Motoring: Dealing with the enemy

A GENERAL perception of the franchised motor trade is that it operates as a cosy cartel employing salesmen whose primary aim is to charge customers as much as possible for a new car while paying them as little as possible for their trade-in.

It's a perception that contains more than a grain of truth. Certainly new car prices in the UK are far too high, with inflated list prices fuelled by the indifference of the large fleet buyers to whom those prices are almost irrelevant. What they look at are the whole-life costs of the car. If an increase in list prices is matched by an increase in residual values, they have no objection to price hikes over and above the level of inflation. It is the private buyer who suffers as a direct result.

As a private punter, there is little that can be done about this state of affairs, except to remember at all times that although British list prices may be the highest in Europe, what people are actually paying bears no relation to those published prices.

Discounts from both manufacturers and dealers are widespread, with only a handful of models in short supply remaining unaffected. The new BMW 3-Series, the Toyota Avensis and the Ford Puma are some of the rare examples of models selling at or very close to list price, but customers seeking most other models are able to negotiate.

Even prestige brands such as Mercedes-Benz are now prepared to negotiate on price more than they have in the past, despite documentaries suggesting otherwise. Cars selling at listed price are very much the exception rather than the rule.

Furthermore, manufacturers are currently putting unprecedented amounts of money behind their sales campaigns, offering a host of incentives to persuade customers to buy new.

What it means is that customers today have to be prepared to negotiate, to shop around, and ultimately to walk away if the deal is not right. In the case of the motor industry, there really are other fish in the sea.

Whether it is worth going abroad to buy depends very much on the amount of time and effort you are prepared to spend. Many models can be bought from Continental dealerships for thousands of pounds less than in the UK, but the process of ordering, collecting and registering a personal import will put off all but the most determined.

As for the trade-in, again you do not have to take the first offer. You could even think about selling privately, which is likely to result in a better price, but which involves more effort and inconvenience. But if you do decide to trade in your used car, you can still boost its value by a few simple expedients.

When a dealer takes in a trade in, he has to valet it, check it over, generally prepare it for sale, actually sell it and still retain a reasonable profit. Smart cars, well presented and with all the paperwork in order always sell faster and for better money than a tatty example of uncertain provenance, so it is worth your while to get your own car valeted before offering it to a dealer. It will create a better impression and this will inevitably make it more desirable and your modest valeting investment should be repaid with interest.

The other things you can do to make your car more desirable, sadly, should have been done long before: strong colours always sell better than dull beiges so with luck you originally chose the right hue. A full service history is absolutely essential at the premium end of the market and highly desirable whatever the make, so with luck you did attend to the maintenance at the right time and on a regular basis.

And although air conditioning, leather trim, immobilisers and even alloy wheels are always in demand, most optional extras - especially vulgar body kits - do not enhance the value of the car and could even detract from it.

Needless to say, the paperwork for the car and its registration documents should be in good order and in your own name. You can be sure that any established dealer is going to check that you have a right to sell the car and that there is no money due on finance agreements.

But, as when thinking of buying a new car, you always retain one powerful weapon in your negotiations with the dealer. Both the AA and Glass's Information Services now offer private buyers a telephone valuation service that tells you what is a realistic and fair price for your car when traded in and - if you are considering buying another used car - what a fair forecourt price for that car should be.

Armed with this vital information, if you don not think you are being offered a fair price, you can always drive away and take your business elsewhere.

Martin Derrick