Image: Salesman talking to woman in automobile showroom © Adam Gault, OJO Images, Getty Images

Some people are born hagglers. They love to match wits with car salespeople, hoping to wring out a jaw-dropping deal that they can brag about to their friends.

The rest of us -- well, many of us would rather have a tooth pulled than haggle over a car.

We can try to teach ourselves to be better bargainers. We can arm ourselves with Consumer Reports ratings, Kelley Blue Book values and Edmunds.com pricing guides. We can educate ourselves on the "four square," holdbacks and dealer cash.

Or we can just outsource the whole mess to a car-buying service.

Car-buying services come in several flavors, but the basic idea is the same: They do most or all of the work to connect you with the vehicle you want and present you with what's supposed to be a fixed price.

In an informal poll of my Facebook fans, the car-buying services offered by USAA and by credit unions won raves.

"I used the service offered by my credit union," wrote Monica Gruber of Sunrise, Fla. "I gave the rep all of the things I was looking for (car itself, finances, etc.). A week later she gave me a call and said she had a car lined up for me. The next day, I had my car. No pressure, no BS sales pitches, very convenient. I will definitely use the service next time I'm in the market for a car."

Laurie Prentice Perkins of Juneau, Alaska, bought two cars in quick succession -- one in a deal that she negotiated herself and the second that she had outsourced to USAA.

"I enjoyed the USAA experience MUCH more," Perkins wrote. "It's not too hard to find what the dealership pays and add $500 and make that your final. But dealerships will make you earn that price with all the theatrics. It was soooo nice to have USAA cut through all that and come up with the same bottom line."

Not everyone has had a great experience. Some readers complained that the car-buying services they used served mostly as a marketing service for dealerships. Some wound up in the exact position they wanted to avoid -- down at the lot, haggling over a price they thought was fixed.

Ideally, you'd want a car service that offers:

  • Decent prices. It may not be that rock-bottom figure your brother-in-law insists he can get, but it's likely to be significantly less than you'd pay if you wandered onto a typical car lot without much preparation -- which is how many, if not most, people buy cars, said Phil Reed, the senior consumer-advice editor for Edmunds.com.
  • Decent treatment. Dealerships want to preserve their good relationship with car-buying services, because of the promise of repeat business. So they have more incentive to treat you well than if you were a one-off customer, Reed said. That usually means no hard sell. The expensive add-ons that tend to drive up your price -- security systems and weatherproofing you may be able to find elsewhere for less -- are offered, rather than pushed, he said. Some car-buying services will deliver the vehicle to your door and pick up your trade-in, and you never have to set foot on the lot.

There are several types of car-buying services available. One is the car broker -- typically a small, independent business, often run by former car salespeople, that negotiates with a network of dealers. Some car brokers get a fee from those dealerships, which raises conflict-of-interest issues. If you want a truly independent advocate, you may want to look for someone compensated only by the fees you pay.

Alan Granger of Spokane, Wash., turned to a car broker after getting kicked off two dealership lots.

"I looked at cars at a dozen dealers or so and quickly grew familiar with lot sales techniques and found them universally insulting to my intelligence," Granger said. "And because the scripts they used in each lot were almost word-for-word identical, I started to get more and more angry at a mere hint of a deceptive line. My response usually involved expletives, which caused the two dismissals."

The car broker he found charged a $500 fee to search for the car he wanted and to arrange the deal.

"Within four business days she had located a suitable vehicle and called to verify that I was OK with the price she could get it for," Granger said. "In the end, I had a car at a comparable price to what I could have negotiated myself, but in a fraction of the time and while dealing with someone truly working on my behalf instead of as my adversary."