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Car Lady drives a hard bargain

Auto broker finds best deals for lot-wary car shoppers

She bills herself as The Car Lady. For a self-professed car freak, the name fits.

Of course, it's more than just a name to Carolyn Brown -- it's her business. As one of only two or three auto brokers in the area, she gladly does the degrading dirty work that so many brave-but-doomed tire-kickers hate doing.

She drives a hard bargain. For you.

And chances are she does it better than you, too. The fact that she is a woman in a shark-infested industry dominated by overdressed men actually has little do with it.

When you come in here, within 20 minutes you're gonna have the bottom line price, she says. That's why people come to me.

It helps that she knows everything there is to know about car sales. A former in-house broker for Rogue Federal Credit Union, she has nearly 15 years of experience pricing cars and fixing financing.

But what really helps is the fact that she views her job almost as a calling, given her love for cars and trucks. I've always been a car freak, she says without apology. I just like cars.

She bought her first set of wheels, a sporty BMW no less, at the age of 17 -- without help from her parents. Good credit, she explains. Since then, she has owned dozens of cars and trucks, sometimes as many as five at a time.

I've mellowed out over the years, she says regretfully. I usually limit myself to two at a time these days.

Told that some more sentimental people hold onto their cars forever -- say a battered but reliable '86 Chevy S-10 with a cigarette hole in the seat and more than 200,000 miles on the odometer -- her eyes widen.

That's the 4.3 (liter) V-6, right? she correctly guesses. I've heard of people like that. Good thing not everybody is like that, or a lot of dealers would go out of business.

Of course, people who rarely buy cars often find the process intimidating and are exactly the type of hapless souls Brown can help the most.

Most of her customers hate haggling, so she does it for them. For a flat fee of $250, she can find the car you want in the color you want with all the options you want at a price you want. If you don't like the quote, you don't pay the fee.

She gets her cars mainly from the fleet departments (i.e. bulk sales) of big dealerships up north. Dealers work with her because she negotiates fast and they work in volume, and usually gets want she wants for only $100 or $200 over invoice -- which is the real bottom line, not to be confused with the inflated manufacturer's suggested retail price markup.

I don't care where I buy the car, she says. I'll buy from anybody, if it's the right product at the right price.

She says advertising is the key to her success, as well as word of mouth. She still gets customers from Rogue Federal, and some of her clients have bought as many as four or five cars through her over the years. She rarely brokers used cars, except as pass alongs as part of trade-ins.

Despite the hassle-free nature of her business, Brown says many of her customers have done their homework before they pay her a call. And that's a good thing, because then there is never a doubt about whether she's found a good deal.

I get a quote and they pretty much sign right then and there, she says, They know the price they've been quoted elsewhere.

She guesses that a majority of her customers are men, generally middle-aged professionals or wealthy retirees. Some of the guys like to talk about cars, which is just fine by her.

One thing she knows for sure: she won't ever, EVER, work for a dealership. Her conscience would never allow it, she says.

In that sense, she sees her business as a kind of public service. Her overhead is low, her needs are few (besides access to hot wheels) and she's her own boss.

I wear shorts to work, I talk however I want to, and if I want to take off a Friday, I do, she says. What more could you want?

Carolyn Brown, The Car Lady, never looked back after going into the car-brokering business 15 years ago. - Photo by Jim Craven