My wife, kids and I did a lot of traveling in the family van this summer, which went out with a bang (the van, not summer) when the transmission recently died at the beach near our home. The mechanic told us the transmission would cost more than we wanted to invest in the 9-year-old vehicle, so we went on the hunt for a new van.
Buying a new car is an enjoyable experience for me... once my wife and I drive it off the lot. The actual shopping, selection and haggling is about as much fun for me as Pickett's Charge in Gettysburg, so we choose to drive Toyotas as we've had great luck and get 8-10 years with them (unlike in my youth, I trade cars in while they're still drivable, at least for the most part).
We were at the disadvantage when we walked into the dealer. We needed a car, the trade-in value on the old car was minimal since the transmission was shot, and we weren't shopping at the dealership we normally patronize (they didn't have the van we wanted) so we couldn't play the "loyal customer for years" card when negotiating.
I did have one advantage on my belt, however: my smartphone. Cue the Mission Impossible theme.
We found a van we liked, a Toyota Sienna, and they quoted us an asking price. I texted my friend, Mike, who had once been a mechanic at a dealership.
"What do you recommend to help bring down the price?" I asked.
"Go to Truecar.com," he replied immediately. "Dealers will honor the calculated price Truecar will provide on the car."
Truecar.com is a free service that can quickly help you find the best price on a vehicle when it comes time to sit down at the table. I tapped "Select a Vehicle."
Then I scrolled down and selected "Toyota."
Then I tapped on "Sienna."
Using the Truecar interface I then picked the all-wheel drive version, the model, the color, and some options such as accessory/navigation packages, build in DVD player, etc. I won't bore you with the remaining details, but it was a quick and easy process and then Truecar gave me an estimate right on my screen.
Their projected value of the car was almost $3000 less than the asking price. Truecar claims they can lower the average sticker cost of a car by $3221 so that was right in the ballpark we wanted.
If you're a Tolkien fan you'll remember that scene from "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" where Sam Gamgee drives back the evil spider Shelob with the magical Light of Earendil which the elf Galadriel gave him. Obscure reference, perhaps, and while I don't mean to compare the dealership manager to a malevolent arachnid, it had something of the same effect (hey, both the Light of Earendil and my smartphone glowed).
The manager immediately accepted the price decrease without any fuss or hedging. A little bit more drama and discussion brought the final cost down a bit further to something we could both live with. We're not out to squeeze blood from a stone; if we drive off feeling we paid a fair cost and the dealer made a fair profit, we're perfectly satisfied.
I later thanked Mike for his advice and commented that "dealers must really be feeling the pinch from mobile access to car prices; that was like having a Wookie guard my lunch!" His response made perfect sense in this technologically-oriented world:
"Are you kidding? Dealers love that stuff too. It helps them close deals. Do you know how many people walk off the lot without completing a sale because they just can't believe they're getting a fair price? How long did it take you guys to start signing the paperwork after you showed him the Truecar cost of the van?"
"About fifteen minutes," I admitted.
"See? It was a win-win. You had the data you needed to make a decision and he didn't have to convince you that you were getting a decent price. Less time arguing over price means more sales. It also means more happy customers who write positive reviews of the dealer."
There are other free mobile apps for car shoppers as well to make the experience more pleasant and streamlined. Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds offer similar apps to Truecar. The Carmax app can help used car buyers and sellers close deals. Bankrate.com offers an online auto loan calculator. AAA (also known as Triple-A) provides an Auto Buying Tool app which can provide vehicle pricing information, ratings, reviews and comparisons, but it's only for the iPhone at this time.
Looking for car insurance? Your provider may have a mobile app, or if you are starting from square one, Allstate has an app for Android and iOS, and Liberty Mutual, Progressive as well as Geico provide the same (of course, you may have alternate provider preferences so finding the app that matches your specifications is likely just a Google search away).
Mobility means having the tools you need at your disposal while you're out and about. In the past it might have taken us days or weeks of research, phone calls, dealer visits and stressful haggling to get the price we wanted on a car. My wife and I have three kids and a busy summer schedule so that was time and effort we just couldn't invest. Truecar (and my friend Mike) made an otherwise difficult experience a smooth ride.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.