Tuesday, October 28, 2008

how not to buy a used car

As you now know, I've gotten myself a new job. As such, the wonderful carpooling arrangement Steph and I have had for the last 3 years is being disrupted and we need to get a car so she can get to work. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my time off so far has been dedicated towards this end, and if I'm honest, this has been the most awful car buying experience I've ever had.


I'm now going to offer you a detailed case study on how not to buy a used car:

This is the story of how Steph and I purchased a lemon bomb of a terrible car and then blew $600 extra dollars on a car I never truly owned.

We started out two weeks ago with your typical internet searches and used car lot shopping. Our goal was something truly inexpensive - cash only - reliable enough to get Steph through for the next year, 10 miles of driving a day. We had some decent leads, but nothing remarkable. But then we stumbled upon a '97 Infiniti i30.

The price was right: $2,500. The car looked good on the outside and according to the owner - a private seller - had been an extremely reliable car for the past two years. Now hear me through. Regardless of the debacle about to unfold, I still have no ill feelings toward the seller... he's a good, honest guy and I think we both got sucker punched.

The Ill Fated Purchase
After a couple test drives we decided to buy the car. We were both comfortable with it, were aware of it's known quirks, and were anxious to make a purchase because I was leaving town for the week.

Now it's important to know that I, a fool from Minnesota, bought a car with the 'check engine' light on. Um, OOPS!! In my naivety I didn't think that a 'check engine' light was a big deal, and in Minnesota it's not. We don't perform emissions tests in Minnesota and growing up it seems my family has always owned a car with that silly light on. It's not a big deal - usually some obscure electrical fluke.

Well, in Davidson County, Tennessee they don't treat the little orange light as obscure. As soon as we bought the car we took it to the testing facility where it promptly failed. The $10 test indicated that our Knock Sensor and Speed Sensor were failing.

Flailing Attempts To Fix Our Failing Car
We figured we should take it to the closest mechanic shop to see what was up, so off to Christian Brothers Auto. They charged us $85 for a diagnostics test - likely used a piece of equipment that cost little more than that - and told us our Knock Sensor and Speed Sensor were failing, and causing the 'check engine' indicator.

Estimated cost to replace both sensors: $938.

After gathering the bits of shattered bone lying on the floor from our jaws dropping, we hightailed it out of there.

May I Have A Second Opinion?
Since the car was in fair working condition I left town for my road trip, leaving Steph with the new Infiniti for the week. Miraculously it worked ok while I was gone.

Then on Friday when I got back we took the car to a local mechanic, recommended by a friend whom we knew could be trusted. He again charged us $75 for a diagnostics test and told us that the Knock Sensor and Speed Sensor were failing. Thank you for the insight.

But this particular mechanic did offer some helpful advice and cautioned us that these error codes we were seeing were likely the result of other hidden issues impossible to detect, most likely an imminent car computer failure ($800+ to fix). Our $2500 car was quickly becoming a $5000 money pit, just to pass the emissions test, and I guarantee this car was NOT worth $5000.

3rd Down And 9: Punt
By this point we are quite angry and beyond frustrated. It's clear we have to unload this worthless piece of junk - this ridiculous lemon of a car. So we went to CarMax to get a quote for dumping it.

$1200 is what they offered.

But that was before the alternator failed on our way out of the parking lot.

On A Search For Grace
Please understand the fury I am trying to restrain within myself at this point on a cold Friday night.

The long and short is I've got nearly $3000 sunk into a car that I've purchased and desperately need to get rid of. But I cannot even sell it!! I cannot sell the car because I technically don't "own" it. I don't own it because I can't get a clean title. I can't get a clean title because I can't get it registered. I can't get it registered because I can't pass the emissions test. And I can't pass the emissions test because total repairs will cost me well in excess of $2500. And this I can't afford.

Reluctantly I call the previous owner who sold me this time bomb on wheels and explain my awful plight. I present a scenario where either he buys the car back from us at a reduced price, or he helps us sell it at CarMax (because we need his signature).

He requests some time to think about it. Steph and I go to bed stressed out of our ever-loving minds.

Meanwhile...
Meanwhile we begin shopping for another new car for Steph, knowing that one way or another the Infiniti is going bye-bye. We spend a better portion of Saturday traipsing all over Southern Tennessee used car dealerships.

And then somehow, in an act of charity I'm still trying to comprehend, the previous owner of the ill fated Infiniti calls and offers a full $2500 buyback of the car. Talk about dodging a bullet. In a moment of gracious weakness I offer to help him split the cost of fixing the alternator since it "happened on my watch".

Adding Insult To Injury
My act of charity involves getting the car to an affordable mechanic to fix the alternator, so after some phone calls Monday morning I get the thing hauled to Firestone. $400 repair on the way.

I spend the rest of Monday and then Tuesday (today) shopping for cars (this time from dealers... no more private sellers). And I've learned my lesson here as well: demand that the car be taken to a mechanic for review.

Adding insult to injury, on my way back from a mechanic reviewing a car, I get pulled over by Nashville's finest on Old Hickory Boulevard. This particular cop is unhappy that I am driving 50 in a 45, and is also curious if I can show the registration and proof of insurance for the car... which I explain that I cannot because it's obviously a dealer's car (hence dealer plates on the back). He is not all that amused and proceeds to cite me for all three offenses.

Total cost of the moving and non-moving violations: $162

Oh, then Firestone called and said the alternator on the Infiniti was fixed, but the battery is now dead.

New battery: $80.

Infiniti = Infinite Problems
I'm sure many people own Infiniti's and don't have a problem, but my two week experience was excruciatingly painful.

Finally this evening we made a purchase on a new car for Steph (an Acura), and we unloaded the Infiniti on the previous owner (which I feel bad about, but it was necessary).

So here's a tally of the total damage...



Lessons Learned
I'll leave you with these final tidbits of advice...
  • Never buy a car with the check engine light on; it will fail emissions test
  • Never buy a car without first having it checked out by a mechanic you trust
  • Don't speed while test driving a car
  • Ask the dealer where they keep the registration and proof of insurance before you leave the lot
  • Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds.com are your friend
  • Make friends with a mechanic - I highly recommend Tom Chubb at American Tire (Antioch) or Blake Sellars at Firestone (Brentwood)
  • Don't buy a used '97 Infiniti i30

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

holy holy holy CRAP!!!!!!!!!! what the HECK?! that story is almost unbelievable!!!!!!!!!! sorry to hear about your lemon experience :( but congrats on the Acura!

-squacks

Reedy said...

Oh Matt, what a mess! The part that makes the the most mad on your behalf is the cop!!!

It sounds like you could use some Chile Burrito! Let us know.

burnshead said...

@reedy: amen to that... next week, we'll have to do it.

uncle tim said...

dude, I'm now convinced that it's not the cars....it's you! I think you have a curse. Think about it...
1. Brand new Ford Countour - 3 engines blow up
2. Neilmobile - died on your watch...YOUR WATCH!
3. Chevy Cavalier - no problems with it, until you got it, then it hit a deer and got broken into
4. Now this!

Frances said...

Ouch, that must hurt the wallet. Maybe next time he could opt for affordable used cars instead of buying from the owner.