How to use the Web to make car buying suck less

car lot header buying a car onlineIn a recent survey, more than half of respondents said they would rather go to the dentist than negotiate a car purchase. I don’t know of anyone who enjoys the process, except for the father of a friend of mine. He simply goes into the dealership already knowing what is on the lot and which vehicle he wants. He brings with him a briefcase full of cash in the amount of a few thousand less than the MSRP. He simply offers them the briefcase in return for the vehicle.

He hasn’t been turned down yet. He’s in and out – with his new car or truck – in 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, most of us do not have backyards with strategically placed coffee cans full of cash. This weekend it was time for my wife and I to face the crucible, as her lease is about to run out and she’s interested in a bigger SUV.

During the four or five trips our salesperson made between us and her manager to see if we could strike a deal (we couldn’t), I had plenty of time to ruminate on how technology can help this process and what solutions are already out there. As it turns out, the Web already offers quite a few resources that can help save time and make the process of buying a new car less of a headache.

The most important piece of information you can have before stepping into the fire is what the dealer paid for the car, or the factory invoice number. One of the most popular sites to find that number is TrueCar, which also shows you a graph of what other buyers have been paying for the car at the dealerships around your area. If one dealership seems a little more flexible than another, it will show up there. TrueCar also has a network of dealers it has already negotiated pricing with, so you can go in knowing exactly what you will pay. The site did come under fire recently for some aspects of their relationships with dealers, forcing changes in their business model. It seems to make the site more transparent for all involved.

ford fiesta pricing buying a car onlineOne of the tried-and-true sites of car buying, the Kelley Blue Book site, recently underwent a renovation to make it more TrueCar-like. It also shows the keys numbers involved with a car purchase, but also provides an estimated five-year cost of ownership figure based on things like insurance and gas mileage. If you’re not sold on a particular model yet and want to compare multiple vehicles, KBB makes an informative first stop.

These solutions are definitely a step in the right direction towards shifting the balance of power in the auto sales industry, but I don’t think they truly eliminate the aspects of the car purchase experience that people abhor. The dealership will still try to play numbers games using their “hypothetical” forms and their four corners sales sheets. Even with TrueCar’s pricing deals, I’m sure you will still have to sit through multiple rounds of “I don’t know if this is going to work. Let me talk to my manager…” They will still try to sell you add-ons and upgrades you don’t need.

What we really need is a way for more people to experience the kind of power my friend’s father experiences when he goes car shopping: bypassing the ambiguity of financing.

Perhaps that solution already exists.

Thanks to TrueCar and, you can know the terms and amounts you need ahead of time. Then, through sites like LendingClub and Prosper, you can negotiate your own financing at terms that are comfortable for you – funded by private financiers. You have none of the hoops to jump through when financing through a regular bank or credit union. You then get a check for the amount you need (I guess you can cash the check and put it in a briefcase, if you really want to experience my example at the next level) and take it to the dealership. One ultimatum later, you’re driving away in your new sled, or whip, or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

Through this plan, everyone wins… except the car dealerships, that is. But I doubt anyone will shed a tear for them.

[Image credit: carroteater/Shutterstock]


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