Both of us Learning Shopping

2015 recap: Buying a car online

November 27, 2015

As a shopper who wears her feelings on her sleeve, car dealers can see me coming a mile up the highway. However, thanks to the internet and its arm’s length anonymity, the playing field has leveled a bit – even for me, who has been known to jump up and down on the showroom floor. It does take some research, travel and the ability to withstand a barrage of emails and phone calls.  Sue excels at the research part and is a cautious shopper, so she kept me from making a more impulsive buying decision.

I’m sure there is a guy out there who thinks he could have done better, and maybe indeed he could have wrung a few more dollars out of the dealer. We used TrueCar and we were generally happy with the result. You go to the website, plug in your zip code, year, make and model. True Car gives you a bell curve showing you the MSRP, factory invoice, average paid in your zip code, and the True Car price.


The next step is a list of unnamed Certified TrueCar dealers and the prices at which they will sell you that make and model. When you go to the next step you see the actual dealer names and the TrueCar certificates they are supposed to honor. Then wait for the emails and phone calls. For several days, they were relentless.

We did not start shopping expecting to purchase a Toyota RAV4. We were looking at a Volkswagen Sportwagen and did a TrueCar search on it too. A very aggressive dealership in suburban Philadelphia blew us away with a price the local dealership just scoffed at.  To save $3,000 on this model with the same MSRP and features, we would have been willing to make the 95-mile trip.

Be willing to travel

We live in a rural area, and the local Toyota dealerships don’t have high volume and aren’t used to intense competition. Once we had settled on the RAV4, I looked at the local dealership’s website and asked to see the “internet price” for an LE, the base model. This was a come-on pure and simple, and triggered a salesperson’s emails and voicemails. She gave me a “discounted sales price” of $25,030 for an LE; that was actually the MSRP. When I questioned the price, she replied, “I am able to extend to you a $500 savings prior to your visit and my sales manager will still work with you on pricing as well as on any trade you may have when you come in.” She did not mention the $750 cash back or 0 percent financing that Toyota was promoting at the time.

Sifting through the emails, I came across Newark Toyota World’s TrueCar offer. After a few emails back and forth, we journeyed the 72 miles to Newark, Delaware, and purchased the RAV4 XLE at the price below. (MSRP was $26,429.) They also gave us more than we expected for our trade-in, a 2003 Honda Element.


Here are a few tips we learned from this experience:

  • Do your homework! We had looked at VW Sportwagen, Ford Escape and Subaru Forester before we settled on the RAV4. We knew the differences between the base and upgraded models, and we knew what promotions the manufacturer was offering. We also knew the value of our trade-in.
  • If you live in a rural area or small town, consider entering a more urban zip code for your TrueCar search. Urban dealerships operate at higher volumes and are more likely to offer the best deal (if you’ve done your homework).
  • Be willing to travel to get the best deal.
  • We had our financing and interest rate (1.9%) lined up, which prompted the dealer to match that rate. We took the $750 cash back rather than the 0 percent financing, because $750 off the car was worth more to us than the interest savings over time.
  • Keep your trade-in out of it until you have agreed on a price, and be willing to sell it separately rather than take substantially less than its trade-in value

In our case, TrueCar worked. Here is a helpful article from a car-buying consultant about how TrueCar works and what some of the pitfalls may be.


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