I refuse to be scammed by a cartoon fox, promises of future free oil changes, a freshly- steamed engine block, fake Blue Book values or flashy business cards. Realizing that I’d be student teaching in the spring, and that the homecoming of my sister for her co-op would steal the car I’ve been borrowing from my dad for the past two years out from under me, I started looking for a car of my own in June. I wanted a manual shift, four cylinder car small enough for street parking with gas mileage that wouldn’t strike fear into my heart every time I turned the engine over. Yesterday, my search ended after two months and 28 days. I write this much, much poorer, but also a bit wiser.
I now know the difference between a ULEV and a VTEC engine, how to evaluate the tread on a pair of tires and the benefits of alloy wheels versus their earlier predecessor steel.
The minute that you whisper that you want to buy a used car, half the world rushes forward and tries to rob you blind. Strange men with slicked back hair and over zealous smiles ask what they can do to get you into “this car… today!” The car will be priced three grand over suggested value, smell like cat pee, and look like it once housed a rutting gorilla in the back seat. Any question or protest will be met with strong urging that this is not the market to be picky about a used car. Cash For Clunkers got rid of all the good ones, and you won’t find a better car anywhere for this price, they swear!
Going to a cleaner looking dealership netted me nothing better. My price range, cheap as possible, was way below anything they had stored on their sales lots. I refused to take out a loan to buy a car, and what I wanted was always sold to auctions when traded in, not kept on location or sold individually for profit. Going to an actual auction was an event I avoided like the plague. Evaluating one car at a time is hard enough, but deciding between hundreds of unwanted vehicles all at once under pressuring time constraints sounded impossibly harder.
Worse, most every seller, dealer or otherwise, had issues with me being a manual driver. Girls don’t usually know how to do that, or so I’ve now been told. Nervousness and double-checking became the norm when I suggested a test drive. Bringing my mom along with me for backup only seemed to make things worse. Two women who can drive manual? Unheard of! I soon found myself to be more of a novelty sideshow than a customer.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this whole process, it’s that you are your own best advocate. Being ignorant of the enormous thing you’re about to purchase is not only stupid, it’s dangerous.
I found my first possibility from a private seller just out of college who had upgraded from a bottom of the line commuter car. The price was right, I liked driving it, it satisfied my Volkswagen fetish. He was very vocal about the fact that had a clean Carfax, which he had gotten from the dealer who had sold him the car several years earlier. Unlike some before him, he had no issue with me taking it to my mechanic first, an outfit that’s serviced my family for decades while understanding the joys of properly caring for a car on a very limited budget. My mechanic put it up on the lift and, after a moment of stunned silence, started laughing.
Scrawled across the top of his finished report, in capital letters, were the words “Do not buy this car.” After paying four grand to the seller, I would need another six grand in repairs to get it up to inspection and safety standards. The dealer had robbed my seller blind, lulling him into a false sense of security with Carfax and its adorable cartoon mascot while hiding the terrifying mess that was a Frankenstein undercarriage slapped together with electrical tape.
Car after car failed my relatively simple checklist. I met with people who promised garage-kept, well-cared for vehicles, but showed up with heaps that had barely survived accidents, floods and incompetent drivers who thought that a clutch was for occasional use when shifting.
My favorite encounter was with a dealership employee named Roman who, through a thick Slavic accent, tried to sell me a Honda Prelude by suggesting that the ancient sports car got stolen or broken into, insurance would actually make me money. He didn’t know how to release the overly tightened parking brake, though, and suggested that I just drive around with the brake on all the time.
A trip to West Oak Lane to look at a cheaply priced Jetta took an entire day, and taught me not to look at cars for sale in the city; a huge part of the front driver’s side had been pushed in by a snow plow after last winter’s weather wreaked havoc on street parked vehicles everywhere. I have to admit, the dried pool of blood and police tape on the seller’s neighbor’s front stoop were equally unnerving.
If by some miracle I had managed to get a job this summer, I have no idea when I would have been able to take shifts. Often I’d cram in two or three test drives in one day, running in three different directions to track down elusive cherry cars, only to return home defeated, tired and as dependent on my parents for transportation as ever.
About a week ago, a car popped up on Craigslist that looked pretty good. I’d had some issues with the site before, and was hesitant. Emails inquiring about cars were usually ignored or responded to with fake offers to ship the car from far across the country because the seller was a deployed soldier in Iraq or the wife of a coma patient who needed money; both of these emails were sent to me several times, on different cars. So when I struck up conversation with a real, live person, and not some scam artist from Nigeria, it was like the sky opened up after a stormy day. He was 20, local, and selling a car for his father, a wholesale dealer who thought it was too nice to send to auction.
In 48 hours we took it to a mechanic, priced repairs and double-checked funds. Thursday night found me sitting at a strange kitchen table holding a check for most of what I have after paying tuition, eyeing the car in the driveway that I’d drive home soon after.
There are some definite bugs to fix, and I’m working on getting them figured out as fast as I can, before winter and cold and the other evils of Mother Nature swoop in. I’ve already set off the parking alarm twice by accident, and I’m having a hard time matching the exact color to try and buy touch-up paint for the various dings and dents that are regrettable, but acceptable flaws, to be sure. Yet after seeing all there is to see, and working this hard to learn and make sure my purchase was wise, I’m happy I held out for the best. If only paying car insurance were as satisfying.
Lisa DellaPorta is a student at West Chester University majoring in English and secondary education. She can be reached at LD631585@wcupa.edu.