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11 Proven Steps Toward Cheap, Reliable Transportation

July 22, 2010

Earlier this week my 1998 Ford Escort turned over 170,000 miles. It had 67,097 miles when I bought it in August 2002. Although I’ve owned a number of cars with six figures on the odometer, I’m pretty sure this is the first car that I’ve actually driven over 100,000 miles. It’s a pretty cool feeling, especially when I realize that this is — hands down — the least expensive car to own and maintain in 30+ years of owning and maintaining automobiles.  Here are eleven steps to follow if you’d like to experience the same satisfaction:

  1. There is an element of risk in purchasing a used car, but then even new cars can have problems. One advantage of a used car is that data on its reliability is easy to find. Do your research to determine which cars are most reliable, and be sure to include more than one resource. I like the reviews on Consumer Reports and Edmunds.com. Edmunds is free, and Consumer Reports charges $5.95 for a one-month subscription that gives you access to all the reviews on all the products on their site. It’s worth it. Here’s a copy of what Consumer Reports said about the Escort when I was car-shopping 8 years ago:
  2. Once you decide what kind of car(s) you want to consider, determine your price range. Consumer Reports gives a high-low range of estimated retail prices. Edmunds.com will give you three numbers: Trade-in Value (what you’d get if you traded the car in for another car), Private Party Value (what to expect to pay if you purchase the car from an individual), and Dealer Retail (what to expect to pay on a used car lot).  Edmunds takes into consideration the year, make, model, options, mileage, locale, and overall condition of the car. Here’s what their report said about the Escort I was considering:
  3. Go online and search for the car you’d like to buy. Eight years ago I used the Kansas City Star’s online classifieds; your local newspaper probably has a similar service. Craigslist is also a great resource.
  4. Go shopping and test drive a few cars. If you have the VIN number you can get the vehicle’s history online at Carfax.com. A partial report is free, but you have to pay for the complete report. Most dealers subscribe to Carfax and will give you the full report at no charge. If a dealer won’t give you the report, walk straight out the door and never return.
  5. Decide which car is the best deal, and ask the dealer/owner for permission to take the car to your auto mechanic for a basic inspection. If the dealer/owner refuses, walk straight out the door and never return.
  6. If your mechanic finds nothing wrong, determine the most you are willing to pay for that vehicle, based on your research.
  7. Practice your negotiating skills. I’m serious. Find a partner willing to role play and practice. This Edmunds.com article is a great resource.
  8. Be prepared to walk out if they won’t meet your ceiling price. Check your emotions at the door. If you fall in love with the car, you’ll find it much more difficult to walk away.
  9. Open the negotiations with a price that is lower than your ceiling, but not so low that it is laughable. Keep your distance, and keep telling yourself, “There will always be a better deal.” (My dad taught me that mantra, and it has served me well more times than I can count.)
  10. If they won’t meet your best offer, turn away and walk toward the door. They may be bluffing; if so, they’ll make a counter offer. If not, you can always come back later. The end of the month and the end of the quarter (when sales commission checks are calculated) are the best times to negotiate with a dealer.
  11. If they meet your price, pay cash. Letting the dealer/owner know that you plan to pay cash early in the negotiations will work in your favor. If you can’t afford to pay cash for a car, consider waiting and saving until you can. Cars are liabilities; they depreciate in value, and are therefore not worth going into debt.

Edmunds.com said the 1998 Ford Escort I was looking at (Sport model, 67K miles, good condition) was worth between $4,350 and $6,400. I paid $4,699 to a dealer for a car that has been virtually problem free for 8 years.  It is not a sexy car, and yes, that’s a key factor in its cheapness. But then, who needs a sexy car? Are you going to sleep with your car? Will a sexy car help you win friends and influence people? If you find yourself resisting this advice, think of all the other things you could do with the money you’ll save. Go on vacation. Pay off a credit card. Feed and clothe a South African AIDS orphan. Make it Click. You’ll be glad you did.

This is only one example of cheap, reliable transportation. What’s your experience? What steps would you add to the process? If you have a good story, feel free to share it in the comments. And thanks for reading!

Note: I am not an affiliate of nor do I receive compensation from Craigslist, Kansas City Star, Carfax, Consumer Reports, or Edmunds.com. I am affiliated with Eyes On AIDS, but the only compensation I receive is the satisfaction of providing food and clothing for a South African AIDS orphan.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2010 12:12 am

    1) I agree with only buying used (and paying cash). We have always bought used (with one exception, many years ago, and that was a special circumstance). My daughter drives a 1987 Acura Integra which we bought for her four years ago (or five, I forget). I actually shared that car with her for two years with NO AIR-CONDITIONING IN FLORIDA. That’s how committed we are to not having car payments.

    2) I agree with the emotion issue. This is a hard thing. I don’t know what it is about car-shopping but it can be tough to stay cool. My husband and I learned this the hard way many years ago, and we are much more aware now.

    3) Yes, pay cash. The car I drive now is a gorgeous 2000 Acura 3.2TL that we purchased after the two-year period during which I had shared a car with my daughter. After we bought this car I would literally look out the window at it sitting in my driveway and say, “thank you Lord” – I was so happy to have this beautiful car to drive. When we were shopping for it, we had test-driven another car at the dealership that was okay but I wasn’t thrilled. This car was sitting there, had not even been checked out yet as it was a very recent trade-in (one owner, a female who had all repair, maintenance done at the dealer). As soon as we sat down to negotiate and mentioned we were paying cash, they dropped the price $1000. We got this great luxury car in mint condition at a fantastic price. It is now 10 years old, has approx. 160,000 miles on it, and I plan to drive it for probably another five years.

    P.S. Both my two grown children have learned the “pay cash” mantra from us and are saving money to purchase decent used cars.

  2. Rance Carlson permalink
    July 23, 2010 8:35 am

    I had been wanting a Honda Pilot (used of course) for some time, and a year or so ago, I started looking. Did all the CR/Edmunds research. And love old honda’s. Found one at a dealer, $12,999 on the window. Drove it, loved it. Mechanic said it was a great truck. Went back to the dealer that day (which was at the end of June- quarter) and they asked what I thought. “nice truck, but more than i want to spend”. (I wanted to spend no more than 10k). “well, let’s see what we can do”… Okay, I decide to play the game. They go behind a curtain, throw darts I am certain, and come back. “Manager says we can give it to you for $11,800 if you buy it today. “thanks, but that’s a little more than I want to spend. Looking at about 10k. I do appreciate you guys working for it though!”. And out the door I go. They called my bluff, and chased me outside. “Wait wait wait…Let’s see what we can do”. Ok, we all go back in. They play darts again. “Boss says $11k plus a $29 doc fee”. I say “sorry, can’t do it”. They say “you are bad at negotiating. You are supposed to start at a number, we start at a number, and we meet at the middle.” To which I say,” I could have started at 8k, and got you to 10k, but I don’t really like to play games. 10k’s my number”.
    I left that day with a new (to me) Honda pilot. 10k.

    Cash talks.

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