Women buy 54% of the cars in the United States, and influence 84% of all vehicle purchase decisions. Yet most women dread the car buying experience, with good reason. Women often get ignored, patronized, or just plain ripped off at car dealerships. And lack of knowledge about cars and the car buying process isn't always the culprit. In a study conducted by two economists in Chicago, car dealers quoted higher prices to a test group of women than to a similar group of men, even when those women came to the dealership armed with the same information as the men, and followed the same "script" as the men.
Why does this happen? Many car salespeople believe that women dont know much about cars or the car buying process, and then take advantage of that. Yet even when women are informed and savvy, they often encounter different treatment from men and have a harder time getting what they want.
So, as a woman, how do you combat this unfair treatment? First, get informed. Second, let the salesperson know you are knowledgeable and want solid information. Third, learn how to negotiate effectively. And last, if the salesperson isn't giving you the service you deserve, find another salesperson or even another dealership.
The cardinal rule for any car buyer is to do research before walking into a dealership. The importance of this rule is doubled for women.
Decide what you want. Before you enter any dealership, get online or read auto magazines and decide what car you want. Think about your lifestyle, driving habits, and financial situation, and narrow your search to cars that fit your needs. Then, do some comparison shopping. There are many private and government websites that provide useful information about vehicle reliability, gas efficiency, and many other aspects of cars. (To get information about some of those resources, read Buying a New Car and Trading in Your Old One.)
Learn about your chosen cars. Once you have narrowed your search down to one or a few cars, read as much as you can about them. Learn about the pros and cons of the vehicle, compare the model year you are looking at to other model years, and read reviews of the car. Make a list of all the features that you like and don't like and write down questions to ask the dealer.
Decide on trim line and extra features. Be sure to research the differences between the trim lines and find out what "extras" are available. Decide ahead of time what you want and dont want. Sales personnel love to persuade buyers (especially women) that they really need the extra fabric guard for $200, the added security system for $350, and the extended warranty for $1,200.
Once you are armed with research, it's time to hit the dealerships. Walk in confidently, ask for a salesperson, and tell them what car or cars you would like to see. Follow these tips to get good service and good information.
Make sure the salesperson knows you are informed. Some women have reported that sales personnel will spend hours talking about insignificant features (like seat fabric colors) and never provide information about the things that are more important to the buyer. Head off chat about colors and cup holders as quickly as possible by asking questions that let the salesperson know you have done your homework and that you want solid information about the warranty, vehicle reliability, horsepower, gas efficiency, or whatever else concerns you. If reviews have flagged some issues with the car, ask the salesperson about them.
Take notes. Take notes on important information and jot down what you did and didn't like about the car.
Test drive the car. Take the car for a test drive. Turn the radio off, drive on both freeways and surface streets, test the air conditioning, listen for noises, pay attention to seat comfort, and take note of anything else that is important to you.
Bring used cars to a mechanic. If you are looking at a used car, get an inspection by an independent mechanic. (To learn more about special considerations when buying a used car, see Buying a Used Car: What You Need to Know).
Once you've decided on the car you want, it's time to negotiate.
Many women aren't familiar or comfortable with the negotiating process. In fact, according to one study, some women aren't even aware that negotiating is possible. Keep this in mind: To get the best price possible, you must negotiate. Don't assume that the price quoted, even if the car is on sale or discounted, is the lowest price the dealer will accept. In fact, the quoted price might be jacked up quite a bit just because you are female.
Learn as much as you can about the negotiating process. If you have never negotiated before, read a few books or articles on negotiating. Here are some tips:
Dont spill your financial information or bottom line. The minute you walk into the dealership, the salesperson will try to find out how much you are willing, or able, to pay and what your financial situation is. Dont reveal anything—no discussions of your top price tag or your maximum monthly payment.
Find out what the dealer paid for the car. Negotiate "up" from what the dealer paid, not "down" from what the dealer is asking.
Use the Internet. Email the Internet sales departments of all dealerships within driving distance of your home and ask for bids on the exact car you want. Let them know you are willing to order a car, rather than settle for one on the lot that doesn't fit your criteria. This is a great way to get the dealerships to bid against each other without having to visit each showroom.
Negotiate price, not payments. Negotiate the price of the car and stay away from discussions of what that will mean in terms of monthly payments. Only when you have settled on a price should you discuss financing.
Sit on it. When it comes to negotiating, time is your friend. Make an offer that is lower than what you are willing to pay, and if the dealer doesn't accept it, tell the salesperson how to reach you and then leave. The salesperson will get back to you within a few days with a new offer. Then it's your turn again. Keep going until you get a fair price. The whole process can take days or even a week or more. Usually, the longer you negotiate, the lower the price goes.
Even if you display confidence and knowledge, some salespeople still won't take you seriously. Women recount stories of sales personnel ignoring them, failing to get them information they've asked for, or refusing to speak directly with them and instead addressing a man that accompanies them. If this happens, switch salespeople or go to another dealer.
Today, more than ever, there are dealers and salespeople that want, and will work for, your business. Find those dealers, and then tell your friends about them.
To learn more about buying a new or used car, see Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, by the Editors of Nolo, a handy guide that contains information about cars and driving, as well as other legal topics affecting the average American.