10 sneaky insider tips from the used car showroom

If you're looking to change your car, read this before you head to the showroom

car for sale
(Image credit: getty images)

Buying a car can make even a stag night veteran feel strangely naked and vulnerable.

It's a predatory world of shark-toothed salesmen who can smell anxiety and innocence the moment you edge into their forecourt.

If you're the kind of customer who fears leaving their premises without the contents of your wallet, your clothes, and most of your major internal organs, then this list is for you.

These are the tricks of the car-dealing trade, the smoke they mix with rear-view mirrors, the oil that lubricates their cut-throat machine…

1. The hook

Otherwise known as the bait-and-switch.

Have you ever noticed those really cheap used cars advertised by dealers on their websites or in the local press? It might be a humble Ford Focus hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds cheaper than the book price or figures quoted by rivals.

These are the hook cars - not ‘hooky’ as such - but you'd be hard-pressed to actually buy one because this is the bait to get you to a dealership.

Often, once arrived, you might be informed that it's gone - sold, earlier in the day.

"Sorry about that." If it is there, then you'll notice it hasn't been cleaned, or you'll be told it's a bit smelly - "terrible habit, smoking" - or else it's actually got a couple of things wrong with it that the mechanics haven't got around to fixing yet. Anything, in fact, to put you off.

"I'll tell you what, though. I do have a few others - same model, but far nicer. And not that much more expensive..."

Whereupon, you'll be ushered towards half a dozen similar cars - all scrubbed and polished and pine-freshened - and all more expensive than the smelly one.

2. The line

Once you are showing interest in a car - but wavering over actually buying it - the salesman may try to convince you there is a long line of people just desperate to get their hands on it.

A favoured ruse here is for another salesman to interrupt your guy with the news that they have a customer very keen on the car you happen to be eyeballing. They may even ask him to chuck over the keys in order for the "customer" to take it out for a spin…

3. The sinker

Ok, you've been lured into the dealership and herded towards a car. But you're still stalling. Time for the salesman to convince you that your deal of the century could be sunk by deadlines.

It may be that this price is strangely not going to be available on Monday morning, or that the generous discount he is offering won't be allowed tomorrow because his boss is back, or that some target-related clear-out won't run into next month.

Whatever the time pressure, you should remember that today's bargain is probably going to be around tomorrow - if not there, then down the road.

(MORE: Best cars for older drivers)

4. The clean and jerk

We’re all suckers for a clean, tidy, fresh-scented car – probably because the one we’ve arrived in is often a foul-stenched mess. A nice whiff can mask a thousand inadequacies, something the online dating industry may have picked up from the car trade.

Sometimes, though, the cleaning can replace the caring. Those 120-point checks some dealers like to tell you about can be more cosmetic than mechanical.

For instance...

  1. Engine? Yes, this car has an engine – check.
  2. Shiny hub cabs? I can see my face – check.
  3. Little Tree Alpine Slopes freshener? – Mmmm… - check.
  4. California Extreme Volcanic Cherry? Mmmm… - check.
  5. Bahama Turtle Necklace Vanilla flavour – check.

And so on.

5. The ankle tap

Beware being ankle-tapped by a salesman looking to give with one hand-off, but take way with the other.

If you have a car to trade in, then a common trick is for the dealer to drop the price of the car he's selling. Great, you're quids in - except that he then goes in low with his offer on your current vehicle.

That extra cash you just made with the reduction has been clawed back by the lower-than-market price being offered for the car you're trading.

6. The low baller

Similar to the ankle tap, where the dealer makes you a rubbish offer for your car. Except that this time it's not even countered by a reduction on the car you're buying…

7. The high baller

Here, the offer for your car is higher than you are expecting. But, like the ankle tap, it's just a manipulation of figures from one column to another.

The high offer for the car you're selling is offset by no discount off the car you are buying.

So, a car may be selling for £7,000 and a dealer may drop to £6,500 for a cash buyer. For the customer trading in his car - worth £3,000 - an offer to buy at £3,500 might sound attractive. But it won’t be much use if he has to pay the full £7,000 rather than the £6,500 figure.

8. The wrap-around

Even if you go into a dealership with a long sock containing 10,000 freshly-minted pound coins, some side-parted slickster will attempt to persuade you to pay for the car with a finance deal – and not just any finance deal, their own finance deal.

Here there are a myriad of scams, scalps and wheezes, but the basic premise is this: wrap the sale and the method of paying together so tightly that the customer grows exhausted trying to unpick it.

How much would you like to spend a month? It sounds a friendly enough question, but the moment you offer a figure in reply then the repayment schedules, deposits, interest rates, and everything else will be calculated to bind you and the dealership together as if you were on an intravenous drip.

9. Would you like any extras?

Just when you think you’re about to sign for your car and be handed the keys, prepare to be told what great harm could come to the world – flood, famine, pestilence – unless you pay a little more for paintwork protection, audio equipment warranties, or Gap insurance.

10. Fantasy island

Let's finish with the big stuff - advertising. How many of us live in a part of the UK where deserted open roads stretch into the far distance? Where there are no other cars, no roadworks, not even an old tractor to slow your progress?

This is the world of the car ad. Where even city driving is likened to a breezy zip wire ride through a flickering metropolis, where the young, the cool, and the colourful are simply having too much fun to get caught in traffic.

If the grinding, juddering, pot-holed reality of car-driving was ever admitted to, none of us would ever go near a showroom.

Graham Thomas

Graham is a freelance journalist, with years of experience writing for an array of consumer titles.