Buying a car

Imagine a tense negotiation. You have seen them on television. You have surely heard fantastic stories about them. Perhaps, if you are wholly unlike me, you’ve even been in one.

Before I went to buy a car, negotiations like this seemed to have only existed in a world with closed doors and important, suited men gathered around a table. A world that an aspiring scholar-hipster such as I would never enter. All I knew about negotiations is an economic model I learned in class. Two parties somehow would meet in the middle of their valuations via Nash bargaining. It’s a beautifully simple shorthand for describing the world, but hopelessly useless in the car-purchasing application. By golly buying a car was no visit to the bookstore. In fact, my experience of buying a car had all the high emotions and treacherousness of living an HBO show. It is an experience far removed from the ivory-tower comforts of high-minded intellectualism I am accustomed to.

The purchase took several trips. The first was a pleasant test driving session at a dealership in a Chicago suburb. My uncle and I were helped by an unassuming and friendly salesman who spoke Cantonese to us. I tested a few cars that I was considering, a very informative exercise that helped me decide about the characteristics of cars I cared about. Being an old, unfashionable soul, of course I fell in love with the good old Corolla. It drove easily and was reliable. I left the dealership feeling excited to own one soon. Our scouting trip had been successful.

A few days later and after a few phone calls, we arrived at back at the dealership to negotiate. We brought all relevant paperwork: a photo ID and proof of residence. Soon we were sitting across from the salesman in a cubicle. After some banter, we began to talk prices. Eventually we put in a offer and he shuttled to his manager to discuss.

I had little idea about the sales tactics and psychological games that I’d encounter over the course of the next hour. I was shown price calculations in an intentionally convoluted way, mixing monthly payments with interest rates and down payments. It was impossible to make comparison with such numbers. When we objected to his calculation, he reframed a manufacturer discount as a concessions, even though any dealership had those, resulting in an even higher price. I quickly began to get flustered and impatient.

Someone once told me that each person has a different negotiating style. Some folks like to be friendly and work on a compromise. Others are stern and drive a hard bargain. My style is sheer frustration. From the beginning I hated the process. I hated being put under pressure. I just wanted to leave. Unrestrained I would have sad yes to almost anything just to end my discomfort. Thankfully my uncle’s presence mean that we only slowly increased our offer price. Still, eventually we hit an impasse. We spent many minutes haggling and making no progress.

We then got a very memorable good-cop, bad-cop treatment. The manager of the dealership came over after we put in our third, and apparently “insincere” offer. He sweet talked us for what felt like forever forever. He told us about his family, he flattered us with praise, and he entertained us with funny anecdotes. Then he made an about-face in his tone of voice and sternly informed us that we would be insanely idiotic to turn down their offer. He told us we knew nothing about the car business. He made an extremely emotional appeal about the integrity of his particular dealership and how we were getting the best price they could offer. Then he got up and walked off.

The “nice guy” salesman we had been working with told us he was sorry, but that the “bad cop” was right, and that he can’t do any better. I was ready to pay up, even though the price was a couple thousand dollars above what I would eventually get.

In the end my mother saved the day. I tried to call her to see if she’d be okay with the price and I couldn’t reach her. I had promised myself I wouldn’t proceed without her OK. I left the dealership without a car but much relieved.

The next day my mother did some aggressive internet searching and found a phenomenal Memorial Day sale. This made me realize how truly stupid I was to want to pay up at a much higher price. So I went to this dealership a week later. By then I had done plenty of homework both on the internet and from my previous information-gathering outings. I knew what prices and alternatives existed. I knew this time to be aggressive and to focus on the price. So I did a bit better and I kept myself from be distracting by psychological tricks. I was patient not to settle too easily and I called my mom frequently to stall.

Devastatingly the salesman told me that the online deal only applied to a red color Corollas as advertised. He then attempted to sell me a white car and to tack on extra fees. After an hour and half of back and forth I eventually managed to squeeze out a deal for a sleeker silver one I liked. After another two hours signing papers and buying insurance, I left the car dealership starving, drained, and world-weary, but finally in possession of a car.

Now if there is something to learn from my experience, it is probably how difficult being rational under pressure is. I felt profoundly dumb throughout the process. All the humanist books I’ve read are poor guides for this strange land. All those good grades that got me into college are useless. Neither intellect nor depth of thought reign in this land. Only smarts and experience do. Buying a car, I suppose, is a good way get that kind of real-world education.