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Guest Post: How Not to Buy a Car

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All this week, Consumerism Commentary is featuring guest bloggers. In this post, KMC from Advanced Personal Finance shares a personal adventure with the local car dealership and the lesson learned.

About six months ago, my wife’s car was rear-ended by a delivery truck while she was on her way to work. Fortunately, she was not seriously injured but the car was a total loss. If you’ve ever been through this process, you know how much of a pain it is. The path to getting the word from the insurer that your car is totaled is not a straightforward or quick one. Then once you get the word, the real fun begins. You get to haggle with the insurer to get the most money possible from them. That’s a whole other story.

This story is about how not to buy a car. After we were notified of the amount we were getting reimbursed for the totaled car, we looked at our budget and savings and came up with a number we felt comfortable spending on a replacement vehicle. I think it was $9,000. If you’ve tried to replace a perfectly good family car with $9,000 recently, you know what we were up against. It’s next to impossible.

Obviously, we were looking for used. So I begin the online research and narrow our search to the usual suspects: Honda Accord or Civic, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. There were others on the initial list but they were scratched for one reason or another. We set a babysitter up for Saturday and start visiting listings. Some of the highlights:

* Honda Accord in our price range. After searching the lot with a salesman for a few minutes, I find the car. And its wheels are missing. All of them. And the car is laying on its belly. We leave.

* Nissan Altima in our price range. Searching the Carfax report we find three owners in the last six months. We leave.

* Toyota Camry in our price range. We drive it. It’s nice. We ask how much. Salesman: “Oh, I can’t let you buy this one.” Me: “Why not?” Salesman: “It’s not ready yet.” Me: “Wow.” We leave.

We end up looking at a Volvo dealership that has Toyotas on the lot. It’s now 8 hours into the day and we’re tired and starting to get grumpy. My wife’s eye turns to Volvo stationwagons (her dream car). I have done no research on these. I have no clue what a good price is. Before I know it, we’re driving one. Twenty minutes later, she’s on the phone with her mom who’s checking prices and ratings on Consumer Reports. Now I know Volvo hasn’t had good reliability in recent years and I’m skeptical, but this is her car.

After the obligatory back and forth over price (we end up offering more than our ‘target amount’), we come to agreement. While we do paperwork, the car is getting “prepped.” Did I mention the “Check Engine” light was on during the test drive? So in our case “prepped” meant “resetting light so suckers think there’s no problem.” Thus accomplished, my wife begins driving home. Can you guess what happens next? Wait for it… The “Check Engine” light comes on again.

So the next day I take the car to our local mechanic to have it generally inspected and so they can tell me about the light. My wife calls them later and then calls me. Wife: “What’s the most expensive thing you can have to replace on a car besides the engine?” Me: “The transmission.” Wife: “Try again. Give up? The car’s catalytic converter is shot and needs to be replaced. About $2,000.” Me: “Holy crap.”

The next day, the calls to the dealership begin. To their great credit, they were sympathetic and after some back and forth, agreed to let us find another car on their lot. My wife takes the next day off and, with my admonishment to buy a Camry or Accord, goes back to the dealer. Can you guess what happens next? My phone rings. Wife: “I found a great car.” Me: “Oh yeah? What is it, the Camry I spotted?” Wife (voice full of excitement): “No. It’s a different Volvo station wagon only newer!” Me: “Oh, no.” Wife: “And it’s not that much more.” Me: “How much is ‘not that much more?’” Wife: (unintelligible).

So that was six months ago and we paid way more than we wanted to for a car we didn’t start out to buy. On the plus side, it’s been a good car so far and I learned how not to buy a car.

KMC is a thirty-something family man with a wife, three year old daughter and one on the way. After graduating college with $5,000 in credit card debt and $9,000 in student loans, his new wife finally got him to shape up. He developed a serious interest in personal finance and now writes about the topic at Advanced Personal Finance.

Published or updated April 3, 2007. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jerry

Did you consider going private party? I picked up my Audi wagon for about 1/3rd what a dealership wanted for something comparable.

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avatar Chris

Someone may correct me, but I believe it is illegal to reset a check engine light without attempting a service to correct the problem.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,485 (Platinum)

Illegal to reset your own check engine light without service? You mean, against the law? I don’t think so. Dealerships won’t be happy if you do, and by doing so you may miss something that is wrong with the car, but there’s no way the law is involved.

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avatar Chris

Resetting the service light without service (an attempt to correct the problem, or at least identify the problem) would basically be selling a vehicle with hidden damage that you are fully aware of…and isn’t it illegal to knowingly hide information from a prospective buyer about the automobile?

If I know the vehicle was in a flood, and I tell the buyer it wasn’t, isn’t that illegal?

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,485 (Platinum)

Chris: selling the car after resetting the check engine light isn’t what you mentioned in your previous comment as illegal, you asked if the act of resetting the light was illegal.

Regardless, I don’t see how even selling the car after resetting a check engine light can be illegal if the light has the ability to be reset — even by the service professional — without actually doing maintenance on the car. I don’t see how the act of bringing a car to a professional can change the legality of an action.

If you tell the buyer that the check engine light has been reset, would that make it legal (if it is in fact illegal to not do so)?

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avatar Duane

This reminds me a story I read about car purchasing lessons, except the Volvo was a planned out good purchase choice: link

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avatar Patrick

I recently wrote a post about how my neighbor just purchased his latest car. Although he bought a new car, and your situation was for a used car, there might be some good info in the post. Buying a car is a big event for most people, so we should do anything we can do to help level the playing field. :)

http://cashmoneylife.com/how-my-neighbor-just-bought-his-new-car/

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avatar corey

Great, great story. Though sorry for your losses, tales of defeat and misfortune are the most intriguing and best told. Thanks!

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avatar Sheldon

Something tells me that this dealership in Boston would not have ripped you off: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qbYNpnWBOE

Certainly adds new meaning to the term “naked pricing”!

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avatar eR0CK

$2,000 for a cat? I guess that’s what you get for buying an import.

$350 for a new cat on my Ford Explorer, add some money for installation, and it’s typically under $600.

I think if you search an OEM parts store, you could have got it for MUCH less.

Doesn’t matter though, you did the right thing by getting an alternative!

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avatar Mike Reitz

Sorry to hear about the frustration and time wasted that you had to go through to get a car that for your wife. Unfortunately this seems to be the norm when it comes time to getting a new or used car now days.

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