Earl Stewart is the owner and general manager of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach. The dealership is located at 1215 N. Federal Highway in Lake Park. Contact him at www.earlstewarttoyota.com, call (561) 358-1474, fax (561) 658-0746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to him on Seaview AM 960, FM 95.9 and FM 106.9, which can be streamed at www.SeaviewRadio.com every Saturday morning between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in 2009.
OK, you've just bought that new or used car and the pressure is off, right? Wrong. The next step for the car dealer is to get you into the "box." You won't hear this word mentioned. It's inside car dealer slang for the F&I office or the business office. This is the place where you sign all of those papers making the sale legal and final. But in addition to that, it's also a very important profit center for car dealers. In many car dealerships it's the most profitable department. It's not uncommon for car dealers to make an additional $1,000 profit or more in "the box" on each car they sell.
Here's how that profit is generated. First and usually foremost is making money on the interest they charge you. Essentially, they make money on "the spread" just like banks make money when they loan it.
For example, a car dealer will borrow money from Bank of America for 2.9 percent and loan it to you for 5.9 percent, or whatever interest rate they can convince you to accept.
The second way they earn that big profit in "the box" is by selling you "products," which are added to the price of the car you just bought. There are many products and some of the most common are extended service warranties, maintenance plans, road hazard insurance, GAP insurance, window etch and LoJack.
The way you should protect yourself on the interest rate is to have already shopped your own bank or credit union and two other banks for the best interest rate you can qualify for. Never go into "the box" without knowing what the best rate other banks or credit unions will allow you.
The best way to protect yourself against the products they will try to sell you is to completely understand each product. Do you want or need an extended warranty on your new car? If this product costs $1,900 for example, how long are you going to keep the car and how long are you likely to be driving it when it's out of the manufacturer's warranty?
Ask the same questions of each product they try to sell you. If you are unclear on the merits of a product, do not commit. You can always go home and think about and seek advice from friends and advisors.
Another important tactic that I recommend is to never go into "the box" alone. If it's just you and the F&I manager (often called business manager), and there is a dispute over what was said, it's just your word against his.
Also, having a friend or advisor present will usually be a deterrent to any attempted deception.
These are some of the kinds of deceptions you should be on the lookout for.
Tying the sale of a product such as an extended service contract to the interest rate or eligibility to have the bank finance your car is illegal. But this practice happens all too often behind the closed doors of the "the box." The F&I manger may tell you that the bank "requires" you to buy the extended warranty, GAP insurance, another product in order to protect the bank's collateral. This is simply a lie and it's illegal for banks or car dealers to do this.
Another common form of deception is to simply not disclose the products or interest rate and have you sign the contract without reading it. There are a large number of documents to be signed after you buy a car. Buyers are often in a state of euphoria now that they have bought their dream car and are in too much of a hurry to sign everything and drive their new car home. The car dealer is required by law to give you a signed copy of the installment sales contract. Be sure you carefully read it and be sure have a copy. If you don't get a copy, you may find that you signed a different contract than the one you read.
Extended service warranties, GAP insurance and other insurance products are regulated in Florida unlike many other states. This affords you some degree of protection, such as being able to cancel an insurance product as long as you did not use it. You can do this in 60 days for a 100 percent cancellation. You don't get the cash back and your monthly payment won't go down, however. But the amount is taken off the principal amount you are financing through the bank. You can cancel insurance products after 60 days, but the cancellation is not pro rated and you pay a large penalty.
If you remember nothing else from this article, please remember this one thing. Do not hurry the process of financing your car and signing the papers. Do not let the car dealer encourage you to sign anything you don't understand. Time is on your side because it will allow you to think and consult with others who can help you make your final decision.
I get a lot of calls from victims of "the box" and the one thing they all have in common is that they let themselves be rushed into signing the documents so that they could drive their dream car home that same day.