Tail Pipe Dreams

I never thought this day would come, but I here it is – I now own a car! I thought about it for a long while because I never really “needed” a car. I’ve been working from home the last couple of years and there’s decent public transportation in my city. But my activities after work have increased – I do a lot of community service that requires me to get to far away places and late-night meetings – and I finally got fed up with getting rained on because, after all, I do live in a tropical rainforest. (Seattle’s got nothing on us!) So I made up my mind, tallied my savings, took a look at my budget and saw that I could afford the monthly expense, and I went for it.

Well it wasn’t as easy as that. I knew I couldn’t afford a brand new car, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t get one unless I were filthy rich. A car is a depreciating asset, which is smart talk for a thing that loses value over time. And cars lose their value FAST! Literally driving a car off the lot will make it worth significantly less than what you just paid for it. Cars lose most of their value within the first two to three years, so buying a car that’s just a few years old will save you money.

But for me, even a three-year-old car was out of my grasp. So I started looking for an oldie in good shape. A neighbor was selling hers for what sounded like really cheap. I don’t know about you but I was pretty ignorant about cars. I know what looks good and have a fairly decent knowledge about good brands, but I needed the help of an expert. So I called my handy mechanic, Warner, and excitedly told him about my find. I was shocked when he explained to me that the car I was looking at was actually a terrible option. The parts for it where scarce and the qualitywas not as good as it was rumored to be. Back to square one – the first of several times in my car search.

With this little piece of information added to my bag, and feeling pretty confident with my new-found knowledge about cars, I started looking again. I decided to stay away from dealerships because during these hard economic times there are plenty of desperate people trying to sell cars. I figured I could get a better deal in a private sale. The downside to that is no warranty. So I called Warner and asked him to join me on my journey to finding my dream car – well maybe not the car of my dreams, but it would have to fit like a dream into my budget.

The next car I saw was not dreamy but it was cheap; my sister absolutely hated the color, and I thought, “At least it isn’t white,” – my least favorite color. I gave Warner a call and got my hopes up only to realize the car was in bad shape internally. This car needed surgery inside and out!

By the third car I inspected I was starting to feel like the universe was conspiring against me. The guy selling it was going to get another car but didn’t want to trade because he could make more money by selling his car than trading it to the dealer. But, alas, Warner, who by this time I was calling “The Engine Slayer,” took a look at it and said it didn’t pass the compression test. I know all about the compression of a car now, it’s one of the most important things you need to test before you buy a car because if it fails, the engine is no good. If you’re scratching your head right now, I recommend going to Yahoo! Cars and learning all about it.

So there I was after car #3, alone and devastated… well maybe not devastated, but pretty bummed out. And then the light! My grandma’s friend’s daughter was selling her car. A Hyundai Accent 1996 and she was asking 15 percent less than it was worth according to the book value.

Finally, an engine Warner didn’t slay – it actually passed with flying colors – and the car even has four doors, something I didn’t think I could get on my budget. The downside, it’s white! But you know what? For 15 percent off of book value, an excellent engine, great condition on the inside and out and four doors, suddenly the color didn’t matter all that much to me. Now I’ve even fallen in love with my white car!

If you’re car shopping too, I wish you a happy ending as well and here are a few tips to point you in that direction.

Paying outright for a used car is by far the wisest way to purchase a car. If you can’t do that because you are in desperate need of a car – and do make sure to recognize the difference between NEEDING a car to get to work and school and needing a ride because it’s a drag to be on time at the bus stop that’s only a couple of blocks from your apartment every morning – I recommend you get a loan from a bank or a credit union, if possible. You’re more likely to get better interest rates than financing through the dealer (0% interest deals notwithstanding), and having a preapproved loan will give you more bargaining power!

Start your car search with your head, not your heart. Always review consumer guides and books that provide true market value for the brands and models you’re considering. Good places to start are Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book. Print out some of the prices these sources quote – trust me, you will not remember them when you need them to help in bargaining, and even if you could, it’s better to have a print-out to back up what you’re saying.

Don’t fall in love without getting to know him first: Dealers and sellers want you to see yourself with that particular car and that car only. They’re like matchmakers promoting love at first sight. Resist getting your hopes up, even if the car looks really amazing on the outside. Cars are like people, they may look like Brad Pitt on the outside but they could be an OJ Simpson on the inside.

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