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How not to buy a car

How not to buy a car

How not to buy a car
Blake Anderson Blake Anderson

About six months ago, my wife’s car was rear-ended by a delivery truck while she was on her way to work. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured but the car was a total loss. If you’ve ever been through this process, you know how much of a pain it is. The path to getting the word from the insurer that your car is totaled is not a straightforward or quick one. Then once you get the word, the real fun begins. You get to haggle with the insurer to get the most money possible from them. That’s a whole other story.

This story is about how not to buy a car. After we were notified of the amount we were getting reimbursed for the totaled car, we looked at our budget and savings and came up with a number we felt comfortable spending on a replacement vehicle. I think it was $9,000. If you’ve tried to replace a perfectly good family car with $9,000 recently, you know what we were up against. It’s next to impossible.

Obviously, we were looking for used. So I begin the online research and narrow our search to the usual suspects - Honda Accord or Civic, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. There were others on the initial list but they were scratched for one reason or another. We set a babysitter up for Saturday and start visiting listings. Some of the highlights:

  • Honda Accord in our price range. After searching the lot with a salesman for a few minutes, I find the car. And its wheels are missing. All of them. And the car is laying on its belly. We leave.
  • Nissan Altima in our price range. Searching the Carfax report we find three owners in the last six months. We leave.
  • Toyota Camry in our price range. We drive it. It’s nice. We ask how much. Salesman: “Oh, I can’t let you buy this one.” Me: “Why not?” Salesman: “It’s not ready yet.” Me: “Wow” We leave.

We end up looking at a Volvo dealership that has Toyotas on the lot. It’s now 8 hours into the day and we’re tired and starting to get grumpy. My wife’s eye turns to Volvo station wagons (her dream car). I have done know research on these. I have no clue what a good price is. Before I know it, we’re driving one. Twenty minutes later, she’s on the phone with her mom who’s checking prices and ratings on Consumer Reports. Now I know Volvo hasn’t had good reliability in recent years and I’m skeptical, but this is her car.

After the obligatory back and forth over price (we end up offering more than our ‘target amount’), we come to agreement. While we do paperwork, the car is getting ‘prepped.’ Did I mention the ‘Check Engine’ light was on during the test drive? So in our case ‘prepped’ meant ‘resetting light so suckers think there’s no problem.’ Thus accomplished, my begins driving home. Can you guess what happens next? Wait for it… The ‘Check Engine’ light comes on again.

So the next day I take the car to our local mechanic to have it generally inspected and so they can tell me about the light. My wife calls them later and then calls me. Wife: “What’s the most expensive thing you can have to replace on a car besides the engine?” Me: “The transmission.” Wife: “Try again. Give up? The car’s catalytic converter is shot and needs to be replaced. About $2,000.” Me: “Holy crap.”

The next day, the calls to the dealership begin. To their great credit, they were sympathetic and after some back and forth, agreed to let us find another car on their lot. My wife takes the next day off and, with my admonishment to buy a Camry or Accord, goes back to the dealer. Can you guess what happens next? My phone rings. Wife: “I found a great car.” Me: “Oh yeah? What is it, the Camry I spotted?” Wife (voice full of excitement): “No. It’s a different Volvo station wagon only newer!” Me: “Oh, no.” Wife: “And it’s not that much more.” Me: “How much is ‘not that much more?’” Wife: (unintelligible)

So that was six months ago and we paid way more than we wanted to for a car we didn’t start out to buy. On the plus side, it’s been a good car so far and I learned how not to buy a car.

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