A Car Buying Odyssey: part 2

Welcome to part 2 of “a Car Buying Odyssey.” Last time we met K and her husband—a pair of typical automotive customers who needed to replace their small car with one that better fit a car seat and stroller. Due to the difference in their height, the couple spent one whole shopping day without finding a car that both of them fit in comfortably.

On day two they managed to find one they needed to learn more about, so they took it for an inspection.

The Customers Assessment:

When K and her husband drove the car they found the engine peppy and the handling excellent. The automatic key had a dead battery and the navigation/radio needed a code to unlock. The couple could see quite a few scratches on the back bumper and the front fender and a foggy headlight. It also looked like it needed detailed, but the sales person said the car hadn’t been through their own inspection/repair process yet and many things would be done before the car was actually sold.

Based upon their own inspection the couple were guardedly excited that they’d found a winner.

Inspection on Car #1:

K and her husband are up front about knowing very little about cars. While they’d like to be able to take a friend expert with them, they already have time constraints due to work and childcare. The best option for them in their situation is to have the car inspected by a professional.

Their instinct was to look for an ASC certified mechanic, but in researching the topic K became convinced that a mechanic wasn’t really trained to verify a car’s value. They can tell you what is wrong with a car and what it costs to fix it, what she wanted was someone to go bumper to bumper and verify that they car was really worth what the dealership felt it was worth.

So K found an inspection specialist and her husband drove the car over for an hour long journey through the rabbit hole.

The Vehicle History:

The inspector ran started by running the VIN # through different history recording services, Experian Autocheck, and Car fax.

At first blush it looked pretty good. The odometer reading was verified. Two previous owners and no accidents. The title was clean and the car rated as worth almost $800 more than typical retail for its age.

However, reading between the lines a story began to emerge. In the year of 2014 the car had only been driven 2,000 miles almost all of which occurred before June. In fact in the next 9 months the car was driven roughly 8 miles.

The two owners didn’t count times it was sold at auction, only the two actual lean holders. Eight odometer miles and four auctions later it wound up in the Pacific Northwest at a dealership awaiting inspection.

Vehicle Auctions:

Despite getting a lot of cars through trade-ins, auctions are an important part of the car business. Most dealerships have their own inspection and criteria about what cars they want to sell from their own lots. When a car comes in as a trade in and doesn’t match the dealerships standards that car is sent to auction, where it joins with bank repos, rental cars etc. Most dealerships also supplement their inventory by buying promising cars at auction.

Auction bidders are given some pictures of the vehicles to be auctioned, the VIN number, and the mileage. On auction day they can look through windows but are not allowed to look under the car or hood. If a bidder wins a car and decides that the car is not worth owning they can attempt arbitration which is expensive and difficult or they can simply put the car back up for auction. So a car like this one, that’s been making the rounds at auction, is suspect.

While this process might seem frightening to customers, it’s the dealerships who are most victimized by it, and it’s a brownie point in their favor that they do screen out the lemons to the best of their ability.

Outside The Vehicle:

The scrapes on the bumper were superficial, but the front passenger quarter panel had been hit hard enough to move it in relationship to the hood. The small clamp that should have secured it in place had been lost and replaced with a zip tie. Such things are common and don’t indicate a large impact. The rubber inside the well was half missing and appeared worn away as though the tire had spun and heated the rubber until it broke away.

Inside the Car:

Under the steering wheel, a panel hung down and some of the electronics had been rewired using gold connectors. The inside of the door-latches showed some corrosion out of line with the age of the vehicle. The carpet and upholstery appeared brand new. The navigation and radio code were located and programmed in which verified that they did work.

However, the seat-belt showed signs of having been in a wreck, and the glove compartment was loose in a way that could only be from someone’s knees ramming into it. There were also water spots on the dashboard clock, but when the inspector attempted to wipe them away he found the hard water spots to be on the backside of the plastic face. How water got behind the clock face was not easy to explain.

Under the Hood:

When the hood went up the picture began to take shape. Rust and corrosion coated every metal part up to the underside of the hood. The inspector said that since the car came from back east, some corrosion could be expected, but what they found under the hood couldn’t be explained by salt water being splashed up into the engine compartment from wet roads. This car had to have sat in a saltwater environment up to its dashboard level. In fact there were pieces of gravel with tar on them up in the air intake filter.

Under the Car:

The rust of corrosion continued. The single most interesting find was the chicken wire that held the catalytic converter tight to the frame.

Putting the Pieces Together:

Feeling a little like detectives, K and her husband set down with their inspection report and the internet. There were tornados in Pennsylvania in in July of 2014. Could that explain the body damage? The last service had been at a transmission specialist, was the transmission the reason dealerships had turned it back in for sale? Hurricane Sandy happened in 2013, perhaps the car was involved in some flooding and the owner kept driving it for a year? Maybe it was traded in without being aware of the issues this car would surely have and soon?

When K and her Husband finally gave up and turned in for the night they were disappointed to have missed out on what they really hoped would be a good car, but glad to have saved almost $17,000 dollars.

Shopping Day 3:

After returning the car and explaining their concerns the dealership was understandably horrified by the number of issues with the car. They reiterated that they’d not had a chance to perform their own inspection and promised they could ultimately find K her dream car.

Since K really liked the sales person, the couple agreed to continue their search at the auto group. They spent another two hours test driving cars, but nothing drove, looked or felt like “the underwater car.”

The couple remains determined to continue their search for a vehicle despite being discouraged. They have decided to make some changes to the search that they hope will yield more options. Tune in for the third installment of “A Car Buying Odyssey” to find out if this couple ever finds a car that works, or if they encounter more scary vehicles.

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