Making decisions on big purchases are never easy. Hell for me small purchases are not terribly easy either. I just spent the past three days agonizing over how to spend birthday money on low range headphones only after having a near nervous breakdown trying to decide on which game I wanted. No answer was forth coming that didn’t include running through the streets naked while shouting unintelligible nonsense. So I went with the headphones and even then I spent several hours trying to decide which pair of shitty entry level cans I wanted to go with to upgrade my super low quality Sony bargain pair. Sorry for the digression but I’ve only recently clicked on the Amazon purchase button and I am now left to stew on the decision until sometime next week. We now return to the regularly scheduled article: One of the biggest decisions, outside of house shopping, is the purchase of a vehicle. When that vehicle is also a requirement for work the decision is another step more difficult. Add a modest budget and specific safety requirements and you get a pretty tough slog. Top it off with insane Craigslist ad placers and pushy and devious car dealership salesmen and you might as well be trying to gain some sympathy from Rush Limbaugh after your mother died largely due to a lack of decent health insurance.
Recently my girlfriend received word that her job would be ending due to the business closing its doors. It was bad news to be sure and the move to close seemed a bit drastic but she was faced with the loss of her job by the end of the month. Because she is plucky, resourceful and very well qualified she managed to snatch up another job within a week which is no small feat in this economy, particularly when the increase in pay was substantial. The only catch was that she needed a vehicle and to have insurance for said vehicle in her name. We’ve been sharing a car now for the better part of a year and she was not on that insurance as it was a blanket policy. We tried to get her put on mine, which because I am actually 12 is controlled by my parents, and that ended in acrimony and an egregious shafting by way of my birthday present. To avoid my being disowned outright, other avenues were pursued culminating in a tentative go –ahead to start shopping for used cars in the $3,000 range. This was a challenging prospect.
Saturday, after I finished up a book signing appearance with my co-author Katie at the Tucson Festival of No I Have No Idea Where the Author’s Pavilion Is Now If You Will Excuse Me We Are Here to Show Authors Where They Are Suppose to Go…No I Mean Real Ones my girlfriend and I set off in search of some used cars. Our first destination was a small used car lot that carried several sub 3K vehicles. They were not awful per-se but they were obviously older and had seen better days and generally those better days were when I was in high school. There was one car that was alright there and the salesman wasn’t terribly pushy. Armed with a heartening sense of ‘we can do this’ we left to take a look at some other places. The auto mall, conveniently located on Auto Mall drive, seemed like a good place to start even though the dealerships here were classier places for people with a higher price range but we thought what the hell.
We stopped at a Ford dealership and encountered a salesman who was very nice and did an admirable job not giving himself a hernia from laughter when we told him what our price was. Instead he was nice and marginally helpful and we were just happy to flee as the lowest priced vehicle was double our budget. We went up to the next dealership we were interested in due mostly because of my girlfriend’s Mom’s affection for that brand. This affection ranked as her parents were her potential financiers in this deal so we thought we would give it a try. This time we decided we would just look and not throw out any kind of number. We were engaged almost immediately by a heavy set bald fellow in a white button up shirt and slacks who identified himself as the sales manager. We said we were looking for used and gave him the specs and he said he would have a sales man out right away. An almost identical looking man came out in similar dress and went straight for a 13k vehicle. After a bit of discussion he said he would go get the key and pull it out so we could look better. We never saw him again.
I am not sure if it was because we looked unmotivated or if our weary, sun-burned appearance amplified out awkward guilt from being poor and having the audacity to be there in the first place, but he retreated to his office ostensibly to play some World of Warcraft or update his Facebook status. After about 20 minutes we decided to make a break for it since we weren’t really interested in the car in the first place and we decided to give the Auto Mall the finger and check out another smaller scale used place.
The next one we went to was nice insofar as the salesman just told us how the information on the cars was presented and then left us alone. That was nice. There was an awesome older vehicle there for a super low price so we took note of it and left as they were closing up. Heading into my birthday do at Bumstead’s we felt a bit of hope and a bit of renewed resolve to check out craigslist.
The next morning we were set to go out on a hunting expedition with my girlfriend’s mom and the beginning of that excursion found a counter proposal from her parents that opened the field up quite a bit as now the budget jumped to anything 10k or under. While it was still a loan, the increase in budget opened up the field quite a lot, including opening the door to the New VW Beetle, which was something of a dream car for my girlfriend. It isn’t just because of the little flower vases.
