Buying a new car needn’t be torture

European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany

Buying a new car in Europe doesn’t have to be an arduous undertaking. A little homework can make the process – and the results – less painful.

Thousands of people buy cars through the exchange service programs each year without complaint and the rules of those sales – no dickering, factory options only, no trade-ins – prevent some of the abuses that can occur with stateside deal­ers.

However, buying a car from any source is a complicated matter. Experts say the more a customer knows about the pro­cess, the less likelihood of post-purchase trauma.

Research by The Stars and Stripes and interviews with industry experts suggest that new-car buyers can avoid many po­tential probkms by following these guidelines:

“Less than 10 percent of car buyers know what they are doing or how to do it,” said James Ross, a car salesman­ turned-consumer advocate. “The other 90 percent lose billions of dollars every year on the cars they buy.”

Ross has written three books on how consumers can find the best car and serv­ice for their money by recognizing the tricks of the car sales trade.

Ross also said that new-car buyers do not have to live with shoddy workmanship, poor quality control and a “too-busy attitude” from dealers who don’t care about customers after the sale.

The best protection, Ross and other experts said, is for customers to know as much or more about the car they wish to buy than the person trying to se ll it to them.

Although the rnilitary’s new-car sales program has some built-in safeguards, the custumer nonetheless must be vig­ilant against hidden costs and misleading practices, research showed. The familiar exchange-service motto, “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back,” does not apply to cars, AAFES officials said.

Check emotions at the door
It is vital to approach the purchase from as practical a standpoint as possible. The type of car sought should depend on what is affordable and what its primary use will be. It may seem obvious, but many buyers will seemingly forget, for ex­ample, that a family has different trans­portation needs than a single person.

Serious buyers should consult their fi­nancial institution to determine how much money they can borrow, what down payment they will be expected to make, how much interest must be paid and how large the monthly payment will be, ac­cording to Ross.
Remember, the military’s car program is not the only answer, even for an Amer­ican car. People returning to the States can order a car directly from a stateside dealer or broker and perhaps beat the exchange service prices, experts in the States said. An added advantage is that if there is a problem at the time of delivery, the dealer must take responsibility and cannot put the blame on “the office in Germany.”

Those who want a car delivered to Eu­rope also can buy direct from a stateside company and, if they are willing to nego­tiate, often save a few hundred dollars, Ross and others said. Transportation to the port at Bremerhavan, Germany, will cost about the same as a car purchased through exchange service programs, sometimes less. The disadvantage is that the exchange service will not be a party to warranty disputes that may arise after delivery, AAFES officials said.

Research the market
Know what’s hot and what’s not. In the States, the recession has created a buy­er’s market. Carmakers clearly are hurt­ing. Exchange-service dealers also report being hit by declining sales. But they do not face the competition of the States, nor do they have the high overhead and advertising costs associated with stateside dealers. They do, however, say that they incur costs related to doing business overseas that stateside dealers do not face.

Further, the prices are fixed, so cus­tomers do not have an opportunity to ne­gotiate with a hungry dealer.

Nevertheless, if a customer knows what the dealer -in the military’s case a con­tractor -pays for a car and its different options, that customer is protected from price gouging. Customers should keep in mind that the exchange-services’ contrac­tors are allowed a maximum markup of 7 percent, and some models have margins significantly less than that.

Customers should choose the car and options they want and not let the salesman do it for them. Libraries and bookstores have literature that compare cars by price, reliability, performance, re­sale value, gas mileage and other factors.

Don’t take advertisements literally
Ads seldom include all the costs, such as options, transportation and dealer preparation. Getting excited over an ad can lead to an impulse buy that may be regretted.

Nothing written, nothing gained
That is the primary rule throughout the negotiation, order and acceptance process. Everything the salesman prom­ises must be in writing or it may not be honored by the car sales companies, AAFES officials said. Use the salesper­son as a guide through the maze, but re­member that the salesman’s obligation is not to the customer, but to the company that pays him. Everything agreed upon in the sales office is subject to change by the headquarters office. In fact, officials with the new-car program said that mistakes are made on one-half of all orders taken by salesmen.

Read the purchase order
Be sure to read both the front and back or the order. Insist that all blanks are filled, if with nothing more than a di­agonal line. Do not allow options to be referred to as “included” under a pack­age code, Ross said. Have the salesman itemize what he says will be on the car and how much each item costs.

Pay particular attention to the fine print, usually found on the back of the order form, which addresses the custom­er’s right to cancellation and full refund.

Pay only the minimum deposit
In the case of AAFES, that’s $300. Most salesmen will push for complete payment as soon as financing is ap­proved. However, it is not wise to pay more than the minimum deposit until the car can be viewed. The car will not be or­dered unless financing is approved, but customers using commerical transporta­tion do not have to pay in full until seeing the car, AAFES officials said. Paying in advance may eventally lead the customer into accepting a less-than-perfect car when delivery is made and may mean paying for months on a car that has not arrived.

When buying from the exchange serv­ices, a customer may have the option of military or commercial transportation to Europe. Military transportation is free. Commercial transportation costs from $900 to $1,500. However, when using mil­itary transportation, the car is accepted for the customer by a military representa­tive at the stateside port. The car then belongs to the buyer who has yet to see it. If the car is equipped as ordered, the cus­tomer cannot back out of the deal when it reaches the European port, car sales officials said.

