Buying Used Without Feeling Used

Hiram Colon knows better than to try to beat a car salesman at his own game. After all, the 48-year-old Stone Mountain (Ga.) resident used to sell Toyotas. He knows all about enticing customers with a low base price and then loading on expensive options, or tacking on costly warranties and service contracts. "There's no such thing as beating a car salesman," says the real estate seller.

So when his wife, Grace, recently said she wanted a 1996 Toyota Camry, he reluctantly started to comparison-shop at local dealers, warning the sales staff that he knew the inside scoop. "They still tried to give me the runaround," he says. That's when he decided to visit the CarMax used-car superstore in Duluth, Ga. He called ahead and requested a Spanish-speaking salesman, who turned out to be more like a clerk in a department store than a traditional car salesman, Colon says. Since there's no haggling over CarMax prices and commissions are based on unit volume and not price, the main job of the sales staff is to answer questions and smooth the process rather than steer customers to higher-priced models.

Using one of the CarMax computer kiosks that dot the showroom floor, Colon punched in the amount of his downpayment, the monthly payment he thought he could afford, and the model and options he was looking for. The computer spit out a picture of a shiny gold 1996 Camry, with 7,400 miles and a sticker price of $18,900. After a quick test-drive, he and his salesclerk finished a loan application. Based on his income, credit rating, and a $2,000 downpayment, CarMax financed the rest at 16%. Colon says he was pleased with the price, and since CarMax doesn't tack on any prepayment fees, he plans to refinance the loan in six months through his bank. The whole process took about two hours, and as Colon marvels: "There was no pressure. I was very relaxed, and I felt like I was in control." That's not a feeling most car buyers get to experience.

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