My girlfriend called a couple of potential Craigslist sellers and left a message and managed to talk to someone about a used Jetta. We set up a time to meet him for a test drive and set off. We were forewarned that the seller had a touch of laryngitis and when we met him he sort of did. Except for when he didn’t. Apparently the sort of strain of laryngitis he had was ‘Whenever-Someone-Asks-for-Any-Details-About-the-Car-At-All-yngitis. To describe this meeting as sketchy would be like saying that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t care about hurting a child’s feelings after said child’s mother has died (hint: Rush doesn’t care a lot). When asked where he got the car, the man croaked that he had inherited it and thus had no idea how many previous owners it had, nor how old the tires were, nor what work had been done, nor why he was selling it. He also got visibly agitated when asked about the breaks almost shouting ‘the breaks are fine!’ which was impressive given his aforementioned laryngitis. After the test drive, during which the brakes were found somewhat wanting and the alignment was called into question, the seller switched up his story to ‘I bought it from a guy’ which is unhelpful when the follow up question of ‘what guy?’ goes unanswered due to another intermittent loss of voice. We beat feet out of there and went to a dealership that was closed to peruse their inventory without being descended upon but a phalanx of bald pudgy guys in Michael Kors dress shirts.
We found a few prospects on this lot including a couple of potential New Beetles and as we were leaving received a call from a craigslist seller who was looking to unload a 2000 New Beetle. So we went to go meet them at their home and see the car. When we arrived we were greeted by a pleasant older English man who was very friendly, funny and cordial. He showed us through his home, which was a gorgeous place in the foothills, down to his garage. He excused his mess as his family was in the process of moving. We look at the car which was a manual transmission and fully loaded. The thing was nice and well cared for and our host had extensive knowledge of all the work done to it. He could even tell us who had it before and why it was being sold. We went for a test drive, which was my girlfriend’s first manual operation in several years. The test drive went well despite well-meaning jibes from my girlfriend’s mom about her rustiness. I thought she did fine but then again my only experience driving stick was with an old dump truck I am thoroughly convinced was, at its very core, evil and haunted my dreams like Freddy Kruger and Christine’s unholy love child so I may not be the best judge.
The test drive completed it was time to get down to brass tacks. My girlfriend was convinced and the seller intimated that there was another buyer interested who was supposed to bring cash the next day…an obvious time crunch maneuver betrayed by the fact that they had called us to come and look at it that day…not really the move of someone with a buyer coming back with cash. My girlfriend really liked it and they decided to buy it. This is when things went to shit. Talk of payment began as my girlfriend’s mom was not carrying a briefcase full of cash and would need to write a check. The nice man said he would need to ask his wife.
When his wife entered the scene I was struck by how at home she would have been rolling around the hood of a Trans Am in a Ratt video circa 1984. The Oakley’s she was wearing indoors did little to dissuade this impression. I was immediately struck by her demeanor so sharp a contrast was it with the nice gentlemen with whom we had been dealing. She came off as very coarse and the vibe I got was that we were in for some shit. I was not wrong. Her intro to the deal was, when asked if a check would be accepted, to ask ‘is it any good?’ Sure, there is suspicion with checks but you don’t have to be a bitch about it. A check for the full amount as a deposit was offered against the return the next day with a much more secure cashier’s check. That was accepted and we went upstairs to deal with check writing and bill of sale arranging and, apparently, rough and dismissive treatment of my girlfriend and her mom by the lady. When she wasn’t around the man continued to be very nice although his account of selling his house in a week and purchasing another one in equally short measure seemed a bit fishy but that is neither here nor there. When Miss Attitude returned she continued to be gruff as talk of meeting for payment the next day progressed. As we were leaving she confided that we should call first before coming as ‘we have a lot going on tomorrow.’ My girlfriend’s mom responded that we all did as well and we left.
My girlfriend really liked the car and was somewhat excited but the feelings were sort of muted on the way home as we discussed how awful that woman had been and how unlikely it was that there was really another cash buyer waiting in the wings. As the night progressed we kept coming back to it and when my girlfriend called her parents to say she was going to go ahead with insurance that night they suggested that she hold off until tomorrow. She was fine with that as by this time the feelings of uneasiness had solidified into a ball in her stomach and the prospect of looking elsewhere seemed much more appealing.