On the other hand, if commercial transportation is used, the cost will be added to the price of the car, but accep­tance will not occur until the customer picks the car up at the port. If the car does not meet the terms of the order, the customer can decline acceptance and re­ceive a full refund. Often, customers who have paid in full or invested several thou­sand dollars in a car have a difficult time refusing delivery of the vehicle, regard­less of defects. Holding onto the bulk of the financing until the car arrives means less is at risk if a problem occurs.

Also, a customer who wants a car de­livered to his local dealer to avoid the trip to Bremerhaven must waive the right to reject the vehicle, car sales officials said. The transport company accepts the vehicle on his behalf. This is done with a seemingly innocuous form that some peo­ple have said they don’t recall signing.

Be skeptical
Do not take a salesman’s word that the car has arrived. Once told the car can be picked up, contact the company head­quarters, not the salesman, and ask that the pickup date be put in writing. No matter what dates have been given before, ask for a written promise that the car is ready, car sales officials said. Many customers arrive at the port to find their cars are not ready. Some have to stay overnight or return home and continue to wait.

If a customer has written proof that the company promised to have the car ready on a particular day, and it is not ready, the company will pay for an over­night hotel stay or the return trip, offi­cials for the companies said. Do not go to the port to pick up a car on any day other than that which the company promised the car would be ready. In doing so a cus­tomer may forfeit the right to reimburse­ment for hotel or travel expenses if the car is not ready.

Be firm
Do not accept a car that doesn’t match the order perfectly, unless you consider the differences inconsequential. Inspect every inch of the car and document every defect.

Operate every system in the car, such as interior lights, radios, cigarette lighters, seat belts and any power parts like windows or locks. If possible, insist that defects be repaired before accepting the vehicle, even if it means an overnight stay or a later return trip, Ross said. The dealer -or contractor -will be more inclined to make the repairs promptly if the customer holds the balance of the money and still has the option to refuse the vehicle.

If an order is cancelled for any reason during the first seven days, the customer is entitled to a full refund. The sales headquarters generally posts an “order acceptance” letter the same day a cus­tomer places an order. The order be­comes a binding contract only after the seven-day period ends and the accep­tance letter is posted.

This letter should include confirmation of everything agreed upon in the pur­chase order. Often there are changes that may or may not be highlighted. Read this acceptance form thoroughly, AAFES of­ficials said. If any item does not conform to the original order, call the company immediately and follow with a letter. Any grievance a customer has with an order must be sent to the company in writing to protect the right to a full refund, car sales officials said.

If at any time before the car is ac­cepted the company cannot meet the terms agreed to in writing, the customer has a right to cancel the order and re­ceive a full refund, according to new car sales contracts. Companies have been known to try to exact a penalty for can­celling an order, but this is not permitted if the company is at fault in a contract vi­olation.

Cancellation penalties
The customer has to pay a penalty if cancellation occurs more than seven days after the order was placed and the reason is not due to the contractor’s failure to honor the deal or a military situation that prohibits acceptance of the car, such as a change in PCS orders, according to the contract. However, the maximum penalty cannot exceed 1 percent of the purchase price of the car. If the total price of a car is $15,750, the penalty cannot exceed $157.50.

All refunds should be made within 15 days of cancellation.

All cars sold through the military pro­gram include basic manufacturer war­ranties. Extended warranties are offered to cover certain systems on a car for con­siderably longer periods. However, con­sumer experts told The Stars and Stripes that extended warranties are not a wise investment unless the car is to be driven more than 12,000 miles a year or is cer­tain to be owned for more than three years.

Military car sales customers should also investigate the validity of the extend­ed warranty offered on the car they in­tend to buy. It is possible that the war­ranty will not be valid in Europe or the United States, depending on the model of car, where it is delivered and how long the customer intends to remain in Europe, according to officials with the car manufacturers.

For instance, the extended warranty offered by General Motors is not valid in Europe, GM officials said. If a customer intends to remain in Germany more than three years after purchasing a new car through the military car program, an ex­tended warranty is useless. If the custom­er plans to return to the States after three years, the warranty will be honored by American GM dealerships.

Chrysler’s extended warranty is valid in Europe and the States, according to the company that sells Chryslers on military installations.

Ford does not off er an extended war­ranty on cars delivered to Europe, but will sell extended coverage on stateside deliveries, German Ford officials said.

American cars often are not easy to re­pair in Europe. Buyers who accept cars in Europe have two options for warranty re­pairs –AAFES garages or authorized German garages.

AAFES garages have a work backlog, and repairs can take longer than Ameri­cans are accustomed to. A shortage of parts can also delay repairs, AAFES me­chanics said.

German garages have even less access to American parts than AAFES garages. Customers also complain that not all au­thorized German mechanics are familiar with American cars and repairs are de­layed while mechanics consult books and specialists. For these reasons, German mechanics will seldom give estimates on how long repairs will take, car sales offi­cials said.

However, all domestic manufacturers have factory-trained engineers in Ger­many. Customers who do not receive ad­equate warranty repairs should contact the company that sold the car and insist that one of these engineers examine the vehicle, Ross said.

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