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BUYING A CAR? STEER CLEAR OF 'THE BUMP'

You've just gone 15 rounds with your local car salesman, and you're still standing. In fact, you might be feeling like you clobbered the almighty dealer by knocking a few thousand dollars off the sticker price. But you now unknowingly stumble into a second ring to spar with the ''business manager.'' Here, the dealer hopes to even the score by peddling an extended warranty, rustproofing--even life insurance. Before you know it, you've saved nothing. In dealer parlance, you've been ''bumped.''

This sad story is shared by thousands of car buyers each year. In an era when consumers can pull down invoice prices from the Internet, dealers are making little or no money on the sale of a new automobile. So salesmen try to bump up profits by pushing highly lucrative extras. ''The dealer still wants to average his $1,200 to $1,500 per car,'' says former car salesman Michael Solito, now president of Auto Buyers' Consultants, a Pittsburgh car-buying service.

And even though the value of these items is dubious, many customers fall for them. For example, a quarter of the Honda and Toyota buyers surveyed by CNW Marketing Research in Brandon, Ore., shelled out for extended warranties. Yet these warranties, which run from $400 to $1,700, are really just fancy service contracts that generally don't cover as much as a manufacturer's warranty. Moreover, they don't kick in until the manufacturer's warranty expires, typically after three years or 36,000 miles. In the end, most car buyers only realize about $100 to $200 in coverage from their extended warranty, says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book ($12.95, HarperCollins). ''You're better off putting $1,000 away so that you have a nest egg you can draw on for repairs.''

In fact, the only time extended warranties really pay off is when a car turns out to be a clunker. But with a variety of rating systems that judge car quality available on the Net or at local libraries, unreliable cars are easily avoided. ''An extended warranty is really just overpriced breakdown insurance,'' says Gordon Hard, lead auto writer at Consumer Reports.

Another type of insurance that dealers are pushing will pay off a car loan if the buyer dies. But consumer advocates claim the insurance, known as ''credit life,'' is extremely high-priced and, most often, unnecessary. A car dealer is not the best person from whom to buy any form of life insurance. You can buy term life insurance for far less, and it will cover all debts, not just your car.

DRESSING UP. Dealers also try to convince buyers that they should shell out anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 for some kind of car alarm. Security systems are not necessarily a bad idea; it's just that the dealer markup is so high. Bottom line: Go elsewhere to have the system installed.

Sometimes the extras at the end of the deal play off a buyer's desire to make his wheels look hot. This is particularly true of pickup buyers who like to dress up their machines to make a personal statement. Dealers will offer an ''appearance package''--pinstriping, door guards, mud flaps, wheel locks, and other cosmetic goodies--that costs up to $1,500. The actual cost to the dealer is a tiny fraction of that price. Virtually all these items can be purchased much more cheaply at auto-parts stores.

The oldest ploy and biggest ripoff, however, is something dealers sell as a ''protection package'' but among themselves refer to as ''rust and dust.'' This is a $350-to-$800 service that comprises rustproofing, fabric protection, undercoating, and paint sealant. Not only is the price exorbitant--it costs the dealer only about $50 to $100--the treatments also can damage your car.

Rustproofing requires punching holes in a car's galvanized-steel body panels, which are already highly resistant to rust. Once the car is punctured, the manufacturer's no-rust-through warranty is usually voided. Paint sealants, which Hard says are ''nothing better than a coat of wax,'' can actually require more maintenance than the factory paint job. And fabric protection can be accomplished much more inexpensively with a $10 can of Scotchguard.

Although many of these high-cost add-ons remain popular, consumer advocates warn buyers to steer clear of the bump. ''You shouldn't play games after you've agreed to the price of the car,'' says Gillis. So when a dealer suggests a little something extra for your own protection, appearance, life, and safety, just say no.

Keith Naughton



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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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