Concierge Firms Take the Hassle, Haggle Out of Buying a Car

Shopping for a car takes lot of time -- something few physicians can afford. Haggling with dealers over price also makes many buyers queasy. Now, shoppers can sidestep the whole aggravating process by hiring "concierge" car-buying services.

Car experts often urge consumers to consider buying a late-model used car, rather than buying new. It’s simply a better deal: Depending on the model, a car can lose up to 20% of its value the second you drive it off the dealer’s lot.

But shopping for a quality used car takes lot of time -- something few physicians can afford. The average consumer spent 218 minutes -- or more than three and a half hours -- on the dealership lot buying a car, according to a 2009 survey by J.D. Power and Associates. Haggling with dealers over price also makes many buyers extremely uncomfortable.

Now, shoppers can sidestep the whole aggravating process by hiring “concierge” car-buying services. Concierge services compare dealerships, auto auction and private-seller listings to find the lowest price for the model you’re shopping -- and then they do the haggling for you. In addition to price, the services often negotiate the best value for your trade-in. In some cases, the services handle all of the paperwork, and can arrange to have the car dropped off right at your practice door.

Prices for concierge services vary widely, depending on individual need. Fees range from a few hundred dollars up to $1,000, depending on the level of service. For example, Carsala of Berkeley, Calif., offers three levels of service. One is a free search and a basic analysis on the vehicle you’re interested in purchasing. (A more detailed report costs $45.) If you decide to hire Carsala to negotiate the deal, you’ll pay 20% of savings off the dealer’s asking price, up to a maximum of $300.

Help for those who choose to go it aloneIf you prefer to do your own haggling, there are lower-cost online services that can help ease the queasy feeling that you didn’t get the best deal. Auto-research sites such as Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book can provide a free ballpark figure on car prices for your preferred model and vehicle options. But prices can vary widely, depending on several factors, including availability.

For $12, you can get a more detailed report on dealer invoice prices, including factory-installed options & packages, for used cars from Consumer Reports. (New car reports cost $14.)

Unless you’re willing to pay a premium for a certified used car, making sure the car you choose isn’t a clunker can be a problem. Learning as much as you can about the car’s history may prevent you from getting a lemon.

Auto-data providers such as Carfax or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System provide reports that detail the ownership history, accident reports, odometer readings and salvage reports based on the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN).

At Carfax, you’ll pay $35 for a single report, or $45 for five. (Check with the dealer first, because many now provide Carfax reports for free.) The NVMTIS works through private vendors who charge as little as $3.50 for a basic title search.

Remember, however, that while auto-history records can ease your mind about a car’s condition, they’re not foolproof. Accident reports only appear in these records if the accident was actually reported. For example, if the previous owner ran into a telephone pole with his car and had the damage fixed without ever reporting the incident to his insurance company or the police, the accident won't appear on the auto’s history report.