NOT ALL CAR DEALERS are out to get you. There are many, of course, who would just like to help you find the car you need. But you can count on your dealer trying to squeeze as much out of you as possible — that's the salesperson's job. And when it comes to leasing, aggressive sales tactics all too often range dangerously close to abuse and fraud. Most states have laws against unfair and deceptive sales practices to protect against such things. But that doesn't mean they don't happen. Happily, the Federal Reserve, which oversees leasing, forces dealers nationwide to give lease customers a single-page disclosure statement listing the true terms of a lease.
If you understand the process and pay attention to the numbers on the disclosure statement you can avoid many dealer shenanigans. But here are some time-tested favorites to watch out for:
Fudging the Numbers
The most important thing to be wary of is a dealer playing with your contract numbers after the negotiation. This will not be as easy to do with the new required disclosure statement, but it's up to you to keep an eye on the numbers. You may have thought you'd negotiated a great price and interest rate, in addition to an affordable monthly payment, only to find those numbers have changed when the final contract was drafted. The monthly payment may look the same, but other numbers have been rigged to swing the deal in the dealer's favor. The problem is, leasing is so confusing that most people can't do their own math.
Here's one old-time ploy dealers use to fudge the numbers without you noticing: Mark Eskeldson, author of What Car Dealers Don't Want You to Know, explains that a salesperson will sit you down in front of a blank piece of paper divided into four quadrants. In each quadrant he'll fill in values for the price, the trade-in value, the down payment and the monthly lease rate. The salesperson will then negotiate the four factors separately, crossing out numbers and writing in new ones until the customer is hopelessly confused. The problem is, each of these factors is used to build the monthly payment. By definition, therefore, they can't be negotiated separately from it. In the end, you think you've cut a great deal on the price and trade-in, when in fact, all you've done is told the dealer what monthly payment you'll put up with. Pay attention to the other numbers used in calculating the monthly payment — the salesperson may manipulate them to jack up the car's price.
Making a Lease Look Cheaper
In Florida, a common complaint heard at the attorney general's office is that a customer will go into a car dealership fully intending to buy a car, only to be switched at the last minute into a lease deal — sometimes without even knowing it. The scam: The dealer promises a lease payment that is the same or somewhat lower than a monthly loan payment on the same car. The problem: Because a lessor is only paying for two or three year's use of the car, the monthly payment should be much lower on a lease. James Bragg of Fighting Chance, a Long Beach, Calif., firm that provides leasing information to consumers, tells of one woman who was convinced to lease after she asked if the price would be the same as if she bought a car. The salesman told her it would be, but what he meant was that the payments would be the same, indicating that the price her lease was based upon was way too high. "She was taken to the tune of about $4,000," Bragg says.
Some leasing customers lose substantial value on their trade-ins. Remember, the dealer is now required to disclose the capitalized cost reduction used in calculating your monthly payment. That includes credit for a rebate or trade-in and down payment. Ask your dealer to break down the number for you so you can see how much you're geting for your old car. Keep in mind: You will usually get a better price if you separate the sale of your old car from the lease deal.
Bait and Switch
This time-worn retail scam is prevalent in leasing. Car dealers run an advertisement quoting an attractive lease rate and then try to get you into a more expensive deal any way they can. Maybe the fine print on the deal has terms that make it unattractive. "But as long as you're here…" the salesperson will say. Many dealers will claim they've already sold all the cars described in the promotion offer and end up showing you a "slightly more expensive" model. This practice violates many states' laws against deceptive advertising. Other times, the advertised car is a bare bones model onto which the dealer tries to pack numerous options that inflate the monthly payment like a balloon.
Grinding You Down
Car dealers have always done this. They'll let pressure and anxiety build over time to wear down a customer's resolve. After hours in a showroom, some customers will cave in to high-pressure tactics just to be "allowed" to leave. An investigation in Florida revealed that many elderly customers reported being "ground down" over hours of negotiations. Some dealers will even pretend to "lose" a customer's car keys (obtained while the customer was test-driving a new car) just to keep the target in the dealership longer so the salesperson can apply more pressure.