My previous car looked kind of like a snake, and my last car purchase involved dealing with a lot of snakes.

It’s unfortunate that the car business is as scammy as it is, but it is. I’ve learned when talking to car dealerships to trust nothing anyone says. True, you’re a bit safer at a place like Carmax.

They genuinely have fixed pricing when you’re buying a car so no sales shenanigans and hard sells, but you pay a big premium for that on two ends. You might call it a double-fisting of sorts.

Their used car inventory tends to be not quite the finest (there are some gems, often their late model direct trade-ins, but you have to evaluate the condition yourself) and their pricing is at the upper end of used car pricing. To get a better deal you must jump into snake’s den and if you’re not careful, they might bite you. First, the fees.

People tend to negotiate on the selling price of a car. This is a bad strategy if you’re not careful to watch for other nonsense fees the dealership might be adding. Pretty much any fee a dealership charges beyond the selling price is revenue and mostly margin for them. Sales Tax and some nominal fee for title registration are actual pass through fees you must pay when you buy a car, but dealers will even mark up that up some degree (for example, in Maryland a title cots $15 and registration is $135 but dealerships charge $300 for the two — a tidy $150 margin right there alone). You can fight these fees but it’s pointless as it’s a better idea to just negotiate the selling price more, or my preference, the “out-the-door price.” These fees are pretty standard except for when they’re not.

In buying my Mazda Miata, most dealerships were adding $300 for title and tags and another $300 “documentation” or “processing” fee, which is ostensibly so they can do the paperwork and sell you the car, but isn’t that what a dealership is supposed to do? To be clear, I’m not arguing that a car dealership should make no profit. The grocery store makes a little profit and Apple makes a lot of profit and I continue to buy from both. But some fees are just scummy.

One used car dealership I visited added a $1000 “vehicle reconditioning fee.” I almost laughed my way out of there. But I wasn’t laughing when a Mazda dealership in Tysons Corner added a second “destination” fee to their price quote.

For those who don’t know, a new car has an MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggest Retail Price) and that usually constitutes a base price for your vehicle model, added options and accessories, and a “destination” fee which theoretically normalizes the cost of transporting a vehicle to different destination but in practice is just an accepted part of the vehicle price passed on from the manufacturer (just like the dealership’s made up “processing” fees). Most buyers recognize the destination fee as normal and don’t balk at it. There’s only one problem. It’s already in the MSRP.

When the selling price of the car is negotiated down, that’s negotiating from a price already including the destination fee. Adding it as a separate line item on a sales order is double counting that fee — pure margin, and bordering on fradulent. Honestly I’m shocked that that isn’t illegal. It didn’t trip me up for a moment but it upset me because I can see how easily others would fall for the trap, thinking they may be getting a sales price a few hundred dollars lower than another dealership when in fact there was an extra $1000 thrown in out of nowhere. And to make it worse, this dealership also charged a $900 processing fee vs the $300 everyone else charged. So for an equal sales price they were charging $1600 more than other dealerships. I didn’t fall for, but I bet others do everyday. That’s why they do it. I hate that. Never in my life will I run a business that way.

That dealership was particularly bad, but I had deal with nonsense everywhere. I bought my car from the least scammy dealership I came across, but that isn’t saying much.

Someone mistyped a number right before I signed that would have added $200 to the total I would pay. The piece of paper in my hand one number and the screen I almost signed had another. I caught it, but I didn’t catch the scratches on the interior of my car that shouldn’t have been on a brand new car before I signed. Before I signed I could’ve easily gotten them to add a formal IOU to the sale contract. After, and keep in mind this is literally minutes after signing and buying my car, I had to push a bit to get them to agree to make it right.

Of course even then the general manager of the dealership refused to put it in writing and insists on speaking over the phone. I know why he’s doing that. Maybe he thinks I’ll forget, but I won’t. He definitely doesn’t want to leave a paper or e-mail trail. The part is supposedly on order and we’ll see if they’ll actually make good on their promise. I hope they do so I can maintain some semblance of faith in the humanity of car dealerships. I thought this essay would end here.

Just today, I picked up my car from a high end detailer. I paid what most people would consider to be way too much money to have my car paint corrected, wrapped in a protect plastic film, and covered in a ceramic coating that is like a super wax to further protect the exterior. These are detail oriented businesses that cater to detail oriented customers. I was a bit less detail oriented than usual in picking up my car today owing to the mask on my face and ongoing SARS2 fears, but when I got home a terrible detail emerged.

There’s a giant fine scratch on my rear bumper, under the paint protection film. It wasn’t there when I took the car there. After a close look it seems almost certain that scratch was made by the tool used to apply the film, probably while it was being installed. When you an insane amount of money to install a film that protects paint from scratches, just about the worst outcome short of a nuclear explosion is bringing the car home with new scratches.

I know they knew, but they tried to hide it. They did tell me a week ago that the car would be delayed be a few days. I didn’t bother asking why, because I tend to trust detailers. Once again, the unwelcome, persistent, and hopefully not universal lesson that to trust is to err.

They’re playing dumb and saying they had no idea but resoundingly promising they’ll go above and beyond to fix it. That’s exactly what you say when you’re caught in a lie but want to make the problem go away. Hopefully they’ll fix it. I think they will.

If not, I’ll get my money back through my credit card company and pay to get it fixed from the proceeds of the refund. For me it’s that simple, but disappointing, nonetheless. There are snakes everywhere and you just never know when they’ll bite.

The film masks it but this is an extremely fine scratch, deep but narrow, like from a knife.
These are the tools one uses to install paint protection film. Are you catching on?

In pursuit of magic