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The buyer always loses in car game

This is the story of the $5 bill.

And about buying a car.

And about what a pain it is.

Yes, this is a sports story because car shopping involves preparation, strategy and intense competition. Problem is, there can be only one winner and it's never you.

Let's start with the sawbuck, the only money a car dealer has ever given me. I received a flyer in the mail that said my late-model import was in great demand and that my local dealer would give me 75 percent of the manufacturer's original retail price if I'd consider leasing a new one.

I added that up and realized I was being offered more for my car than it was worth. It had to be a gimmick and I wasn't going to waste my time with it.

But included in the flyer was a scratch-off card with a minimum prize of $5. And one lucky winner was to receive $2,000. I figured, what the heck, it would take just a minute to pop into the dealership and collect the $5, and if I was really lucky ...So I walked in and a woman in a booth scratched my card (it would have been invalid if I had done it) and, sadly, $5 was all I was going to get.

She handed me the five and asked if I'd like to see a salesman. I should have said "no, thanks" and walked out. But we had been thinking of buying a van and perhaps they'd offer a great deal, what with the trade-in special.

So I was ushered into a salesman's office and I showed him the offer. He professed ignorance and excused himself to talk to his sales manager. Well, sure enough, the manufacturer was indeed making that offer and his dealership would be glad to honor it.

So 75 percent of my car's original MSRP was about $9,000, $3,500 more than it is worth. Great, I said. I'll put that $3,500 on a new van.

Again, the salesman left to speak with his manager. Upon returning, the salesman informed me that it would take $1,000 to recondition the car, there was a $1,000 penalty for excess mileage (though the three-year-old car only had 40,000 miles), a $500 transaction fee, and a $500 service charge.

What?

Suddenly, my $3,500 down payment had dwindled to $500. A thousand bucks to wash and wax the car? Excess mileage? It has less than 13,500 miles a year. Transaction fee and service fee? And what's the difference?

Needless to say, I walked out after saying a few choice words. So I spent 20 minutes at the dealership, not bad for $5. But the aggravation was not worth it.

We still needed that van, however, so I started shopping at other places, armed with my Consumer Reports buyers guide, information from my credit union, and a resolve not to get ripped off.

The first place I looked was the classifieds and I spotted an ad that offered a great deal on a new van. But the dealership was in Tampa, so I went to the local dealer and asked if he'd be willing to meet the price.

To his credit, he did and it was a great deal. He'd make a little money and I'd pay less than I thought, without a whole lot of haggling.

But then came the negotiations for the dreaded trade-in. I'd rather visit the dentist. I had just come from another dealership where I was offered near to what I thought the car was worth if I'd buy a used van.

I relayed that offer to the van dealer and he said two words: No way. He explained that the other dealer had inflated the price of the van and that in turn artificially inflated the price of my trade-in. He even showed me in his trusty black book (they are not blue anymore) and so did the sales manager at another dealership.

So basically, I owed $2,000 more than the car was worth. Never mind that I could clear $1,000 if they offered me the retail price. Well, of course they couldn't because they have to make a profit. But these chaps would not even come halfway. There was no negotiation and that's because I got such a good deal on the van.

So I was left with two choices. Either take their offer on the trade-in and build the $2,000 I would still owe into the new loan, or buy the van outright and own three cars.

I now own three cars.

Anyone need a good used car? I'll sell it at cost.

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