Gender a fender bender

Most Australian women fear they could be ripped off at car dealerships, writes Emily Chantiri.

Most Australian women fear they could be ripped off at car dealerships, writes Emily Chantiri.

It is lunchtime and I have arranged to meet two friends at a Sydney cafe. I arrive to find my friends caught up in a heated discussion. Louise* has recently received a quote to replace the leaking roof of her Audi convertible. She is shaking her head in disbelief as she reiterates the quote to replace it. "Sixteen thousand dollars just to replace a roof!" she says, over and over again.

"It's ludicrous," she adds. "I could buy a car with that price. I'm sure as soon as they see that I'm female, they think they can get away with hiking up the price. I don't know anything about cars. I hate taking my car in for servicing. I have to trust what they say. Is that too much to ask for - an honest price?" Louise, who is single, cringes at the prospect of getting more quotes from car dealers.

"Dad suggested I try to source the roof from Audi in Germany and find a repairer who would do the job, rather than going back to a specialist Audi service dealer," she says. "I did. I found someone who would order the roof and replace it for $9000. I would never have thought to go direct to the manufacturer, whereas men know these things. Why couldn't the dealer offer another solution?"

My other friend, Julie*, is equally miffed at the quote she received to replace a broken toilet. "The guy came in, took a quick look at the toilet and quoted $1300 to replace it," she says. "Before I went ahead with the job, I decided to check the cost of the toilet alone. I found a similar one priced at $400. I bought the toilet and then had someone install it for another $400. I saved $500. I bet if Eric* [her husband] was there, the guy wouldn't have quoted as much." The two women believe their gender contributed to them being overcharged, and they are not alone.

When Jennifer* bought a car in Toowoomba, she took her friend Steve* along for moral support. As soon as they arrived at the dealership, the salesman directed his attention to Steve and ignored Jennifer. "I was the one who had the cash and who was buying the car," Jennifer says.

"The salesman refused to establish eye contact with me. He spoke to Steve and negotiated the deal to sell me the car for $26,000. I stood there furious. I asked Steve to leave, because if he didn't, I would."

After Steve had left, Jennifer negotiated an even better deal with the salesman and received another $1500 off the price.

"I was fired up at being excluded and annoyed that he negotiated the deal with Steve. This is so typical. They [salesmen] tend to have the discussion with the man. Don't they understand that women can negotiate just as well as men? Look at how many women there are in the workforce, negotiating and managing businesses. I felt I was left on the outside and then treated like the village idiot."

Stories like Jennifer's drove Shoshi Vorchheimer to launch Dutch Auction Auto, an online site that allows consumers to negotiate a car sale without age, gender or language barriers. Vorchheimer says Jennifer's example is common. She says women shouldn't feel intimidated when buying a car but admits many do because it tends to be a man's domain.

"A friend's husband passed away a few years ago," Vorchheimer says. "She was in need of a new a car, but was loath to go to a dealer unless she had a man with her. It's bizarre that this type of thinking still goes on. My friend was convinced that the salesman would not take her seriously and that he would rip her off."

Vorchheimer says Dutch Auction Auto offers a safe way to negotiate the price of a new car because buyers remain anonymous.

In March, Vorchheimer commissioned a survey into the buying experience of women. The research concluded more than half of Australian women felt intimidated walking into a dealership alone; 90 per cent admitted the main reason was because they felt the car dealer wasn't taking them seriously enough; 75 per cent felt a car sales representative would rip them off; and more than half admitted they would buy from a website if it meant getting a better price.

"Car dealers have a reputation for taking advantage of women ... as well as young people and people whose first language isn't English, who might not have the right level of bargaining and negotiating," Vorchheimer says. She adds that the site is a win for buyers and for car dealers, who are guaranteed a sale.

"Once you know what car you want to buy, you then post the maximum price you're prepared to pay for a new car, while dealers compete for the sale by offering their lowest-possible price," she says.

NSW Fair Trading commissioner Rod Stowe says there is no hard evidence that women are being ripped off. Fair Trading uses a national coding system that captures information about complaints and inquiries received. However, it does not specifically record gender, making it harder to establish whether women are the ones commonly being overcharged. Consumers can provide the title (for example, Mr, Mrs) of the individual lodging the complaint, but that person may not be the consumer in the dispute. "Women are very discerning, as they are out in the marketplace more often than men and are prepared to enforce their rights when they have been treated unfairly," Stowe says. "Generally, it is the women who are doing the household shopping and dealing with tradespeople.

"Under Australian consumer law, consumers have significant rights when it comes to purchases in the marketplace, particularly when they have purchased goods and services that are not to standard or quality."

*Names have been changed.

Don't be a victim

NSW Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe offers the following advice for buyers:

Should women believe they might be vulnerable when buying a car, getting a vehicle repaired or serviced, or contracting a licensed tradesperson, Fair Trading recommends they research their consumer rights and responsibilities before entering into any contract, ensure they are dealing with licensed tradespeople and keep good records of what takes place, including retaining documents such as proof of purchase and contracts.

Compare prices beforehand

When buying a vehicle or substantial white goods, check the market price. "There is a plethora of information out on the web where people can compare prices," Stowe says. "It surprises me the number of people who rush out and make a purchase and don't do the proper research. They get into difficulty with the supplier and then come to us."

Read the terms and conditions

It is important to remember that you are entering into a contract when you are paying for goods and services.

"Again, it's surprising the number of people who don't read the terms," Stowe says. "It's only when things go wrong that they look at them. Read them first. If you have concerns about the terms and conditions, challenge the supplier.

"If you believe the terms for contracts are unfair, then contact Fair Trading. We have unfair-contract-terms legislation, which helps consumers challenge unfair terms."

Check for licence and warranty

"It's important to have a licensed tradesperson," Stowe says. "If you use a tradesperson who doesn't have the appropriate insurance and something goes wrong with their work, you're left without a safety net. For example, builders are required to have home warranty insurance to cover themselves and their work should the unexpected happen, such as when a builder dies or goes into insolvency."

Get references

Ask for references from previous clients. If possible, check to see if the supplier belongs to a professional organisation. These groups have codes of conduct and they can also help you find a tradesperson in your area. Fair Trading has developed a number of apps to help consumers, including My Next Car, ShopSmart and Scam Buster.

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