Sunday, January 29, 2006

Adventures In Car Buying

The time has finally come. The day I have been dreading and postponing. A day I knew would come, but hoped would not. I need to buy a car. My current car has served me faithfully and well. And now it's time to put it out of its misery.

I bought my first car in grad school. I spent a few weeks looking at newspaper ads. Even made a few phone calls. But it all seemed very hopeless, and too much trouble. I didn't know what to look for to make sure I wasn't being sold a lemon. I would have to ask someone to give me a ride to look at cars. I didn't really do anything other than look at ads. But then I got lucky - my roommate's sister was selling her car. I bought it, sight unseen. A Toyota corolla hatchback with about 90,000 miles on it, that I bought for $900, and eventually sold for $600. Not a bad deal at all. I was elevated to the ranks of the few - the proud - the car owners! That brought a lot of convenience and some responsibilities. My horizons expanded beyond the bus routes. I no longer had to beg people for rides. I had to take various people to the groceries store or the mall. I got calls in the middle of the night when someone had been working late on assignments and had missed the last bus home. It was a chance to pay my dues - since I'd been on the other end of those phone calls before. It was nice - being a car owner.

When I got my first job, I decided that I could not be seen with that car, and so it had to go. That might not have been the smartest decision. I started looking at used car ads again. In the meantime, my roommate and I took the bus to work, since she didn't have a car either. Would the hatchback have made us look any worse? Oh well. I identified a few cars, and rented a car from rent-a-wreck to go look at them. After a few false starts - the seller rescheduled, I cancelled because I didn't want to drive in the snow, etc - I finally made an appointment with a nice-sounding lady in DC. I printed the directions from mapquest - the intersection was '13th and T St NE'. Who puts NE in the search, right? The intersection is enough.

Well, my roommate and I followed the directions religiously. We ended up on a street where none of the cars really looked like the one we were looking for. In fact, the cars all looked fairly run down. So did the houses and the street. A car with 4 guys in it started slowly driving beside us as we walked down the street. Sirens were wailing in the distance. By now it was full dark. We got to the house in the address and stood there looking at it. It didn't seem to fit the lady I'd spoken with, or her car. We began to wonder - if we went into that house and never came out - who would know? I began to feel like a character in crime/horror movies, where the audience is sitting there thinking - if she's dumb enough to go in there, she deserves to die a hideous death. After a five minute debate, we decided to ring the bell, but not enter the house. We rang, and a very puzzled man came out. We insisted that we were there to look at a car - he was equally insistent that there was no car for sale. We told him the address and he finally figured it out - we were at 13th and T St SE! Turns out that DC has the exact same cross streets all over the city.

Now, we really didn't know the implications of being in Southeast DC. But this guy did - and he seemed fairly concerned for us. He gave us directions on how to get out. Repeated them a few times. We got out of that street and promptly got lost. At one point we were being followed by these guys - who were shouting things we chose not to hear. Sirens were still wailing - and not in the distance either. I was constantly afraid that I'd jumped a red light and the cops were after me. I was constantly afraid that the 'wreck' would break down. We finally decided to stop at a gas station and get directions - it was really run down and 2 guys were hulking there looking dangerous. We drove on without getting out. After about an hour of driving in circles, we finally found the highway. Got home and swore never to drive to DC again.

After that, I decided that CarMax was the way to go. After all, they didn't bargain so while I wouldn't get a steal, I wouldn't get ripped off. Identified a car online and called them to make sure it was still available. Walked in and got pounced on by one of the sharks there. Told her I'd already spoken with someone on the phone and would deal only with him. Turns out it was the last day of this guy's one week training on how to be a car salesman. He didn't know the difference between a manual and an automatic, and didn't understand why I wanted a 5 speed instead of a 4 speed.I began to like this guy - he wasn't a shark! I was feeling good. Till we came to the part about how I'd pay for it. I said that I didn't want to finance. He said that I had to. I said that I would pay for the whole thing. He said that their system was not set up to allow that. At this point I began to lose patience - "Are you telling me that your system is not set up to let me pay for my damn car?!" - so he got someone to help him. And that's when I had to deal with a car salesman type. I'm not sure how, but he managed to sell me a $1000 service plan I didn't need and didn't use. Maybe that was all part of their plan - I was very smoothly team tagged!

And now I am going to brave those shark infested waters again. Or maybe I'll buy a Saturn - they don't bargain right?