Leftovers: Lessons in car-buying, Part 2: Switching gears

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Last week’s column was a swan song to my bougie 2004 Lexus RX330. It was also a road trip down memory lane celebrating multiple Honda Civics, CR-Vs, and two Pontiac Sunbird convertibles. Cars are mobile memory makers and nothing has changed about that. But getting one now has changed indeed.

Dealership hopping, CarMax, Carvana, CarGuru, Uncle Mike who worked at a dealership for 11 years, pop-up web ads with unattainable rates, Kelley Blue Book prices, J.D. Power ratings, the cuteness factor of a notoriously unreliable car – all that and more weighs into the already stressful process of buying a car.

Add the multi-faceted uncertainty of 2020, and the ordeal compares to bamboo shoots under my fingernails or watching political ads “Clockwork Orange”-style. If it sounds dramatic, that’s because it is.

Like many women, my car-shopping experience is part of a falsehood we tell ourselves when feeling insecure about something. “I’m good at lots of things,” I’ll say in my head. “But this just isn’t one of them.” 

I wanted to buy a car locally and support a Maine dealership. The problem was, I couldn’t find what I wanted at a reasonable price. The reasonable part was determined by industry-standard Carfax and Kelley Blue Book prices for like-vehicles. The inventory problem stems from people hanging on to their used cars for dear life, and dealerships having trouble obtaining inventory because of that and the virus. 

There were more choices at New England dealerships outside of Maine, but those involved travel during the pandemic and even larger dealership fees than we have here. At one place, this included a mandatory $299 for inflating the tires with nitrogen. Even the car salesman had trouble making it sound matter-of-fact. 

During this initial shopping period, I was pleased to meet a woman who put an old trigger to rest.

I can remember shopping with my kid’s dad for the Volvo I never wanted. He met me after work in a suit and tie at a swanky Boston dealership. When the salesman saw him, he lit up and said, “Oh good. Now we can really talk nuts and bolts.” Both of us needed to be present to sign the paperwork, but I know he was referring to something that had nothing to do with an exhausted woman holding an angelic baby who had just spit up.  

That’s why it was a pleasure to meet 32-year old Amanda Ivey, who has been selling cars at the Bill Dodge Auto Group in Westbrook for eight years. Ivey was professional in the least condescending manner possible. Although I’m not buying a car from her, I think we’ve become friends. Her advice has been priceless.

Amanda Ivey of Bill Dodge Auto Group in Westbrook. (Contributed)

Other women I’ve met over the phone, and on virtual car lots like Carvana, are all changing the smarmy stereotype of used car salespeople. There has been zero intimidation. Dare I say the shopping process was becoming almost fun?

There are so many nuances in the new avenues available to us. For example, an operation like Carvana means you have to have your down payment on hand and trade-in ready to go, or you may lose out to another real-time interested buyer in Cincinnati. CarMax and Carvana both charge “out-of-market” delivery fees, but Carvana never charges a dealership fee. Yet out of over 200 CarMax dealerships, about 50 percent do. Both have explicit return policies, and after reading the fine print, they are actually fair. 

Too emotionally involved to be objective about all the pros and cons, I went with a Carvana purchase. The key is to be 100 percent sure about the make and model of the car you’re buying. Study the options, the Carfax report, and the original window sticker, which was made available to me in this case. They’ll be delivering it to my door, and if I don’t want to keep it after 400 miles or seven days, I’ll take it to Kittery and get all of my money back. I know this after speaking at length with a lovely sales advocate named Journey.

My new-to-me car is a 2012 Lexus RX350 with 39,000 miles. It’s mica red (I’ve always wanted to name house paints and nail polish), had one owner, no accidents, has all the service records, and is well below the fair listing price. It isn’t an old-school Civic or CR-V, but it will be my second used Lexus, resembling the 2004 that’s going to pasture. So, I’ll still be driving in my lane. 

Car shopping and selling for women have changed for the better. Thrilled with my purchase, I’ll be happy to have routine repair and maintenance done right here in the 207. Hopefully, for a good, long time.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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