My family has owned early 90s Hondas for as long as I can remember. Our longest-maintained one, known alternately as The Terminator or the Honda of Doom for its menacing facade, resplendent with a missing gas tank door, and its ability to handily deal with every challenge and small animal thrown at it, long ago passed the 300,000 mile mark. It’s still going strong in its second life with a younger relative.
Three weeks ago my erstwhile Honda, a 1993 Accord affectionately known as Beige Betty with more than 209,000 miles on it, formally announced to everyone on I’s 70 and 63 in Missouri that she was in her death throes. Heartbroken, I took her to a garage where the staff did a very poor job of concealing their disbelief when I asked whether it was worth it to repair the old girl. “…I mean…no. No. Look, you really shouldn’t be driving this thing,” was what they said. “Girlfriend, there is a piece of twine holding your gas cap to its door. A piece. Of. Twine,” was what they said with their eyes. (For the record, that piece of twine worked marvelously.)
So, I had the garage do whatever it was they did to make Betty safe(r)/(ish)/(?) for under $50 and resigned myself to my destiny of car shopping. Which I got into once I challenged myself to find something really fun for less than $13,000. I set my sights on a Mini Cooper–used, of course–and became so taken with the idea of of living out my Italian Job fantasies that I forced a very patient friend to spend his Sunday afternoon teaching me how to drive stick shift on his car on a pothole-y parking lot.
Any aspirations of Mark Wahlberging my way around mid-Missouri were quickly shot down when one of my bosses threw a fit after learning I wanted a Mini. He pronounced them crap cars, albeit some of the coolest-looking crap cars out there, and by the end of his rant it seemed plausible I might get fired for buying one. He suggested what were, in his opinion, better alternatives: BMWs, Lexuses (Lexi?), Infinitis, Acuras. Admittedly, all were much better alternatives, but far out of my price range.
There was also a used Volvo C30 he suggested that caught my eye, a red two-door with a stylish hatchback design. It was listed close enough to my price range that I felt I could get it down to where I wanted to be. “I know a guy at the dealership,” my boss said. So, he shot his guy (Henceforth referred to as Justin, name changed.) an introductory email and into the dealership I went.
Picture, if you will, a slightly rusted 1993 Honda with an emerging hole in its muffler pulling into an expensive car dealership, the driver visibly fearful of nicking the BMWs and Mercedes closely packed on either side, ultimately opting to park it in the fast food parking lot next door where it blended in a little better. The staff inside reacted about as you’d expect them to, peeking out of the polished glass facade as though they couldn’t believe what they were seeing in their posh parking lot.
Walking into that car dealership as a single young female easily ranks as one of the most unabashedly sexist experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Multiple sales reps came up to me to tell me how “cute” I looked in the car. Justin, my sales rep, told me three times he wanted my boss’ opinion on the C30 before asking me even once what I thought of it; he also told me he usually requires people bake him cookies before he agrees to sell them a car. Also, in an attempt to get me to agree to their price, the sales manager claimed he was giving me “fatherly advice” he would give his own daughters on how much I should pay. (At this moment those young women are either in dire financial trouble or have significant trust issues.)
The cherry on top was when, after I’d negotiated a pretty good price, the sales manager offered me a job by telling me the dealership could use a “somewhat attractive young woman” (Thanks.) who wasn’t a pushover and knew how to talk to people. Currently their only women on staff, he explained, were their receptionist (“Look, she’s a doctor’s wife. You know what I’m saying?”) and one other woman whose function was vague (“She’s our friendly, smiling face, but we don’t have her do a whole lot.”). Women don’t trust men, he explained, but they do trust women. So, the proposition was for me to help them profit off the female demographic by screwing them over. Tempting.
All this being said, the experience was a particularly satisfying one. I’m an odd duckling in that I find these kinds of negotiations fun. Both parties know what the score is and what each other’s job is. There’s no need for either of you to feel like you’ve connected when all is said and done, only that each of you has done your job to the best of your abilities. The end game is to see how far you can outstrategize each other.
I know I walked in looking unsure and a little frazzled–in other words, like an easy target. I’d even go as far as to say they viewed me as a sacrificial offering from a past client who’s negotiated some great prices at their expense. It would certainly explain the look of deep betrayal on Justin’s face when I insisted on negotiating a price rather than taking the one he offered: a lousy $500 lopped off the as-listed.
In many ways, however, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I had the advantage the minute I walked through their door. In spite of what first appearances would seem to indicate I came well-researched, with a spreadsheet that wove varying financial scenarios of down payments, loan amounts, interest charges, monthly repayment totals and my resulting budget flexibility. (Tip: the easiest way to frustrate a car sales rep is to refuse to let them see a copy of a spreadsheet like this while referring back to it frequently.) My trump card was a pretty good one: I was perfectly happy leaving the dealership without a car. I’d been driving a somewhat rickety ’93 Honda with 200,000-plus miles on it for three years; what was three more days, frankly, if that’s what it took for me to get a car I liked at a price that worked for me? All it took to convince Justin to get his sales manager to begin negotiating was my buttoning up my jacket and handing him the keys to the C30.
The dealership staff even had a few redeeming moments. Their finance guy, a stats major from my alma mater, was great to work with. Really. He explained everything to me, even things he didn’t have to, and I learned quite a bit about financing and credit calculations from him. He was required to offer me the extended warranty, but didn’t push me to reconsider after I told him I wasn’t interested. Even Justin redeemed himself slightly. Shortly before I left he told me that if the dealership was going to lose money, he was happy it was on someone like me. (Translation: a young professional who doesn’t have a lot of money to throw around.)
Oddly enough, what I was most worried about during the entire car buying process was trading my Honda for another manufacturer; at this point I qualify as a high priestess of the early 90’s Japanese engineering cult. The Swedes have given us some great things, however, like Ikea, GPS and the Tempur-Pedic Sleep System, and so far my C30, Inga, is turning out to be another Swedish success story.