Cowland on Cars

The Price is Right: The art of a good haggle

by Paul Cowland
7 August 2023 4 min read
The Price is Right: The art of a good haggle
(Getty Images)

How do you achieve the perfect price when buying or selling a classic car? Paul Cowland reckons he might be able to make you a fair offer on the answer…

While I’m guessing that a very high percentage of visitors to this site enjoy almost every aspect of classic car ownership, I’m also prepared to wager that a similarly low percentage dislike the moment of horror and sheer discomfort when haggling at the point of either buying or selling a car. As an aside, if another aspect you haven’t enjoyed thus far is insuring the thing, then you’re also in the right spot for some light relief.

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Just what is it about that moment in the sales process of transacting a car that makes most of us feel uncomfortable? Where’s a clever place to start? What’s a sensible place to finish? What’s the psychology behind the whole process? While there’s doubtless a gripping book to be written unpacking that little lot, I will attempt to scatter a few pearls of wisdom from what is about to be my 30th year in the motor trade. During that time, my dear friends, I think I may have seen every technique going – and some have definitely been more successful than others.

(Stefan Lombard)

Haggling presumably started during medieval times after one farmer, previously happy with the exchange of a single duck for two bags of grain, managed to negotiate a goose instead, the week after. Suddenly, and for evermore, mankind realised that it was actually able to elicit a greater bang for the buck, or indeed duck, simply by being a bit clever with their patter. Taking home a bigger bill with a smaller bill, as it were. The good news is, while the currency has progressed a little (unless you’re reading this in certain provincial market towns) human nature and response has altered very little since those simpler times.

I was reminded of the science and mechanics of this process during a Twitter (X?) exchange last week. A user politely asked me on the best way to ‘bargain £1000 off’ the car he was about to view. Which sounds like a very sensible question, unless, of course, the car he was going to see was already fairly priced to begin with. Because then, offering a sizeable chunk off the asking price could have very easily alienated the seller, and it’s hard to come back from that as a bidder.

Because, despite what all the books and courses that advise you on it might say, behind every sales negotiation are two relatively fragile human egos. That goes for whichever level you are negotiating at and at whatever value. And neither wants to be the one who loses out. The first trick to learn, as either a buyer or seller, is to make sure the car is fairly priced. As a vendor, if it is, you have played your part well, and I doff my cap to you. As a potential buyer, if you can see that the car is also exactly where it should be, financially, then don’t be a div. A small gesture can be made to secure a gentle moral victory from both parties – and then you can part as the best of friends. Because that’s the other thing, the internet-connected car world of 2023 is very, VERY small….

(Stefan Lombard)

So small in fact, it’s easy to get a reputation as a messer, a poor describer, and underhanded dealer or an aggressive negotiator. And for every one of those I’ve heard boasting in a pub about the little old lady they just turned over for half the book value on her pristine Micra, I’ll show you two richer, nicer, decent buyers who have done it the fair way, because that’s the other thing about transacting with real human beings. Although there are some real horror shows out there, in the main, people are decent and respond well to politeness, consideration, decency, and communication. If you can manage to build all of that into your sales negotiations, then both parties are going to have a very lovely time indeed and – here’s the best bit – leave the door wide open on both sides to do business together again. And that’s incredibly important when you’re a collector looking to deal with other collectors, or perhaps a member buying a car within a small club. You want both parties to have the ‘feel-good’ factor afterwards. You might want to do it all again – or at least ask what the radio code was. Good luck with that if you’d left things on a bad note.

During the 1990s, I used to work for Saab as a salesman. In that period I was consistently amongst the top sellers in the UK and once, during a trip to the factory in 1999, I was asked by a senior executive how I had achieved it. My answer genuinely shocked him, I think. That I was polite, punctual, fair with my deals, exacting with my part exchanges, and never took the mickey during any part of the process. I did nothing exceptional in anyway, other than remember what my mentor had taught me on my first day on the salesroom floor, which was to ‘treat EVERYONE who walks through that door like your favourite Auntie.’ That attitude served me incredibly well during my car sales years, and it’s been a huge part of my approach in business generally. It’s also amazing just how many people will recommend you if they’ve had a nice time – or at least take you for a pint afterwards.

Next time you’re buying or selling a car, try doing the same. If you’ve checked the Hagerty Price Guide, you’ll already know that it’s a fair price – or how to adjust accordingly – and try charm, compliments, friendship, and fairness as your negotiating tools. They always say that nice guys finish last, but when it comes to moving metal, either into – or out of your garage – the very opposite is true.

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