The next day, my birthday, we checked out a couple more dealerships after backing out of the previous day’s deal to the screaming and cursing of the vile woman thus shoring up our misgivings about that deal and met two very nice salesmen who were not at all pushy or rude. Both had a full head of hair and seemed to keep themselves in shape. We test drove another New Beetle which was also a manual transmission and she liked it. Her mom balked at it being diesel and we continued to look. We found another seller who was offering a 2006 New Beetle with 30K and a restored salvage title for a reasonably low price. Test driving that vehicle was nice, it was an automatic and seemed to have been well maintained. Things got sketchy when we asked about the restored title. We were told that it had suffered cosmetic front end damage but the low engine mileage suggested that said engine had been replaced…which itself suggested that the front end damage had been a bit more than cosmetic. The seller balked at providing a Carfax history report so we marked that one off the list.
Things were starting to feel grim despite the possibility of a decent sounding Ford Focus we were supposed to check out the next day and we went to dinner in something of a defeated funk. I had a hard time deciding where I wanted to eat as making such decisions make me want to shoot myself. It was my birthday so I was left with sole choosing duties. I chose a restaurant that I liked at the last minute and we enjoyed a nice if not slightly subdued meal and then headed out to go shopping. It was on the way to shop that we drove by a dealership we hadn’t considered previously and I spotted a cream colored New Beetle convertible that was just under the ceiling of our price range.
A quick U-turn later and we were on the lot. We were immediately set upon by a bald, chunky guy in a white dress shirt and we pointed out the car we wanted to look at. The thing was gorgeous. It was a 2004, automatic with 50k and no damage or blemish of any kind. The salesman told us it was marked down from 13k and was set to be auctioned in two days. There was also, predictably, another buyer planning to purchase it the next day as he had elected to secure his own financing. These apocryphal time crunch scenarios must really work on people given how often they are employed, but then again we were at the dealership the next morning when they opened with my girlfriend’s dad in tow so maybe they do. He also told us that he could do a bit better on the price to the tune of nine two or nine five.
Our salesman met us ready to do business the next morning and they went on a test drive. I elected to stay behind because I had no desire to be in the backseat with the salesman and what my girlfriend described as women’s cologne he was wearing. I sat in my car playing Final Fantasy III on my DS because I am not a complete geekface and when they came back to talk turkey and buy the thing I noticed my car was leaking fluid. I saw my power steering fluid was low so I left them there to do business and went to sort out my fluid. Apparently after I left is when shit got real.
The offer to reduce the price was apparently rescinded and the dealer tried to hold firm to the sticker price. My girlfriend and her dad don’t play that shit and were ready to walk. The salesman got aggressive and my people entered into the sort of forceful negotiating that I imagine Anakin Skywalker might have admired. There was no lightsaber dueling of any kind but harsh words were exchanged and when I came back from taking care of my shit I found the Sales Manager intervening and offering the 9,200 price if they were buying right then. I suspect that they were always planning on doing this but why not float the higher price and see if it lands. Good Cop Bad Cop is not just for police procedurals.
The car was purchased and my girlfriend is deliriously happy as well she should be as the vehicle is very nice. It was a long road to it though. Three days seemed like months in the trenches and I am left without a sense of the best way to buy a car. The dealerships seem to be staffed mostly by clones of Vic Mackey in ill fitting cheap designer shirts and who utilize sales tactics that would be well at home in the UFC’s Octagon. The experience of buying a car at one of these places is not unlike trying to hook up at a night club. You can run into some nice people but mostly you are dealing with smarmy, smooth talking assholes who will say anything to get you into a car and even if you want it you still feel kind of used and dirty. The craigslist option seems to yield a cavalcade of crazy people who will lie just as much and may even talk you out of a sale by being an unbridled cuntbag. The experience of buying a car this way is not unlike trying to hook up with someone from craigslist. They might have a lot to offer but they may also be crazy psychopaths who want to do god knows what to you.
So which is the best way? I don’t know. They both suck. I think the rule of thumb we settled on is to go with the best deal on the best car that won’t make you feel physically ill and ashamed of yourself. If the deal is good and the car is good but the situation is too shady, obviously avoid it. If the deal is good and the car is good but the experience of actually owning it would be irreparably tainted by how much of an asshole the seller was then obviously avoid it. It is a long and frustrating process and it makes me hope that my current vehicle lasts me a good long time. Here’s hoping.