up and expected to continue to remain steady with the holiday giving season approaching, how can we be savvy online shoppers?  As I prepare for the season, I am going to follow an online shopping plan:

  1. Make a list and check it twice.—I know, but seriously.  I am going to keep a list of what I plan to buy, update when it is purchased and document where from, write down the scheduled arrival date, and write down when it arrives. I may also write where in my house I hid it.  I’ll probably keep this information in a password protected document to prevent prying eyes from seeing!
  2. Before I buy online, I will research the site thoroughly.  There are several ways to do this, some of my favorites include checking consumer complaint sites like bbb.org, yelp.com, and ripoffreport.com.  But, when I can’t find anything there, searching the business name and “complaints” or “scams” in my browser helps to locate reported consumer problems.  I’ll also ask friends about sites they have used and their experience.
  3. I won’t forget about my favorite local stores.  Many stores have moved online because of the pandemic. I’ll call local stores to double-check that they now have online ordering.  If I want items delivered, I’ll check the cost of the delivery before confirming my order.
  4. When purchasing online, I will set up an account with each vendor. I’ll use unique usernames and passwords for each site, and use strict passwords (combinations of letters–upper and lower case, numbers, and symbols, that don’t spell out a dictionary word; and absolutely is not my dog’s name).  I will use the same email address for all my online shopping though, for simplicity.—I’ll always know where to expect an order confirmation or delivery notice.
  5. I will not save my payment information on the site.  This will help protect me in case the online account is breached at a later date. 
  6. I will use a credit card for online shopping, because I know that credit cards have fraud protection and a chargeback dispute process for when items are not delivered.  Recovering funds through newer pay services such as peer to peer payments, like Venmo, Zelle, Apple/Google Pay is not so easy due to having few regulated safeguards.
  7. If a problem occurs with my order, I will reach out to the company through the portal of my online account.
  8. I won’t take the bait of emails, calls, or texts that claim there are unauthorized funds on my account, or problems with my order.  Instead, I’ll go back to the online account portal.

This last step is especially important right now.  With the general increase of online shopping, our office has documented an increase in scam reports of emails, calls, or text messages that claim credit cards have been charged large sums of money by Amazon.com and other vendors. Consumers are invited to call company support to dispute any charges that may be unauthorized.  When consumers call the number provided, they are asked to provide credit card numbers and personal information and take steps to allow remote access to computers. 

Last month, CAP was on Across the Fence talking about this important issue.  Check out the video below.   

My online shopping plan will help me to avoid scams when they crop up. I hope they help you, too. If an issue does arise, the Consumer Assistance Program is a resource to help mediate and resolve consumer transaction disputes.  We provide letter mediation.  When we receive a written complaint from you, we will reach out to the business on your behalf.  You can find our online form here: https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/consumer-complaint/

I hope you have a safe and healthy holiday season.