Buying a Car and Other Miserable Experiences

We’re Camry people, ever since the first one we purchased used for Margaret in 1998. I went around to neighbors with a Camry in their driveway, asking, “Do you ‘like’ your Camry or are you crazy about it?” Without exception, everyone was crazy about theirs. Eventually, we bought new Camrys in 2001 and 2005. This being 2009 and the ’05 carrying 140,000 miles, it is clearly time to upgrade.

I dread the process of studying prices and choices and making the rounds of the dealerships. Car dealers know this, of course, and count on it to discourage shoppers from in-depth comparisons and induce them into “let’s get it over with” purchasing decisions.

Anyway, here’s what happened.

We have three Toyota dealerships in this part of the world which we will herein refer to as A, B, and C, in the order in which I visited them.

Last week, I called on Dealer A. The salesman looked a little sleazy and his mannerisms a little too slick for my taste, but I wasn’t buying him; I was buying a car. He gave me prices and I thanked him.

Monday of this week, I visited Dealer B. I knew precisely what I wanted — a red Camry LE with a sunroof — so, the salesman led me to it, then I drove it to the outlying lots where we checked their other stock. The price he quoted was good, a little better than the one from at Dealer A.

Interestingly, when the salesman and sales manager at Dealer B found that I had pastored the First Baptist Church of Kenner for nearly 14 years, they began telling me about their salvation experiences. After naming his church, the manager said, “I’ve sold a hundred cars to members of our congregation.” He mentioned a mutual friend, the wife of a local pastor and surgeon (yep, we have a pastor who is both), who was coming in to buy a truck from him later that afternoon.

“Is there anything I can do to put you in this car today?” That question always gets asked. I had the answer. “Not a thing. I’ll not be making a decision impulsively. I want to think about it and pray about it.”

“Plus,” I told the sales manager in Dealer B, “there’s one more dealership I want to check out.”

The salesman at Dealer C had a red Camry with leather seats and a premium package with sunroof, and a high sticker price (over $27,000). I said, “We can pass this up. Even with discounts, it’s going to be out of the range I want to pay.” (My plan was to use the retirement love-gifts from our local churches, offerings from two events where I’ve preached lately, and some savings in order to pay cash for the car. For most of my life, I bought automobiles on time, so I know about those monthly payments. Where at all possible, it’s so much better to pay cash.)

“How much do you want to pay?” the sales guy asked. I laughed. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll tell you this. I’ve never played poker but I know enough to know you don’t show your hand to the other guy.” He smiled.

After disappearing for a few minutes, the salesman at Dealer C returned with two prices, one for a basic Camry LE without the sunroof and a price for the car we had just looked at, the red one with the high sticker price. I was stunned. The prices were at least $2,000 less than the other two dealers’ quotes.

It appeared I could afford the red Camry with the leather seats and sunroof. Even so, I would sleep on the decision. I was determined to give this plenty of thought.

Later that afternoon, the salesman from Dealer A called. I said, “It appears I’ll be buying a Camry with a sunroof from Dealer C. They’re $2,000 lower than the price you gave me.” He said, “What? That can’t be.”

A few minutes later, he called back. “There’s no way we can sell you a Camry that cheap and we don’t see how they can. Pastor, they’re low-balling you.”

Not familiar with that term, I let it slide.

I was to find out what it meant.

The next morning, yesterday as I write, I called the sales guy at Dealer C. “I’ll buy your car.” When could I come, he wanted to know. Late afternoon, I told him. I had a 2 o’clock funeral and could not get to the showroom before 4:30 pm.

He and I chatted at least twice more throughout the day. He would meet us at 4:30.

My son Neil ferried me to Dealer C and went inside with me. I sure was glad he didn’t leave, expecting me to drive that red car home. Things were not as they seemed.

The salesman met us, we sat down and chatted, and he said, “Come with me.” We walked to a computer in the lobby of the showroom and he typed in the identification numbers of the red car. On the screen appeared this message: “This car has been sold.”

I said, “Sold? You sold it? I’ve talked to you three times today about this car and you tell me it’s sold?”

Something fishy was going on. I said, “Thank you. I’m out of here.”

“Oh, but wait. We have another red one that was delivered today, the one you were looking at when I came up.”

That one, the red Camry in front of the showroom showed a sticker price of over $28,000. By now I knew precisely what was happening, that this was the classic “bait and switch” routine. They get you into the showroom with a low price, then that car is not available, but another one is for a higher price. What the salesman called “low-balling.”

Neil suggested we wait until the salesman got a price on that car just to be sure. When he returned, the price was at least $3,000 above the price he had quoted for the similar red Camry which the computer indicated had been sold.

Now, while this is all happening, my cell phone rang. It was the salesman at Dealer B, the Christian guy. I said, “You’re not going to believe what’s happening.” He listened, then said, “I believe it. He’s low-balling you.”

He said, “If you want the one you drove yesterday, I can have it washed by the time you get here.”

I said, “Knock $500 off the price and I’ll be right there.” He did.

That’s how I came to buy the lovely bright red Camry LE with the sunroof from Dealer B. The eventual price, once you add in the tax, title, and tag, came to about $1100 more than I would have paid Dealer C, if that deal had been genuine.

I’m almost glad it didn’t work out, though. A dealer who would run a scam on you in order to sell you a car would be faithless in other ways, too, and I just don’t want to go through that. Our Lord said, “He who is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust in much.” (Luke 16:10)

Eight years ago, early in 2001, when I was getting ready to buy our second Camry, I had a daily morning radio broadcast over a local Christian station. One morning I said to the audience, “I’m going to buy a new Toyota. I hate having to deal with salesmen because so many are unscrupulous. Does anyone know a Christian salesman at a Toyota dealership in the New Orleans area?”

We got one phone call. A woman said, “I used to be the secretary for Terry Mehaffie. He is a fine Christian man and sells cars for (Dealer C).” (I figured if a secretary thinks her boss is a Christian, he must be!) I called Terry and ended up buying the black Camry which we have owned ever since — bought it sight unseen, if you want to know — and which we are about to donate to Macedonian Call Foundation of Mississippi, an organization which supplies transportation for furloughing missionaries.

Before beginning my search, I called Dealer C the other day and asked for Terry. “He’s retired,” the receptionist said. Okay, I thought. People retire. I’m in the process of doing that myself.

Now, after seeing the shenanigans of his former dealership, what I wonder is whether this Christian man decided he did not want to be a part of such an organization and walked away under less than happy circumstances.

For months in my morning prayer times, I have often mentioned to the Father, “Guide me in the decision about the next car.” Then, last week, when my favorite prayer partner called about something else, at the end of the conversation I said, “Would you pray with me about the car I need to buy? I’ll be buying one next week.” She did.

When the Christian salesman from Dealer B phoned me at Dealer C at the very moment he was running his scam, I knew that was not an accident. Later, when I had bought the car from him and told him this, he said, “It was the first time all day I’d had to call back. I had a number of people to phone, but started with you.”

I noticed in the showroom that the car this salesman had sold me was his third of the day.

I was delighted. It’s good to see a good man doing well.

Come see me. I’ll give you a ride in my red Camry. We’ll open the sun roof and pretend we’re in a convertible.

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