Many car dealerships welcome members of the military with banners and incentives, but it takes more than flags and rhetoric to get a good deal. In fact, one expert says many salesmen will praise a military person's service just to lower resistance to a sales pitch.
When servicemen walk onto car lots, salesmen initially identify them by their "high and tight" haircuts and by the way they walk and talk, says Robert "Camo" Gleisberg, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a community education officer for Pacific Marine Credit Union. Gleisberg teaches a car-buying class at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, California.
"With a few probing questions, it's obvious what the salesman is dealing with," he says.
Gleisberg tells the "young troopers" in his classes not to be taken in by what he calls "military sales rhetoric." And they don't have to go into the car-buying process unarmed (metaphorically, of course). Servicemen and servicewomen have a range of resources to help them prepare for buying their first car. The Office of Servicemember Affairs, a new agency within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, provides information and support to military members about car-buying and other major purchases. For examples of how badly service members are sometimes treated, see this related story: "Star Spangled Rip-Off: Why Military Car Buyers are Vulnerable to Bad Deals".
And because the San Diego area is home to more than a dozen military installations, the San Diego Better Business Bureau provides a special Web site for military car shoppers.
These experts and others provided this basic training for service members who are car shopping. It's helpful for civilians as well:
1. Conduct target-price reconnaissance. As basic as it sounds, many service members haven't checked the value of the vehicles they are considering buying, says Sheryl Bilbrey, CEO of the San Diego Better Business Bureau. Use Edmunds.com's True Market Value® (TMV®) pricing for new, used and certified pre-owned cars. It's also smart to check local classified listings to accurately gauge the asking price of cars. Knowing the numbers behind the deal will make you a good negotiator.
2. Plan for the total cost of a car. In his car-buying class, Gleisberg uses the acronym GRIM to educate buyers. There's more to a car's cost than just its purchase price, he says:
G is for gas costs. Buy a fuel-efficient car.
R is for registration. "We're not talking peanuts here," Gleisberg says. Registration costs can exceed $300 for a new car.
I is for insurance. Choose your car wisely or insurance could be more than the monthly car payment.
M is for maintenance. Gleisberg tells his classes to set aside extra money for routine service and repairs.
3. Negotiate with your feet. Craig Hughes, a financial counselor based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California, gives young military car buyers this advice: "Be prepared to do an about-face if you don't like what you're hearing." Some car salesmen create a sense of urgency, telling a buyer that someone else will steal his dream car. But it will probably still be there next week. Or you'll be able to find a better deal elsewhere.
4. Get good intel. Bilbrey says it only takes seconds to check a dealership's rating on a Better Business Bureau Web site. This "pre-information" lets you know if you are dealing with an F-rated business or one that has earned an A. If it gets a top grade, you still have to make your best deal, of course. But at least you know that other shoppers have successfully navigated the buying process.
5. Return to Base. Most shoppers test-drive a car and if they like it, they plunge into negotiations. Instead, Gleisberg recommends that you leave the car lot after a test-drive. Then you can contact local dealerships' Internet department managers for price quotes or shop for Edmunds.com Price Promise® offers.
6. Know the rules of engagement. All the experts stressed one important fact: When you sign the sales contract, you are legally obligated to make all the car payments. Unlike many other large purchases, there is no "cooling-off period" when you buy a car. It's not a bad idea to sleep on your purchase decision before you sign the paperwork.
Armed with good information and the right attitude, military car buyers can get the vehicle that's right for them.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.