It was 104 degrees in Boise that day, a sweltering heat made even more sweltering by the black smoke rising steadily from under the hood of my 2000 VW Beetle. As I stood on the side of the highway waiting for the tow truck, I had some unexpected time to reflect on my recent life choices–most obviously the mistakes I made in buying my first car.
I really thought I knew everything. I’d researched the type of car I wanted: One with good gas mileage, an acceptable safety record and a small enough profile for city driving. I wanted to buy used off of Craigslist because dealer prices were out of my range. I enlisted the help of a friend who worked at a Toyota dealer. I assumed that since he sold cars he knew a good deal when he saw it. Oh, the mistakes I made.
I had my friend test drive the cars since I wanted to save time. I took him at his word that this VW was great. The first time I actually DID drive it, the engine sputtered, bounced and made a growling noise, like a dying cat was sitting on the engine.
I didn’t trust my skepticism. The seller told me his wife was begging him not to get rid of the Beetle, so he had to hurry before she convinced him to change his mind. My cynical side was telling me “likely story” but I quickly overruled it. I had decided I was buying a car that day.
I didn’t have the car checked out by a mechanic. Let’s face it: It looked sad even sitting there in the driveway. The headlights were about to plop out of the hood, and if a car had ever been hit with an ugly stick, this was it. I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings by bringing in a third party to take a second look. Did I mention my friend had no mechanical experience?
I shopped solely based on price: Cars that were significantly under my budget. Unfortunately, I spent an additional $1,000 fixing this car after I bought it just so it would pass emissions. Then, a month later, it ended up dying on me anyway.
I drove it against my better judgment. That summer day, I noticed that the car was overheating, so I put water in the radiator and went on my way. The mechanic (yes, I finally went to one!), told me there was a leak in an engine valve that had been there for a long time. That’s a pretty good reason to want to unload a car quickly, I thought to myself. Much more convincing than the wife story.
With the car totaled, I had to go through the whole purchase process again. This time, I really did my diligence. I allowed myself several weeks to buy a car and test drove lots of vehicles–myself. If something didn’t feel right–or look right–I was perfectly happy to walk away. I also increased my price range to a realistic price. Luckily, I had money leftover after the initial debacle.
I brought a different person with me for this second scouting adventure. This was a new friend I met who was–you guessed it–a mechanic. He looked over the cars with a fine-tooth comb and was not afraid to tell the sellers they were charging too much. I also requested all of the maintenance and repair records of every vehicle I seriously considered. If the seller didn’t agree to supply them, time to bounce. I never agreed to write checks on the spot or to bring money with me. Instead, I told sellers I needed time to go home and think about it. Again, if that was not okay, it was time to walk away.
All in all, it took me two months to find my next car, one that I’ve happily owned now for about three years. So far, it has only needed one repair–a new alternator–and has never left me stranded on the side of the road–except for that one time when I ran out of gas.
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