My Bumpy Road to Savvy Car Buying; Saab Stories to Salvage Titles.
For long time, I bought cheap used cars thinking they were good deals.
Months later I would find myself broke and broken down on the side of the road. Here are some situations you can avoid by following Mr. G&G's advice and learning from my mistakes.
The Saab Story: For most of my twenties I didn't have much of a choice in the cars I purchased. I scraped up all I could afford ($2,000) for a 5-speed Saab 900s and wound up putting close to $500/month into it. These Swedish cars have a cultish following, but I'm pretty sure there's only three people in the US that how to work on them. I could not save for another car or for anything beyond rent and food, so I was stuck. I needed to get to work, and in rural Montana, public transportation wasn't an option. When I finally saved enough to purchase a more reliable vehicle it ended up costing me less money over the time period I owned the car. I wasn't pouring money into repairs, nor did I have to deal with my vehicle in the shop one week out of every month.
saab stories are common.
European cars are too cool for their own good. All the fancy moving parts and Turbo features are just opportunities for things to break and cost you money. Sold for $1,400 (after replacing every part under the hood). Cost per year: $1,300.
Tin Can; the little car that could: My lowest cost vehicle overall was a '94 Ford Escort wagon LX purchased in 2009. Yes, the luxury edition. I'm not sure what that improved on the tin can, but the heat and AC worked really well (first car I had with climate control). The exterior navy blue paint matched the interior dash, seat belts, floor carpet, and seat upholstery. It was something special.
I paid $3,000 for the certified pre-owned car from a Ford dealer. I did my own oil changes every 3,000 miles and it didn't need any work the rest of the 4 years I owned it. I sold it shortly after my move to Colorado, where even the stud-iest snow tires didn't compete with the snow and steep grades of mountain living. I miss that little tin can because it served its purpose of transporting me from Point A to Point B - and did nothing else.
the little car that could.
Cheap to maintain. Parts and people to fix issues are easy to find. The most understated badass car out there. Max speed 40mph up Vail pass meant I got great gas milage! Sold for $1,200. Cost per year= $463
The Subaru Curse: Besides the Saab, my second Subaru was the dumbest car I ever purchased. Due to the Boxer engine (opposing piston) design, Subarus are notorious for blown head gaskets around 100,000 miles. So when I found a 2007 Outback with 120,000 miles, I made sure the head gaskets and timing belt had already been replaced, check. I thought I was walking away with a killer deal. Within two weeks the car overheated in a dramatic fashion, and I was forced to replace the engine (with a rebuilt one) to the tune of $4,000! I found myself stranded on the side of the road, again, but this time Mr. G&G came to my rescue. Seriously, this is how we began dating, so I guess we have that crappy Subaru to thank.
When the first big thing starts to go wrong with a car and you fix it, you feel more emotionally invested in the car because you are monetarily invested. Truth is, it's just a car, a financial transaction and utilitarian tool. Cut your losses and get out before it sinks you. This was the same mistake I made with my Saab. If it hadn't been for Mr. G&G's mechanics background, I would have put more into the vehicle over the time I owned it than it was worth. But when do you say enough is enough?
As the caretaker of my car (a role he took on due to his love of working on things that move), Mr. G&G made the decision that it was indeed that time, and we posted it on Craigslist.
colorado's cool car wasn't that cool when it cost me $6k in repairs.
While I felt more comfortable driving a manual and AWD vehicle, I lost out by an average of 12 mpg compared to my trusty Tin Can Ford. Sold for $7,500. Cost per year= $2,000
The Salvage Story: To find a replacement for the Outback Mr. G&G jumped on Craigslist. We were looking for an efficient small SUV or wagon that I could a). drive over mountain passes in snowy conditions b). lay flat inside to sleep on road trips.) fit our gear ski/bike/climb gear for adventuring. We began our search in cities like Wichita, Houston, and Tucson - mild climates where AWD is impractical and low in demand. His Tacoma came from Kansas 5 years ago, which he could resell today in Colorado for more than his purchase price. He presented me with a deal that even I knew was too good to be true. I had a lot of questions.
2015 Subaru Forester Premium 2.5i. 6,000 miles. Asking $13,800. MSRP $28,000
The yearling looked impeccable from the photographs. Why were they asking half of the MSRP?
Driving a new car 'off the lot' plummets its value immediately. Still, this car sold the year before for $28,000 and cars don't depreciate that fast. Unless of course they were in a wreck and deemed totaled by the insurance company.
My head was spinning. I watched too much Dateline as a kid and saw cars winched from a swamp, only to be resold to an unassuming old lady. The wheels were already in motion to acquire the car which had experienced unknown trauma (fire? earthquake? monster truck?), but Mr. G&G assured me based off his phone conversation with the auto shop owner and additional photos sent along we should still pursue it. Also, and this is crucial, his father just happened to be in the region, and did an in-person inspection to help confirm the details.
The CarFax report yielded little information other than the vehicle was purchased in Kansas City, MO and was in a front-end collision months later. This fed my curiosity - surely replacing a panel or two couldn't lead to an insurance adjustor to call it a total loss, right? So there was something else seriously wrong with the car, right?
Wrong and wrong.
Some insurance companies will pay to repair a vehicle that sustains damage totaling up to 60% of its fair market value generally. If repairs costs are anticipated to exceed 60%, then the car is declared a total loss claim. From there, damaged cars are sold off at auction, a way for the insurance company to reclaim some of its loss. Our guy swooped in, identified the damage to the car and the actual cost of repairs, and purchased the vehicle for a couple thousand bucks. He most likely put another $5,000-6,000 into it and sold it to me for $13,800 (talked down from $14.5k).
Mr. G&G's father kindly offered to put the car through its paces and then drive it back from Texas, (it made it without issue). The vehicle arrived in my driveway looking (and smelling) shiny and new. Mr. G&G showed me the two spots where repairs were made and the front panels which had been replaced. The major components were intact, and the repairs were done correctly. The interior was spotless. Still, I didn't trust it fully. Surely something would go wrong like my last Subaru and leave me with an empty bank account, or worse - a sketchy hunk of steel hurdling 60mph down the interstate. After months of smooth driving in a luxurious car (sunroof! heated seats! backup camera!), it still runs like new.
30 mpg isn't great, but for an AWD that seats 5, plus a dog and gear, it's not too bad.
G&G Pup posing in the middle of Nowhere, Utah
No one would ever know I bought a "salvage" title vehicle unless I told them. And now I'm telling you. It can be a great deal, if you know what to look for and what to avoid. In Colorado you must have a salvage title vehicle inspected and certified as "rebuilt." A police officer ran the vin number to show the car was not stolen, and a local auto body shop inspected it top-to-bottom for safety.
I live where I work and bike into town. I put very few miles on my car each year, so I hope to keep the Forester until it's 10 years old (2025) with around 100,000 miles. Living in Colorado, the car should hold its value, despite having a rebuilt title.
You have to know about cars if you intend to purchase a salvage-title vehicle, it can be risky endeavor. I only recommend it if you're confident in vetting car candidates and you know what you're looking at. I would have been happy with a used soccer mom car like the Honda CRV or Toyota Matrix, but the one we found just happened to be a rebuilt Subaru Forester. The image wasn't what I was going for - it was the price.
Avoid cars because of a cultural following or what the car may or may not say about you as a person. As a biology teacher I can promise you an oversized clown truck will not increase, nor compensate for, the size of your manhood. For most readers, take Mr. G&G's advice and stick with used Hondas and Toyotas; the less flashy choice, but like good men, they are reliable and stick around.