Blog: A New Used Car

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A New Used Car - Sunday, November 18, 2018
Two days ago I did something I'd hoped I would not have to do for many years to come. I bought a car.

For the last 8.5 years, I've been driving around in my grandfather's 1990 Taurus. It hasn't been a reliable car. Early on, I dealt with a massive coolant leak and a broken wheel bearing, the latter which left me and Priscilla stranded 20 miles from home at midnight when we were coming back from my company holiday party. Great way to make an impression on your girlfriend.

But it's been a sentimental car. And it's cheap to insure, so it appeals to my frugality. My original intent was to drive it to the ground. But in the past year, as I've learned more about vehicle maintenance, my goal has evolved into keeping the car running as long as practically possible. I fixed an issue with the wipers by replacing the multi-function switch. I solved a rough idle/stalling problem by cleaning the IAC (which apparently is called an Idle Speed Control valve on this car). I replaced the valve cover gaskets which were leaking. I had a mechanic use parts that I ordered to replace the transmission filter and the pan gasket that was leaking. And I even replaced the old rusty wheel covers to spruce up the look.

Part of the reason I've done all this work is because it's a lot cheaper than buying another car. And part of it is that the car is one of the few things I have from my grandfather, and I kind of think of it as my connection to him.

But lately, the work involved in maintaining this car has taken a mental toll. It's been only a few months and already the transmission pan gasket and one of the valve cover gaskets are leaking again. The design of the engine also makes it a pain to work on, unlike the Corolla. And the recurring coolant leak is caused by a flawed design where the timing cover gasket is too close to a Y-pipe, gets cooked and degrades, and then can go from a minor leak to a catastrophic leak very quickly. It's this leak that's been responsible for my car smoking a few times lately. And last Wednesday, after I parked at the gym and saw the engine smoking again, I decided that this ongoing maintenance wasn't worth it anymore. It's one thing to learn new things by fixing/maintaining a car, and another to continue pouring time and energy into fixing the same recurring issues.

So I started researching used cars. I wanted something not too expensive but reliable and easy to work on. So for me, that narrowed the choice down to Corollas and Civics. At my dad's suggestion, I signed up for a Consumer Reports membership so that I could see reliability metrics, and I noticed that Corollas generally had better scores than Civics, particularly in the early 2000s. And of course I was also biased towards Corollas since we had one already.

I didn't want to pony up for something too new. Too new also means more electronics, which are more complicated to diagnose and more expensive to fix. I found a 2006 Corolla CE with 105k miles being sold by a local BMW dealership (it was most likely a trade-in) that looked reasonable. Pretty bare bones and no cruise control, power windows or power locks. But it would be cheap to insure. And it was listed at $5292, which was apparently $428 below the Carfax value. CarGurus also said this was a good deal. The car was originally listed $700 or so higher a month ago, so it was clear that the dealer was having some trouble getting rid of it.

So I went to see the car on Friday. I had watched ChrisFix's videos on how to inspect a used car and had printed out the checklist, but I made the mistake of rushing and glossing over some details. Had I been thorough, I would've noticed a small crack in the windshield and that the paint on the front of the car had several small spots that were touched up crudely. But I did verify that all the electronics with the exception of the clock worked, that the underside looked sturdy and rust-free, that the brakes and wheels looked dry (the dealership repaired the rear wheel cylinders because they were leaking), that most of the engine was free of leaks, and that fluids looked the right color. My mistake was allowing myself to feel rushed. When the salesman brought me out to see the car and I told him I'd like to inspect it, he told me to test drive it first. I asked for time to inspect it, but by then I was in a hasty mindset. Very clever, those salesmen.

But the car drove smoothly. And it appeared to be in better condition than our existing Corolla. It had only one owner, who seemed to have taken care of it. For the given feature set, I felt like this particular car was a good choice. But I felt like the price was a bit high despite what Carfax and CarGurus said. NADA Guides gives this car a clean trade-in value of $3250 and clean retail value of $4975, which is the price a person would reasonably get when selling to a dealer and the price he'd pay when buying from a dealer, respectively. That's a $1725 spread. Not a shabby profit for the middleman!

The salesman initially said that the $5292 price was fixed. I told him I'd need time to think about it, so naturally he asked what price would get me to buy. I told him that this was the first car I've looked at and that I'd like to have a couple options, and that the most I'd be willing to pay at this time is $4800. He kept going out of his office to check with the manager and tried to get me down to $5200, $5000, and finally $4900. I kept reiterating that for more than $4800 I would need to think on it, but for $4800 I would take it right then. The salesman finally agreed to my price. It helped that this car hadn't been selling and that I wasn't desperate. I didn't entirely want to buy the car. Part of me was hoping that they would refuse my offer as maybe an omen that I should really try to stick it out with the Taurus.

So after paying DMV fees (the dealership will handle everything with the DMV, and I'll get my registration in the mail) and tax, my total came out to $5427. I think I bought a good car and I feel like the price was fair, though I wonder if I could've gotten another couple hundred off if I had noticed and mentioned the paintwork and the crack in the window.

But no matter. I'm happy with the car. The white and black color scheme and the gold stripes that were added make it look old, as does the worn faux leather steering wheel cover. Pretty sure nobody will be stealing this. Also, all the side windows had DIY tint on them, and it wasn't done very well. It was bubbling in some spots and some of the edges were cut haphazardly. The tint on the rear side windows was very dark and made it difficult to see out when driving, which was a safety hazard. So I pulled all the tint off. Fortunately it came right off and there was no glue. The dead clock is a known issue with older Corollas (we had the same problem with the first Corolla) and should be repairable. Other than that, the only problem I've found is that the valve cover gasket is leaking oil. But we had that problem on the first Corolla as well, and it should be easy enough to replace. My frugal self keeps telling me that I overspent, but I think the price was fair.

Part of me still wants to keep the Taurus running (heck, the registration is good for another year since I had recently renewed it). But I think I'm going to need to tell that part of me to let go. My time is better spent on improving myself, caring for my family and serving others. A car is a tool, and though our cars can often be quite sentimental, it shouldn't be the object, but rather the memories, in which the sentiment belongs. Sentimentality should not override practicality and the duty that I have to be a good steward of my time. If my grandfather were alive today, I think he would agree.