By mid-September, Heidi Hough had bought six cars, but she didn't plan to stop there. Most months, she picks up 15 to 20.
Hough is so good at buying cars that she does it for a living. Also known as the Amazing Autowoman, she is a buyer's agent: the person people go to when they would rather have someone else buy their car for them. Her clients pick out the car they want and get their financing approved, and she does the rest.
"It's like buying a book on Amazon," says Hough, a 25-year veteran of the auto industry. " 'Painless' is the word my clients always use."
Buyer's agents such as Hough are licensed as dealers and can cover almost any aspect of auto buying, including new and used vehicles, leasing and financing options. They also will handle your trade-in.
Marcee Hanan, who runs Seattle-based Buyer's Advantage, likens the service to a general medical practice -- "only it's for cars," she says.
After doing extensive amounts of research before buying her own car, Hanan says her friends started dragging her to the dealerships to help them negotiate. She got her dealer's license 12 years ago and now charges a flat fee of $395.
John Hallows is a technical writer for Microsoft who just purchased his fourth vehicle through Hough. Hallows had to visit the dealership to pick out the car he wanted, test-drive it and choose the color and features, but after that, his work was basically done.
For a flat fee of $325-$375, Hough hunts down the exact vehicle requested, takes care of the paperwork and spares her clients the often unsavory experience of price haggling. She also delivers throughout the greater Seattle area.
"She does it all for me," Hallows says. What's more, he has asked for some long shots. The Mazdaspeed 3 he wanted was one of only 5,000 imported into the U.S. that year -- and it had to be silver.
The Toyota Prius that eventually replaced it was also in high demand, with long waiting lists at local dealerships. But Hough got it, and just in time to save Hallows $3,000 through a tax-waiver incentive that was about to expire.
"She's not called the Amazing Autowoman for nothing," Hallows says.
The fees clients pay are offset by the savings that a buyer's agent can secure. By maintaining close relationships with trusted commercial dealerships, they are able to buy cars at lower rates. The dealers are happy because it brings them business they wouldn't otherwise be getting, and it can save clients anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Some agents, such as Michael Redfield of Bothell-based Auto Buyers, offer their services free to the client, instead taking a referral fee from the dealer. This, Redfield explains on his Web site, is still beneficial to the dealer because "it's far less than what the dealer would have to pay his staff to have you come through the front door."
In addition to those who simply don't have the time, Hough says her clients include many women, who are wary of being treated differently at the dealership, and recent immigrants, who are unfamiliar with the American way of doing business.
"It's not just saving money," Hough says, "but making the process quick and easy."