This smartphone app will relieve your car-buying agony

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These days, you can book plane tickets, buy appliances, pay for college, even schedule surgery with a few swipes and keystrokes on a smartphone.

Buying a car is another matter. It retains much of the same analog agony as before: the haggling, the hours at the dealership, the gnawing worry of the fees, charges and rates behind the transaction.

But progress is being made.

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The latest step forward comes from AutoGravity, a startup based in Irvine, California, whose smartphone app for auto financing is gaining some traction. The app allows consumers to apply for and obtain approval for auto financing in a matter of minutes, and is accepted at thousands of dealers across the country. It has been downloaded more than 500,000 times via the Apple and Android app stores.

In July, Volkswagen’s credit arm bought a stake in AutoGravity for a reported $30 million. That follows an equity investment by Daimler, parent of Mercedes-Benz, in February. AutoGravity started as a project within Daimler’s financing arm and was set up as an independent company in 2015.

The app addresses one of the most tedious steps in the car-purchasing process — waiting around, sometimes for hours, while the dealer tries to line up a loan. Nowadays, it’s often quite a sum. Americans borrowed an average of $30,689 to buy new cars in July.

Individual banks also make it possible to apply for loans by smartphone or online. But AutoGravity generates loan offers from up to four different institutions, allowing users to compare rates, payments and costs.

“We are like Expedia or Travelocity, except for auto finance,” said Andy Hinrichs, the company’s chief executive, referring to the popular travel-booking sites.

People can also shop for cars, browse the inventory of dealers in their area and compare prices on the app. After homing in on the type of car they want, users can apply for a loan.

Most steps can be automated. Scanning the bar code from a driver’s license populates basic personal information like name, address and date of birth. Employment history can be pulled from LinkedIn.

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A few months ago, Lisa Harrington, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, was shopping for a new car, and an acquaintance suggested she give AutoGravity a try. “Even as an executive who negotiates for a living, it can be daunting,” she said. “It really isn’t easy, especially for women by themselves.”

She decided on a Mercedes-Benz GLE, a cross between a sports coupe and an SUV. The AutoGravity app let her check the models at a dealership, Fletcher Jones Motorcars, near her home in Newport Beach, California. From home she used the app to apply for credit and then went to the dealership with the lease financing already lined up.

At the showroom, she merely picked out the color and trim level of the GLE she wanted. “I was in and out,” Harrington, 49, recalled. “I didn’t want to deal with being in the dealership for a thousand hours, and this was definitely the most painless purchase I’ve ever had buying a car.”

Fletcher Jones Management, the owner of the Newport Beach dealership, thinks AutoGravity has the right idea, and has partnered to have the startup create a version of the app tailored to the 17 dealerships it owns across four states.

Auto dealers need to look for “ways of making ourselves more visual and ways of bringing the younger generation,” said Keith May, the president of Fletcher Jones. Having an app geared toward how younger consumers shop “gets us into their stream of consciousness,” he added.

Other apps and websites simplify various parts of the process.

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Hate haggling? TrueCar allows users to see average prices paid in their area for specific makes and models, and lets them print a certificate for a set price, eliminating most of the negotiation with the dealer.

Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book both provide a wealth of data — specifications, reviews, trade-in values, manufacturer discounts — and help consumers connect with dealers offering attractive prices. AutoTrader is useful for searching in your area or nationwide for specific cars, colors and features you might desire, whether on a new or used car.

Big dealer groups like AutoNation and Penske Automotive have apps and websites that allow you to carry out most of the buying process, but they are limited to the franchise dealerships they operate.

More advances are coming. Mercedes-Benz Financial Services has developed technology that reduces the documents that a buyer must review and sign before getting the keys to a new car.

A few dealerships in Texas and Florida have just started presenting documents in electronic form instead of paper, said Geoff Robinson, a vice president at the company. “The dealer shows them everything on a screen, and the customer gives one electronic signature that is populated on all the documents,” he said.

Instead of a folder with photocopies, the customer leaves with a thumb drive with the purchase receipt and other “paperwork.”

But for now, no one has yet covered all the bases, allowing people to shop across all automotive makes and all dealerships, while providing financing options.

Hinrichs said that was where AutoGravity hoped to go. The app recently added the ability to determine trade-in values drawn from Black Book, the source many dealerships use.

Eventually he hopes AutoGravity will be able to become a means for automakers to target special offers to consumers. For someone shopping for a Honda Accord, for example, Nissan could provide a special deal on an Altima.

“Putting on marketing campaigns will be the value that AutoGravity will create for its partners,” Hinrichs said. “Once we operate at scale, we want to provide unique offers that you can only find at AutoGravity.”