Search tools and build-your-own-vehicle options online make it seem as if the car-buying process should be as easy as browse, click and buy. Some buyers relish the thrill of an online search or going through a dealership.
But for those too busy to shop — or anyone with a special situation, such as selling from an estate or making multiple car purchases — a buyer's agent can help. A buyer's agent (formerly called auto broker) is a facilitator who, for a flat fee, will represent clients throughout the entire buying process.
Such agents typically handle all due diligence, advising on financing options, coordinating test drives and negotiating a price. They also can help clients sell cars, too.
"Some customers know exactly what they want, and they want a blue one," says Marcee Hanan, owner of Buyer's Advantage in Seattle. For other clients, she helps determine which car is the right fit.
"Do they have dogs? Need a third-row seat? Are they underwater with their current car situation and want out? I help clients navigate all of that," she says.
Heidi Webster of Amazing Autowoman in Seattle describes her clients as "busy individuals who have way too much going on in their lives."
Melissa Masterleo, a Kirkland-based real estate agent who recently bought a new car through Webster, fits that description. "I'm always on the run, so there was no way I could be present for the whole process," she says. "For a small fee, all the details and negotiations were handled. I got a great deal."
Determining the cost
Fees range from $350-$600, according to Linda Lee Goldberg of the National Association of Buyers' Agents, based in California. The cost to the customer should be a flat service fee.
In Washington state, buyers' agents are prohibited from receiving rebates, commissions or any other "hidden" compensation from dealers and manufacturers. This was an issue in the past; it was outlawed in 1993.
Because buyers' agents are typically seasoned experts with many years in the car business, clients can expect to get better-than-average deals, including from sources not available to typical buyers, such as automotive auctions and out-of-state dealers.
Those who hire a buyer's agent essentially hand off the navigation of time-consuming details such as vehicle title search, extended warranties, financing options and trade-in negotiation. All they have to do is show up for the signing and collect the keys.
Selling a vehicle
When Sallie Ragsdale of Seattle wanted to sell her 2005 Honda Accord in 2011, a local dealership offered her $2,500 below its Kelley Blue Book value, even though the car had less than 21,000 miles on it. She knew she could do better, but Ragsdale had concerns about selling the car on her own.
"I didn't want to deal with strangers coming over to my house for test drives," Ragsdale says. "It didn't feel safe."
She hired Marty Adams of CarFinders of Edmonds, paying him $700 for the service. "It was an easy, straightforward process," Ragsdale says. "He kept the car at his office and dealt with prospective buyers. I got the exact offer I wanted, $1,800 over what the dealership offered."
Finding an agent
Similar to real estate agents, automotive buyers' agents typically get clients through referrals, so ask around. Online reviews on sites such as Yelp and referrals from local credit unions are also good resources for finding an agent.
It's also important to ensure that a buyer's agent is operating independently and not affiliated with a particular dealership or brand. "We're in business to do what's best for the customer," says Adams.