I Bought A Used Car Off Of Craig’s List

The above phrase strikes me as emblematic of the Internet age. Buying a used car is bad enough. Buying one off the Internet? Buying one off of Craig’s List?

What am I? Stupid?

I did, in fact, get ripped off. Or, more accurately, the guy who sold me the car intended to rip me off. Did he succeed? Interesting question. The car in question is a ‘91 Geo Metro convertible, which had 92,000 miles on it. I paid $940. It ran well enough, but it needs some cosmetic repairs. (Both “needs” and “some” should be regarded as a casual use of English.)

I was careful. The guy did a vigorous test drive. He put the top up and down. I had him take it to my mechanic. The guy fed me a lot of lines, including about how good the gas mileage was. I didn’t take those too seriously. (I ended up being a bit disappointed anyway, as it only gets 27mpg. It should get mid-’30s at least.)

My mechanic checked out the engine the next day and said the only thing that looked potentially bad was an excess of transmission fluid. I figured that was a calculated risk and told the guy’s friend—who had been sent to close the deal—that I would still take the car, but for less money (to $940 from $1,000).

Later, I remembered that the guy had told me that he had overfilled the transmission, and e-mailed him to tell him I wanted to give him the $60 (and also some pants left in the back seat) but never heard back from him.

I soon found out why. I had noted the tags on the back of the car were up-to-date and didn’t think anything else about the registration. When I took it to the DMV to get the registration in my name, it turned out the car had not been registered for four years. Far from a standard-issue used-car lie, my Craig’s List pal actually lifted the tags off a properly registered car. (Even my mechanic was surprised by that one.)

Now, it’s not my intention here to draw a parallel with the socialization of medicine, which I understand is causing something of a ruckus these days, but I’ve always been impressed by the degree to which governments show their lack of concern for anything other than collecting their money.

Like, I got hit hardest with taxes when I was self-employed and starving. There was no recourse, no concern, no need to justify the government’s desire to see me work for someone else. You can see it in public schools, from the lowliest Head Start program to the biggest University: The System Just Doesn’t Care. Even if you find individuals who do care, the rules are the rules (except when you’re “important” or some bureaucrat wants to make your life hell).

Even now I’m wrestling with a government-based health payment issue, where the sliding scale is free-$50-$800 for a 30 minute consult. I can’t get a single breakdown for the $800; that’s simply the arbitrary price It Has Been Decided I Should Pay.

Anyhoo. Needless to say, the DMV—which, by the way, is quite efficient if you call ahead and make an appointment—does not care that I was swindled. They do not care to find the malefactors who operated this vehicle for four years. No, they simply insist that I pay all the past due registration fees, along with any late penalties or whatnot they decide to levy.

Back fees? $441.14, bringing my total cost to $1,381.14. That kind of hurt, considering it was Christmas.

That wasn’t all. The guy had tweaked the engine in such a way that it had a lot more oomph than you might expect out of a 3-cylinder engine, and the upshot was that when it was cold—which, of course, I never saw before buying—it would stall.

This one drove me—and my mechanic—nuts. It wasn’t just “it’s cold, it won’t start”. It would start perfectly and then as you drove, it would get slower and slower, no matter how much you punched the accelerator. Though you could sometimes get it not to stall if you could start it, floor it, and then keep it floored. This was a challenge leaving the driveway.

My mechanic tried a few things and then stopped, figuring he didn’t know what was causing the problem, and figuring there was no point throwing a bunch of money at trying to figure it out. He told me to wait for it to get worse, and so I lived with it for a while.

And then, a few months later, the problem went away, never to return.

Weird, eh? Maybe evil spirits. Exorcised by my sunshine-y nature.

Anyway, all-in-all, the car cost me about $2,200. Maintenance has been cheap, just piddling things, maybe costing me another $300 over about two years.

Now, the reason I bought it in the first place is that, even though I don’t go into work much, when I do, I have to park in this really cramped underground lot. And when I took The Airplane—our massive mini-van—it was like trying to navigate the Queen Mary through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Only with the other SUVs, kind of like trying to navigate Pirates simultaneously with the Lusitania, the Titanic and the QE2.

I hated it. I figured I had enough cash to buy a hunk-a-junk that: a) would be tiny, and b) wouldn’t matter what happened to it. I’m way more comfortable with small cars than I am with big ones. The Bumblebee (as my mechanic christened it) more than fits the bill. I can practically do doughnuts in the underground parking lot.

But the funny thing is that everyone loves this car. The convertible is probably the key thing. Hunk-o-junk though it be, the convertible-ness gives it a certain cachet. The kids, as you might imagine, love it.

And though it needs a bunch of body work, it constantly draws favorable comments. Well, the first one I got was, “HEY!!!” from some guy at a stoplight who had just followed me off the freeway. When I turned, he said, “I have to take your picture! You’re so funny-looking!” I’m probably on some jerk’s blog or Facebook page right now.

I can’t really argue with him. With the hat and sunglasses and—well, you’d have to see a picture to understand, and that ain’t happening—but let’s say I wouldn’t disagree.

Over the past two years, I’ve gotten a dozen comments on this car. Some people telling me they have one just like it, others saying they used to, some inquiring as to gas mileage, even offering to buy it.

I’ve put about 10,000 miles on the car. And will probably have about 12,000 on it by the two year mark, which means that each mile will have cost me less than 20 cents a mile, factoring in the base price and extraordinary costs. (The insurance is ridiculously small and lowers the insurance on my other car, for reasons I don’t understand.)

When you think about it in those terms, The Airplane will need to have over 60,000 miles on it to catch up. And it was cheap, too. A modest $30,000 car—hardly an extravagance these days—would need to be run for 150,000 miles to catch up with that.

And that’s assuming The Bumblebee falls apart at the 12,000 mark, which I suspect it won’t. I think I’ll be able to get 50,000 miles out of it without taking any heroic measures.

The only downside, really, is that we’ve become sort of attached to it. I’m inclined to fix it up a bit. I actually think, despite the guy’s attempt to rip us off, we got a great deal.

But the kids hate it when I say, “Buddha says, ‘All life is suffering. The origin of suffering is attachment.’” They have some choice words to say about the Buddha.

But it’s still spectacular driving down the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset in a convertible.

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