Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Used Cars from Hell
Buying a car was the last thing I thought about doing this year. My perfect, pristine little 1994 Honda Civic was running just fine and getting great gas mileage so why bother? Then one day last month I went out to get into my car and it wasn’t there. Since mine was one of the most-stolen cars of the year, I can only figure my baby met an untimely death in a chop shop, with no one to appreciate the immaculate care I had taken of her. RIP.
After a month of wrangling with the insurance company and a rent-a-car I didn’t like (but they paid for) I finally got a paltry check reflecting the average market value of my model. This check was supposed to “replace” what I had lost. Sounds fair, right? Until I started shopping for a replacement.
I started where everyone starts, with CraigsList. They had an ever-changing lineup of Honda Civics claiming various years, features and prices. The variety made me dizzy and also reminded me that the last time I looked for a used car was pre-internet. I Googled “How to buy a used car” and came up with several interesting and informative sites. The most intriguing advice I got was to subscribe to something called AutoCheck, which for a modest fee lets you run a make on any auto’s VIN number and get its history. Well, most of it anyway. I ran my departed vehicle and it checked out great but did not mention the most important thing you should know if anyone tried to sell it to you. That it was stolen. Oh, well.
So I went back to CraigsList and started checking out the ones that I could actually buy with the meager funds I had on hand. Some of the owners posted pretty pictures of their cars and stated they were “in great condition” but alas, they had to part with them because they were “moving out of town.” Most failed to mention the more important details like whether the car had automatic or manual, A/C, power steering, brakes, stuff like that. Things I’d rather hear about instead of how good the mileage is. All Hondas get good mileage, OK?
I called or e-mailed a few and requested their VIN numbers so I could check them out. Some had them, some didn’t. Some knew whether their vehicles has power steering and brakes, some didn’t. Some didn’t even know their vehicle’s history as revealed by AutoCheck. Which really makes me want to buy their car. I found some owners who didn’t even know as much as I did after I ran their car through AutoCheck.
After finding a few really flakey private sellers, I decided to try the dealers. Those guys have to stand behind what they sell, right? Uh, maybe. If you can afford to go to the high-end dealers with the high-priced cars, OK. You know, the ones who sell new cars, too. On my budget, I was dealing with the kind of outfits that were located on a piece of rented asphalt on a busy street with a few sad vehicles baking in the sun.
I found three dealer vehicles that sounded promising. They checked out on AutoCheck, had the features I needed and the photos looked fairly attractive. So I enlisted a friend to take me out to look at the three promising picks last Saturday. Alas, up close they didn’t look nearly as promising.
The first was a black 97 Civic with a fairly clean record located at a dealer in Santa Monica. Seeing this car brought it home what I was really up against. If this is the only kind of car I can afford, kill me now. The “dealership” was located in an alley and its “inventory” consisted of a few cars, all over ten years old. The Civic was black and had a bad paint job and an interior that suffered from too much wear and too many amateur attempts at touch-ups with a spray paint can from WalMart. It looked rode hard and put up wet. On the plus side, the engine sounded fine but I couldn’t get past the feeling this car had lived at least 40 years already.
So next to the second “dealer” in Mar Vista. This one was slightly bigger – more cars, its own website. Unfortunately, still D-list cars. The Civic I was there to check out had an obviously new white Earl Scheib paint job and duct tape holding the brand-new windshield in place. I didn’t bother to ask what happened to the old one. But the price was right so we took it out for a spin and found that the engine light refused to go off. Bad sign. Time to move on to number three.
The next car was located in Rosemead, way the hell out on the freeway. I didn’t realize how far until we set out. Way out. This one was an unfortunate shade of purple, which I hoped meant it might be a good buy. Wrong. It was kinda hard to check out because it was blocked in behind other cars and didn’t seem to have been moved in quite a while, judging from the layer of dust. After I got inside, I didn’t want to move it, either.
The interior looked as though a large family of raccoons had been nesting there since the last time it was moved. One outside mirror appeared to be held on with duct tape and there was a gaping hole in the dashboard. I wish now I had taken my camera along on this excursion so you could compare what these cars really looked like with the dealers’ photos. Think more PhotoShop than Mariah Carey’s last album. I don’t recall what the engine of the purple bomb sounded like because I was so dispirited by the realization of what that insurance check could buy, I just wanted to go back home, get drunk and take a nap. That night I had nightmares about spending the rest of my years in a trailer park with one of those vehicles rusting what was left of its life away out front among the pigs and chickens.
But I got up the next day determined to give the private sellers a second chance. One was selling cheap but had a salvage title. I was so depressed I was willing to give them a chance until a guy in the valley posted an ad with really nice photos of a cute little 1995 two-seater Honda Del Sol at a reasonable price. I ran the VIN number and it still looked promising. Best of all, he was going to be in the area the next day and offered to drive it over. So I agreed to look at one more car Monday.
Being prepared for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised when the car looked just like its photos, including the interior, which sported one minor rip but was otherwise clean. This Honda was such a step up from the previous candidates that I was willing to drop $70 taking her to visit my longtime mechanic Steve. After an hour or so and watching three guys examine everything there is to examine about a used car, Steve pronounced the cute little Del Sol sound with only a couple of minor problems that did not affect how it ran.
So for my insurance check plus $200 plus $300 in state taxes and fees, $30 to AutoCheck and $70 to Mechanic Steve, I’m the somewhat happy but mostly relieved owner of a sporty little blue-green number that’s easy to park and gets great gas mileage. I think to be really happy, I need to take the top off and drive her to the beach.