Sunday, May 30, 2021

How hard to push back when a car dealer comes up short

A young couple we’re calling Jim and Jane was in the market for a new used car. They already owned two cars since they lived beyond the reach of public transportation and each needed transportation to get to work.

One of their cars was in great shape and had many miles left on it, but their second car was 11 years old, had more than 160,000 miles on it, and was beginning to show its age. The amount of money they would need to spend to service their second car to get the air conditioning fixed and to keep it roadworthy led to their decision to look for a new car. They also wanted to trade the old car in for a newer pre-owned model car that was slightly bigger so they could haul stuff or fit their camping gear when they set off on an occasional adventure.

They spent some time looking online, but ultimately visited a lot where they had purchased a car many years earlier. There they found a smaller, four-year-old SUV with low mileage that they liked. The car had been owned by a dog owner and the inside had a significant amount of fur and crumbs littering it. The salesperson promised them that the car would be extensively detailed and look almost new inside and out by the time they picked it up if they went ahead with the purchase.

The dealer also told the couple that they could trade in their 11-year-old car for $700 providing it was checked out by the service department and didn’t have issues other than the air conditioning. But since it was early evening and the service department had closed for the day they would need to bring the car back at another time to have it checked out.

The couple agreed to buy the car on a Monday and the salesperson told them it would be detailed and ready for pick up by Thursday of that week. They agreed to meet the salesperson on Thursday to have the old car checked out and to pick up the new car.

When they arrived on Thursday, they were told that the salesperson had taken the day off and still needed to complete the paperwork for their car.

“We never received a call from the salesperson telling us not to show up on Thursday to get the car,” said Jim. He finally connected with her by cellphone on Friday morning and told her he would pick up the car on Saturday morning.

The salesperson told Jim that before they could get the $700 for their trade-in they would still need to have their car checked out.

“That didn’t seem right,” said Jim. “We lived up to our end of the deal and she didn’t show up. Shouldn’t the dealer just honor the $700 offer and not make us show up again to wait to have the car checked out since they screwed up the date?”

While the dealer has no obligation to offer the $700 without examining the car, it seems both the right and the smart thing to do. Honoring the $700 trade-in rather than risking a roughly $20,000 sale seems wise particularly since the customer was inconvenienced by the salesperson’s no-show. Jim and Jane are right to ask and the dealer would be wise to agree. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


No comments: