Most consumers think haggling is only appropriate when buying tchotkes at a street fair or facing off against a used-car dealer. But why not negotiate the cost of medical procedures? Or a new Sub-Zero refrigerator? If you're not paying less than sticker price for these and other goods and services, you're leaving money -- and often lots of it -- on the table. "Everything is negotiable," says Stuart Diamond, adjunct professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and author of "Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World." "All you have to do is ask."
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With that philosophy in mind, follow these tips to negotiate the best possible deal on 6 common fees and expenses:
1. Credit Card Rates
• Why they are negotiable: Now that most of the dust has settled following the big credit card reform act, card companies are competing fiercely again for new customers. Issuers sent out 1.2 billion credit card offers in the third quarter of 2010 -- more than three times the number sent during the same period in 2009. "Use the competition to your advantage," says Ira Rheingold, executive director for the National Association of Consumer Advocates. "Don't jump at the first offer. You should argue for the best rate."
• Who to talk to: Call the 800 number associated with a new card offer (or the number on the back of a current card) and talk to the customer service rep. If the rep can't -- or won't -- adjust the rate, ask to speak with a manager.
• What to say: "I've gotten several credit card offers with lower rates. Tell me what you can do to beat those offers."
• Possible savings: How much you're able to lower your interest rate will depend on your credit and payment history, as well as your credit score. In a study conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group several years ago, more than half of consumers who asked for lower rates got them, with their average APR dropping from 16 percent to 10.47 percent.
2. Mortgage and Refinancing Rates and Fees
• Why they are negotiable: "Mortgage lending has gotten difficult, which means that a lender will work hard to make a deal," says Rheingold. And that's particularly true for consumers with credit scores of at least 750.
• Who to talk to: Mortgage brokers or lenders at banks and credit unions.
• What to say: Get several estimates in writing and ask, "Here's the best deal I can get. Can you beat it?"
• Possible savings: In addition to offering better rates, lenders might reduce certain fees or even waive them altogether. To negotiate the lowest out-of-pocket costs, ask for discounts on all upfront fees, including application and origination fees. According to the Federal Trade Commission's website, comparing and negotiating mortgage fees can result in thousands of dollars of savings.
3. Home Improvements
• Why they are negotiable: "Business is slow and that means contractors are willing to haggle over their prices," says Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports. Plus, the prices of many common home building materials are down as much as 35 percent from their peak in the mid-2000s.
• Who to talk to: The contractor.
• What to say: "What are the options for less expensive materials? And what discounts can you offer me on labor?"
• Possible savings: Up to 20 percent of the cost of the project, according to a new survey by Angie's List, a website that publishes surveys and consumer reviews of service businesses. Of the home improvement contractors who were surveyed in 2010, 80 percent were willing to drop their prices to get a job (compared with 43 percent in 2008). And more than half of the contractors surveyed said they were willing to lower prices by 10 percent, with nearly 25 percent willing to drop their fees up to 20 percent.
4. Home Appliances and Electronics
• Why they are negotiable: Store managers understand that a discounted deal done today is often better than a potential deal in the future (and definitely better than no deal at all). One trick is to go first thing in the morning or just before the store closes when there are fewer customers. "A manager will hesitate to offer a discount if he thinks he'll have to make the same deal with all of the customers who overhear the negotiation," says Consumer Reports' Daugherty.
• Who to talk to: A store's manager or assistant manager.
• What to say: "I like this model. If you can give me a discount and free delivery, I'll buy it today."
• Possible savings: Profit margins are generally fairly thin on appliances and electronics, so getting 10 percent off is a reasonable goal, particularly if you can also get them to throw in free delivery and installation. Consumer Reports found that three-quarters of shoppers were able to negotiate a better deal on major appliances, with an average savings of $100 per appliance.
• Why it's negotiable: Car dealerships are one of the few places where price negotiations are not only acceptable, they're expected, notes Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for car-buying site Edmunds.com. But instead of trying to negotiate your purchase price down from the MSRP (the sticker price), as you might for other items, ask to see the invoice price (the price the dealer paid for the car) and work your way up from there. You can look up dealer invoice prices for free on Web sites like IntelliChoice.com, Edmunds.com, and KBB.com.
• Who to talk to: Sales staff.
• What to say: "Another dealership has given me a better price on the same model. Tell me how you can beat their offer."
• Possible savings: It's possible to save more than $1,000 on a new car by negotiating smartly, according to Reed. And you'll net even higher savings by also negotiating the value of your trade-in, as well as financing terms and the cost of extended warranties.
6. Medical Bills
• Why they're negotiable: Patients usually assume that the cost for various medical procedures and tests are set in stone, but often they're not. And with health care companies shifting more out-of-pocket costs onto consumers, asking for potential discounts is essential, particularly since there's often a huge variance in costs among providers, says Angie's List spokeswoman Cheryl Reed. In Washington D.C., for example, the price for an MRI of the right knee ranges from $400 to $1,501, according to a recent report. You can look up average prices in your area for various procedures at Healthcare Blue Book.
• Who to talk to: The billing administrator.
• What to say: "This is a significant expense for me. Is there a discount for paying upfront or in cash? What other kinds of discounts might be available?"
• Possible savings: Fifty percent or more. An Angie's List poll found that 74 percent of respondents who negotiated their medical bills were successful, often paying less than half of the original cost.
- Consumer Reports