• Jun 22, 2007

"Blue Book pricing!"

"We're selling below Blue Book!"

"Get true Blue Book value for your trade-in!"

Whether you're buying or selling a car, or even just conscious these days, you can't get away from Blue Book mania. At one time "Blue Book" value was a used car insider's term like cream puff or cherry, but today the phrase is, er, all over the lot.

Born of the original restricted-circulation, dealer-only NADA guide of used car wholesale and retail values, the Blue Book has become one of the major merchandising devices of modern vehicle selling. From seedy used car lots, to new car dealers, to million dollar national promotions for major automobile manufacturers, they all claim to sell cars at or below "Blue Book."

What, actually, is a Blue Book? Who started this whole arbitrary pricing bible? How accurate are they and how do they get their numbers? Most importantly, do they provide truly valuable information to help you get the best deal, whether you're buying or selling new or used? Read on.

Although the real Blue Book goes by the brand name Kelley Blue Book, like Kleenex for tissues, the term has become generic for all vehicle pricing guides. There are three principal reference sources heading a wide array of vehicle pricing information available today through printed matter, the Internet, and high zoot communicators such as BlackBerries and Treos.

Kelley Blue Book

Eighty-one years old, this guide boasts that one out of three people who buy a new or used car in the United States use this service. Kelley Blue Book (often misspelled as Kelly Blue Book) collects its information by attending auctions throughout the country where it bases used car evaluations: Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor. From those, Kelley Blue Book then sets wholesale values based on what are called "front line" (as in traffic stopper) vehicles, which also includes costs for reconditioning, transportation and auction fees.

Why should Kelley Blue Book be the book you depend on for the best deal? They claim it is most valuable to you, because you can get a quote from a Kelley Blue Book in Steubenville, Ohio and it will be the same at thousands of dealerships across the country. This means that buying or selling, you're getting a fair deal.

Nada Guide: Blue-and-Orange/Yellow Book

Spokespeople for the 74-year-old NADA guide say their book is superior to the others because the NADA book is the official data guide issued strictly for dealer members of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) trade group, and it has access to totally exclusive data, such as dealer retail sales, and it analyzes additional data from more than 500,000 various points of sale and other market data.

They say the circulation of the NADA guide out-guns the competition by almost five to one. The wholesale and retail pricing listed in the NADA guide seems to be higher in some areas than Kelley Blue Book due to its preset standard that all trade-ins be in very clean condition. Since "front line" might not accurately describe your vehicle, (only 5 percent of trade-ins or wholesale vehicles are) be prepared to adjust your expectations downward from what the NADA guide says.

Black Book

The 52-year-old, widely-used Black Book guide is circulation controlled, restricted to dealers and financing sources. Unlike kbb.com and NADA.com, the Black Book Web site does not provide data, only links you to dealers. The Black Book is the only value guide issued weekly instead of monthly, reflecting the latest prices direct from actual or online automobile dealers.

Whereas other value books or value Web sites may break down value into WHOLESALE and RETAIL numbers or TRADE-IN, PRIVATE PARTY and RETAIL, Black Book truly specializes in WHOLESALE VALUE, determining the value of used cars within categories of EXTRA CLEAN, CLEAN, AVERAGE or ROUGH. Although the others also issue editions for special interest/classic/rare cars, the Black Book's Cars of Particular Interest (CPI) value guide contains over 14,000 vehicles, dating from 1946 to 2007.

What Do the Pros Use?

According to Lynn Faeth, referring to the used car operation of his nationally-noted The Scout Connection dealership in Fort Madison, Iowa, "I use the Kelley Blue Book and the Black Book for used car valuation. But the Black Book CPI is my mainstay in determining the true value of any rare or unusual vehicle which I buy or sell."

Seconding Faeth's comment, is John Gorton who runs Gerton Auto Sales, a large, successful used car enterprise in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, "I use the Black Book -- the electronic version -- exclusively in my operation, because its used car pricing seems to be more accurate and up to date, coming out weekly instead of monthly."

"The system I use," adds longtime Southern California car salesman Roger Himmel, "combines checking value of a trade-in or used car purchase in Kelley Blue Book and the NADA guide, then telephoning wholesalers or other dealers to see what the value is to them. After all, for every thing I buy, I must find a buyer."

Back to the books, since each of the three value data industry leaders claim to offer the most accurate information and the best deal to buyers and sellers, AOL Autos decided to investigate by researching the used car values of three different types of vehicles in each of the three books, Kelley Blue Book (KBB), Black Book and the NADA guide.

The Subjects

1998 Dodge Durango SLT: An older American-made hemi-muscles big iron SUV

2004 Honda Civic EX: A gas-squeezing highly popular late model Japanese sedan.

2002 Porsche Boxster S: German sports car.

All are in clean condition, all are standard factory equipped.

Here, based on the actual data in the May 2007 books and electronic data from these three sources are the AVERAGE comparisons. The first number is what the guides say you can expect selling or trading in your used car. The second column is the starting point for negotiations on what the used car dealer wants for the same vehicle, if you are buying.

Based on these numbers, it would appear that your lead sled Durango is going to fetch the prettier penny from dealers who favor the Black Book. If you're buying, you want the NADA guide users.

You can also see that the differences of the Honda's wholesale value could fit under a spare tire cover. But when it comes to retail, the Kelley Blue Book value is out there thousands of dollars over the other two.

It appears that you would get top buckster for your used Boxster from the Black Book gang, but if you're shopping for one, the NADA guide-using dealer would appear to be your best bet.

However, remember these comparisons can change week to week (for Black Book), month to month (for the others) and definitely region to region. For example, in an earlier study, Black Book data showed lower wholesale values than the NADA Guide, but higher than the Kelley Blue Book numbers. Go figure.

In addition, situations can change. If gas went back to a buck a gallon, OK even two bucks, what would the Durango be worth then? Would the high-mileage wonders like Prius and the MINI lose their high esteem and growing demand cachets?

So, the bottom line as to which book to use is that there is no steady, set, fixed bottom line; they are all good, dependable, honest sources of information, some better than others for specific vehicles or markets or needs or purposes. When it comes to buying and or selling a new or used vehicle, you might say the best method would be to use a combination of a used car classifieds search, your judgment and these sources as your own value guide, remembering most importantly that they are guides, not the Magna Car-ta.



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