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Car Buying Tips to Avoid Hidden Fees

By: Scott Conklin
Once you've found the car you want, it's time to sit down with your sales rep to negotiate the terms of your contract. After a little back and forth on price, figuring out your interest rate, and calculating your monthly payment, you're ready to sign on the dotted line, right?

Not so fast.

When you read the fine print you may find that additional fees and charges have found their way into your contract - including add-ons you didn't necessarily ask for.

Most car buyers are so focused on getting the best interest rate and negotiating the most affordable monthly payment that they're unconcerned with the fine print of the contract. By the time they get to the step where they review and sign the paperwork, if the sales rep is throwing industry terms at them that they don't fully understand, they're becoming exhausted from the entire process and just want to get it over with.

Here are a few insider tips to make sure you don't regret signing those papers.

1.) Read the Fine Print
While this seems pretty obvious and self-explanatory, it's amazing how trusting the consumer can be. Honestly, the last time you bought a car, did you read and fully understand the contract before you signed it? Probably not. Most people don't.

Some unscrupulous car dealerships are betting on that. Because most people don't read the fine print, some sales reps can slide in additional, undisclosed charges or extras with huge mark-ups to their profit.

Also, make sure there are no blank spaces on your finance contract that can be filled in later - wherever there are blank spaces, write in "$0" or "N/A."

2.) Typical Extras
Most of us are familiar with learning about the standard features of an automobile and then figuring out which additional features we are willing to pay extra for, but here are some extras to look out for when reviewing your contract:

•Rust proofing
•Extended warranty
•Fabric protector
•Car alarm (including Lojack, a device police use to find your car if you report it stolen)
•Paint sealant
•Credit life insurance
•Window etching

The value of such extras depends on individual customer needs and situations. If the sales rep attempts to tell you that some or all of these extras are standard for every vehicle on the lot, ask to order your car from the factory, or suggest the dealership trade with another dealer that hasn't pre-packaged their vehicles.

Extra products can add thousands to the negotiated price of the vehicle. Most products fill a customer need that when priced and disclosed correctly and can add real value to the whole transaction.

The problems with extras occur in two areas. First, when the sales rep doesn't spend the time necessary to determine which products fit the specific needs of the customer. Rather than suggest specific extras individually priced, the sales rep lumps all the products together and pushes you to buy them as a package.

Second, unscrupulous sales reps can add thousands of dollars to the amount financed for these products, but not disclose the price increase until the last possible moment, when the financing contracts are being signed.

3.) Documentation and Administration Fees

Federal, state, and local governments are pushing more and more of their regulatory cost onto the local dealerships. In an effort to offset some of these fees and services dealers are required to perform, most add, a documentation or administration fee to the total cost of the transaction. Depending on state and local regulations, fee adding $100 to $150 seem reasonable and cover most of these additional items. These services include:

•Duplicate Title Fees
•Notice of Security Interest (to perfect lien)
•30-day Permits
•Federal terrorist matching data bases
•Federal information privacy requirements
•State vehicle id verification
•Highway Patrol Inspections for out-of-state titles
•Registering leases at customer's county of residence
•FedEx charges/Shipping charges
•Additional title addendums
•Truth in lending record retention
Some dealers have taken up the practice of marking up documentation and administrative fees and are now charging as high as $300 to $500 per sale. A few are even higher. The charge for most of these fees seems to be more based on getting a customer to pay extra after the customer has finished negotiating, not the average amount it cost to get most deals through various state and federal regulations, as implied.

4.) Ask for a Menu System Disclosure

The best disclosure method I've seen in years involved using a menu system. On a separate sheet of paper the rep produces a document that includes:
1.)The negotiated price of the vehicle or trade difference
2.)The additional price of suggested extras (these can be shown as various option packages that may save money when bought in combination and as individually priced options)
3.)New totals initialed by both parties

This procedure makes sure that any suggested extras are properly explained and disclosed. It also allows the customer time to consider each item separate from the longer and potentially confusing finance documents. The final numbers from the menu should get carried over directly to the finance document.

5.) Other Costs

When buying a car, remember that there are other "hidden" costs (or, costs that aren't usually considered), that go beyond the dealership.

During the lifetime of your vehicle, you're going to have to pay for registration and tags, taxes, insurance, oil changes and fuel every year, and periodically pay for maintenance and repairs. Older models (cars more than 3-5 years old) may cost less up front, but you will likely need to factor more maintenance and repair costs into your budget than if you bought a newer model. While new models need fewer repairs and maintenance work, you will have to pay more up front.

Your wallet does not have to go through the ringer the next time you decide to visit a new or used car dealer. You can protect yourself from blindly signing into an unfavorable car deal by doing your homework, going to a car dealership with a good reputation, being prepared, asking questions, and double checking behind your sales rep.

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About The Author, Scott Conklin

Scott Conklin is president of Conklin Cars, a Salina new/used car dealer (, Hutchinson new/used car dealer ( in Kansas.
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