Insecure about car shopping? Do it online

St. Petersburg Times reporter Stephanie Hayes got a smoking hot price on her 2011 Mazda 3 by negotiating online. Instead of trading in her old 2000 Honda Accord, she sold it to CarMax for $1,500, a price the dealer couldn’t match.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

St. Petersburg Times reporter Stephanie Hayes got a smoking hot price on her 2011 Mazda 3 by negotiating online. Instead of trading in her old 2000 Honda Accord, she sold it to CarMax for $1,500, a price the dealer couldn’t match.

Last time, I did that thing people do. Go to dealership. Point to nearest passable automobile. Grunt. Agree to pay 437 percent interest. As that money pit collected years and dents and bad brakes and miles, I knew it was time to be smart. I would save a down payment and buy a new, or at least newish car. This time I would not be a fool. I would do the work, secure my own loan. But I was worried. While many car salespeople are good, fair people, I nonetheless look like a Cabbage Patch doll. Would I be taken seriously? I employed that magnificent tool of deception called the Internet. If people can make themselves look 40 pounds lighter in sexy Facebook photos, surely I could manipulate a deal on a car.

Every dealer is different, and every car is different. Some dealers this year halted incentives or raised prices because cars were in short supply. But it's a fluid situation, and if this economy has taught us anything, it's that haggling is always worth a try.

I identified the car I wanted. Mazda 3. Sporty. Stick shift. Starting price of $17,500. I browsed ads in the newspaper and went to a site called Truecar.com, which compares what others in your ZIP code have paid.

I e-mailed several dealers.

What followed was a period of gleeful, drunken power. For all they knew, I was Donald Trump burning dollar bills for sport. When a dealer sent a quote, I'd counter that Bob down at Mazda Factory of Florida had offered it cheaper. Could they beat it? It went back and forth like this until some dealers dropped out.

One dealer offered a 2011 model with power locks at just $500 more than another dealer's stripped 2010 model — if I came in that instant. It was the last day of the month and he needed the sale. It was tempting, and I paced outside my office in torment eating a cupcake for a while. But I needed time to secure my own loan. I would only come the next day, I said firmly. He agreed.

Bank of America approved me for a 3.4 percent interest rate. I wrote the dealer back with exact specifications of the car and the price down to the penny. I made sure to mention the pearly white paint, which I knew cost $200 more, and which I knew he forgot about.

I arrived with research, correspondence and loan papers in a stack, business card of another dealer clipped on top for good measure. I wore flats and jeans because I didn't need to look scary anymore. The Internet had done that for me!

"You're organized," the guy said, a bit flummoxed.

As predicted, he tried to squeeze me for the extra $200 of paint. When I showed our e-mails and threatened to leave, the manager backed down. I declined all the extras at the final signing.

Final price of my 2011 Mazda 3: $14,286. Payments: $229 a month.

Payments on my old clunker? $228.

This time, I think I won.

Reach us via e-mail at heresthedeal@sptimes.com or follow us on Twitter @HerestheDealFL.

Tips for car shopping

Haggle online. No one needs to know what you look like, or even your gender.

Secure your own loan. You can often do better through your bank or credit union.

Look for money-saving features like manual transmissions and muted paint colors.

Trade smart. See what CarMax or private buyers will offer for your old car. Sometimes it's more than the dealer will give.

Be prepared to leave. If you're not comfortable, get up. Don't yield to pressure. It's your money, your choice.

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Insecure about car shopping? Do it online 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 3:51pm]

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