auto

Online used-car pricing: where the haggling begins

She says the retail price on kbb.com is not meant to be a hard number.

"This is the number at which a dealer will price a used vehicle. That's where negotiations start and then customer and dealer negotiate downward,'' she says. And, in fact, that's just what it says on Kelley's site.

"Trade-in value" is explained as, "What consumers can expect to receive from a dealer for a trade-in vehicle," and "private party value" is explained as, "what a buyer can expect to pay when buying a used car from a private party." But when it comes to "suggested retail value" KBB switches gears and defines it as, "representative of dealers' asking prices and is the starting point for negotiation between a consumer and a dealer."



Edmunds says its "true market value" pricing report, "... is our estimate of the current average selling price for this vehicle and is what you need to know to negotiate a fair price." CarsDirect only says its pricing report, "... shows you the Trade-In, Private Party, and Dealer Retail prices so that you can buy or sell with confidence."

Rob Gentile, associate director of car pricing products at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, says that CU has also found great disparities among Internet used-car pricing guides. "There are big, big variances,'' he says.

He contends that to one degree or another all of the major free Web sites depend on a positive relationship with car dealers for advertising and other support that could affect their used-car pricing reports.

"Kelley Blue Book does favor dealers,'' he says. "Dealers are actually using the Blue Book to set values. Edmunds probably favors the dealers as well, though likely less than Kelley.''

But even Gentile's comments need to be viewed as possibly tainted by bias. Consumer Reports offers its own car-pricing service. For $10, buyers can get a report on the value of a single used vehicle, or for $24, three months of unlimited access to the service.

Gentile argues that because Consumer Union doesn't take advertising, its information is unbiased.

Regardless of which site consumers use, there are differences in what information the sites will ask for in determining vehicle values.

For example, the information at CarsDirect.com asks for some specific information on condition, options and mileage to appraise the vehicle's wholesale price -- what you might get in trade -- but asks for no such information on another part of its site that gives values for trade-in, private party or retail transactions.

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If you're researching a 1999 Toyota Camry LE, Edmunds will ask about the color of the car and assign a positive or negative price to that one item. On the same car, Kelley lists 17 options beyond standard equipment that could affect value, compared to 14 at Edmunds and four at CarsDirect.

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