Negotiation: How to Buy a Car

Negotiating is a skill that all of us need, but few of us have. Perhaps it’s the fear of stepping out of our comfort zones, or simply the fear of rejection. It’s not in most people’s human nature to be confrontational or simply just asking for what they want. A negotiation is nothing more than settling differences. It’s simply the process of reaching an agreement while advoiding a dispute. Very rarely, people will agree on everything. In fact, the opposite may be true: we agree on nothing. Therefore, we need some sort of way to settle these differences. Each side seeks to get the best possible outcome. No news there. However, since this is not always possible, both sides need to feel they’ve benefited or else a desirable outcome will not be feasible. Many people think negotiations only happen in high profile situations like government affairs, the legal system, or big business. But the truth is it affects each of us all the time. At some point, all of else will apply for a job, buy a house, or buy a car.

The first step in any negotiation is preparation. This involves gathering all facts of the situation and making them known to all parties. When buying a car, the parties don’t interact beforehand. Usually, the first interaction is on the car lot. However, with the invention of the internet, the buyer can go to a lot with a car and price in mind. Prior to this, the buyer only had the kind of car he wanted, or thought he wanted. I did two things before I went to the lot. The first was to find a car on the company’s web site. I found a BMW with 70,000 miles for $17,000. Then, I went to the Kelly Blue Book for used cars website and did a comparison. I put in the information and got a price range of $15,500 – $16,500. Finally, I did an internet search for tips on buying a car. Obviously, there was a difference between the two parties. Remember, we haven’t interacted yet. Two important parts of the negotiating process must be determined here: the minimum acceptable outcome or walkaway point. These can help take emotion out of the equation. My walk away point was the top level Kelly Blue Book price of $16,500.

The next step in the process is discussion. Here, the parties actually meet and put forward their case and explain their understanding of the situation. The key here is to avoid saying too much and listening to little. You don’t want to tip your hand by giving out too much information or miss important points by failing to listen to the other side. This part is hard for many people because it involves discipline and good listening skills. It is at this point where a negotiation can be won or lost. The ability to shut up and listen may be the most important skill in negotiating since it forces you to take your ego off the table. The salesman’s case was to try and get me into a newer car. Not surprising. He would make a bigger commission on that. He tried to use the MSRP and monthly payment argument. But because I was prepared, I knew the car I wanted and wasn’t going to be swayed.

At this point of the process, both sides should list the priority of what they want accomplished. Without these, barriers to reaching a desired outcome are sure to arise. Sometimes you may need to take a break if it looks a desirable outcome is not achievable. It could be just a lunch break or setting up another meeting several days or weeks into the future. You always want to clear your head and keep emotions out as much as possible. When you do return, always start with what has been agreed upon previously and go from there. In my situation, there was only one goal for both sides: the salesman wanted to sell me a car and I wanted to buy one. He did try to sell me a different one, but that obstacle was cleared rather quickly. I said “sure if you want to give it to me for my walk away price.” He chuckled and we moved on. At this point, we can determine which side has the power. I had the power because I had other options. I could go to a different lot and buy the car. Sure I could have said I’d like to think it over. Salespeople know that if you leave the showroom, you’re going to a competitor and probably not coming back. But that would’ve taken effort on my part. Most people want to buy a car from the lot they visited. They don’t want to spend days going through the buying process. That was true in my case and the salesperson knows that.

We took the car for a test drive. Here is where the salesperson can take control of the process. He gets a chance to explain the cars features and demonstrate the benefits of owning this particular vehicle. His experience tells him that once someone gets behind the wheel, and the car is sound, the chances of a sale rise dramatically. He tried to sell me some add ons like a warranty and fabric protection. But because of my preparation, I was able to stay on top and avoid those.

The next part of the negotiating process is for both sides to start thinking win/win. It’s at this point both sides have determined that they won’t get everything that want. Since this isn’t always possible, an alternative strategy, or plan B, must be considered. Both sides need to feel they’ve gained something positive. He came down in price to $16,500. He made the first offer. The list price of $17,000 isn’t an offer. It was the starting point. Even though that was my walk away price, I figured since I knew the Kelly Blue Book range, he must have too. After all, he’s aiming high and I am aiming low. We both want the best deal. I countered with the low end of $15,500.

Two points must be made here. Never accept the first offer, or anchor offer. This should be viewed as one side trying to set the tone and gain control. You will always wonder whether you could have gotten more. The other is always get something in return for a concession. Think win/win. Both sides gave something up. A good rule of thumb is to ask for three times what you think your worth. Of course it may seem outrageous, but at least you’ll know you probably couldn’t have gotten a better deal than the one you got. Three times his concession of $500 actually took us down to $15,500, the low end of the Kelly Blue Book price.

Another negotiating point in a deal like this is trade in value for your old car. The process is the same. I didn’t have any leverage on this point. My car was on its last leg and was only going to be used for parts. It wasn’t worth risking the deal so I took what they offered. But be sure to know the Kelly Blue Book trade in value for that as well. In the end we agreed on a price of $16,000. It seems on the surface like I won because I received $1,000 in concessions and remained steadfast on the car I wanted. But from his point of view, he was most likely happy to move stock with little effort, so it was a win/win for both parties.

Negotiating is necessary to determine your true market value. The negotiation process doesn’t start until someone says no. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest impediments to a successful negotiation is the fear of rejection. You are not being rejected. It’s just that you and the opposing parties want different things. Think of a negotiation as an opportunity to solve a problem. The person with the least to lose has the biggest advantage. There is less emotion and they are willing to take bigger risks in getting what they want. If the gap is significant between the parties in this area, it will be difficult to satisfy both sides since one of them isn’t really interested in a win/win situation. Remember to always ask for more than you want.

I didn’t do this in my negotiation. I wish I did and it is one thing I would have changed. Part of the reason is I thought I was getting what I wanted. I picked out the car that I wanted. I should have gone in there with two or three models in mind. I also didn’t threaten to think it over and act as if I was leaving. Perhaps if I did, I could’ve gotten a car with fewer miles and some additional perks. I also didn’t look at the MSRP on the car. I usually think of the MSRP on only new cars. If I did, I would have had a stronger bargaining chip. Finally, I should have gotten pre-approved financing before I went to the dealership. Having a fixed rate and loan in hand would have been a strong bargaining chip. I got a bad rate from the dealership which I later refinanced. With a new car, you may not have the option because the deals they offer are tied in with using their financing department. But when purchasing a used car, always get preapproved financing. It’s one additional piece of ammunition that can put you in charge of the negotiation process.

There were many lessons to be learned in this exercise. The first is the process is an art that no one can fully master. I certainly didn’t do a great job, but it wasn’t as nerve racking as I thought. Getting better shouldn’t be difficult. Of course, it will take a lot of practice to be able to do one of those high profile negotiations where the stakes are high. I learned each side is searching for the best possible outcome. They aren’t out to take advantage of you. The best way to avoid this is to aim high in the beginning. Being the one in charge is definitely an advantage. Setting the tone for a negotiation certainly gives that side an advantage. I was able to stick to my plan, which surprised me a little. I thought I would get talked into something else. You must have a plan going in. Conflict resolution is not a zero sum game where one side wins and the other loses. Both can win. Finally, this is a skill everyone must have. We will all negotiate in some manner at some point of our lives.

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