Recently I helped our younger teenage daughter, Emmy, purchase her first car. She had no idea how much used cars cost. I think she was hoping to afford a slightly used Lexus. What she got instead was a lesson in how much cars actually cost. Emmy hates it when I mention her by name in my blog, so I will just call her “Miss Enthusiasm” – “M. E.” for short.
When we started this process, like a lot of young people, Emmy’s, I mean M. E.’s concept of buying a car was rather simplistic: You buy a Japanese luxury car on Craigslist from someone you’ve never heard of named Vinny for a few hundred dollars. Your only ongoing expense is the gasoline fill-ups required four times a year. Period, the end. More esoteric concepts like collision & liability insurance, vehicle registration, tire rotations, oil changes and other routine maintenance were vague abstractions that she had never quite grasped – mainly because she invariably tuned out my relentless attempts to explain the substantial ongoing costs of vehicle ownership. I apologize, M.E., for intruding upon your much more fascinating texting conversations with Haley on more important topics like whazzup.
When the time finally came for her to look for a car, I told M. E. I would contribute up to $3,000 towards the cost. Anything beyond that – including insurance was her responsibility. The only part I am sure she heard was the part of about me paying $3,000 – which is really all she needed to know, because she was pretty sure that figure would be enough to get her that brand new 2015 Lexus LS she saw on TV. I explained to her that cars cost a lot more than she imagined, so she reluctantly lowered her sights towards a used car – specifically the 2013 Lexus LS – ideally with the Bose surround-sound stereo system and the chrome wheel package. I could tell I was in for an exhausting couple of days.
M. E. wanted to buy her car on Craigslist. I explained the dangers of buying a used car from an online posting by a complete stranger. The message didn’t quite sink in at first. She pointed out a great deal for a 2009 Honda Accord with low mileage for which the seller was asking only $500. A steal (in more ways than she realized). The car was located in Omaha, Nebraska, but the seller offered free shipping to Seattle – once they had received full payment. I explained why I was pretty sure this was a scam and that M. E. would almost certainly lose her $500 with nothing to show for it.
When I told M. E. I would not pay for any car bought online and that we had to deal only with reputable car dealerships with positive YELP reviews, she grudgingly agreed to scope out car lots. She pulled up several listings at dealerships with names like “Captain Bob’s Used Car Outpost” or “Artie’s A1 Quality Used Cars,” but I told her you have no idea what you’re getting from these fly-by-night lots. I would only work with dealers affiliated with a major car manufacturer. She got annoyed at me, especially because Captain Bob looked really cute on his sign.
We visited about 25 dealerships over the course of a weekend. To M. E.’s shock and disappointment, not a single dealer was willing to entertain her offer of $3,000 for a low-mileage BMW – or even an Audi. They typically countered with a figure closer to $35,000. But M. E. had taken a negotiation class in college, which she quickly put to use:
M. E.: How much for this 2013 Land Rover?
Car Salesperson: The sticker price on this car is $37,000. But I can give it to you for $32,500.
M. E.: Would you take $3,000?
Car Salesperson: Um, I don’t think you heard me. I can offer it to you for $32,500.
M. E.: Would you take $3,500?
Car Salesperson: No. I can go as low as $32,500.
M. E.: I see. Then would you take $4,000?
Car Salesperson: You’re not a math major, are you, kid? The price is $32,500.
M. E.: Can you show me what you have in the $3,000 to $4,000 price range?
Car Salesperson: Sure. See that 1995 Buick over there? The one with the front end slightly dented, missing the radio, with 215,000 miles on it?
M. E.: The one missing its hubcaps?
Car Salesperson: Bingo. It can be yours for $3,995.
After less than ten such conversations, M. E. started to get a clearer sense of what her dad’s $3,000 could buy. She realized she would need to put some skin in the game as well, or else the best she’d end up with would be a John Deere riding mower. She test drove seven different cars, some of which were not actually death traps. She did surprisingly well on her test drives. I only feared for our safety on one occasion – when she attempted backing up in the parking lot and almost rear-ended a brand new Corvette.
Eventually, we settled on a 2006 Hyundai Sonata with 160,000 miles but otherwise in excellent condition. It came with great reviews from Consumer Reports for safety and reliability. And we bought it from a highly-rated name-brand dealership. And M. E. kicked in $2,000 of her own money. Sadly it doesn’t come with a Bose surround-sound stereo or the chrome wheel package. But it does come with six air bags.
I can rest comfortably knowing that she made a logical, well-informed, and safe car buying decision. The only thing that worries me now is that she might actually attempt to take it out on the road at some point. I have a feeling she is going to learn the meaning of a “$500 deductible” in the near future.
That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.
© Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2015