Sunday, February 7, 2016

Car Tales

Dylan (age 11) with our brand new 2003 Pontiac Vibe more than 7 years ago.
July 22, 2008

My little Vibe has been a real trooper. It was the very first car I bought as a newly single mom after Mark and I divorced in 2006. It's also the only red car I've ever owned, which felt a bit daring at the time. In fact, I featured my new red car in my very first post right here on this very blog when I started it way back in July 2008!

To get the Vibe, I'd sadly had to trade in my silver 2000 GMC Jimmy, which I'd loved, but it had too many mysterious engine issues. We'd enjoyed many long family trips in our Jimmy, but now that I was single I needed something more reliable. Money was tight and my expertise about repairing cars was nonexistent.

It's true that I paid too much for the Vibe, for too long, and it didn't have as much room as we really needed for luggage when the kids and I traveled (we had to tie the suitcase on the roof rack when we went to Branson, MO, in 2009). It's true that the four-cylinder engine is gutless on hills and made some long, uphill trips even longer. It's also true that as the kids grew, the tiny backseat became more of a tight squeeze, but otherwise it truly was a good little car. 

The morning we left for Branson, with the big suitcase tied on top of the Vibe.
Sarah, Jacob, and Dylan were ages 19, 18, and 12 on July 10, 2009.

The kids and I took many memorable vacations together in the Vibe over the years. It was good on gas mileage and never required any serious repairs. Not even when I ran it for weeks with no oil in the engine during the spring of 2010 (couldn't figure out why the engine was making that awful racket, duh!). The mechanic couldn't believe it hadn't exploded, but it just kept running. And now, here it is 6 years later, and it still runs great.

Fast forward to January 2016...

A month ago, Jacob and Danielle were at home, preparing to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. Unbeknownst to them, a woman driving past the house slid in the snow and smashed into the back of their car, which was parked at the curb in front of the house.

Jacob with the 2007 Buick LaCrosse he bought for himself and his new bride 
on November 26, 2014.

The woman came back the next morning, Sunday, and explained what had happened. They exchanged insurance information and parted, thinking it wouldn't be a huge deal. The only damage was to the left taillight and fender/bumper, which her insurance should cover, since clearly Jacob and Danielle were completely innocent and uninvolved in the accident.

The damage to Jacob's LaCrosse, January 2016.

To their surprise, the woman's insurance company (Progressive) decided the car wasn't worth repairing and chose instead to total it. The problem was, the company ultimately paid only $5,850 for the vehicle, while Jacob still owed about $7,500 on it, leaving about $1,700 uncovered. Being a young couple trying to get themselves established, they simply couldn't afford two car payments, especially with one being a payment on a car they no longer owned through no fault of their own!

Meanwhile, Progressive gave Jacob the runaround and threw obstacles in his path while he tried to resolve the issue in a way to do the least damage financially to his family, over an accident for which they were entirely blameless. The stress this created for him was overwhelming at times. I must say, as a commercial icon Flo is adorable, but after this I don't think too highly of Progressive.

Jacob was told he could sue the woman for hit-and-run to recoup his losses, but he didn't feel right about that. In the end, he was able to work out an arrangement with the dealership where he bought a 2012 Nissan Sentra to replace the 2007 Buick LaCrosse, so he only has one car payment. It cost him an extra $95 per month, though. Not great, but it could have been worse.

And Progressive offered to sell the LaCrosse back to Jacob for $1,500. The car still runs well, so Dylan sent the money for it. When Jacob brings him the car in two weeks (to attend my sister's wedding), Dylan will only need to repair the wiring and the taillight. He doesn't care about the holes in the fender. It'll be a nice car for an 18-year-old high school senior, and that will free up his old 1996 Buick Century for his friend Jake to use.

Which brings us to this month, February. Remember how I ran my Vibe for weeks in 2010 without oil and it sounded awful? For the next five years, it ran just fine as long as I kept the oil reserve filled, which I did. Then, last summer, even with the oil topped off, my Vibe suddenly got that same old rattle, especially when it was idling. Everyone told me it sounded like I had a diesel engine in my little car!

I took it in to see my mechanic. At first he thought it was a loose belt, but then he determined that something had broken off in the bottom of my engine. It probably happened five years ago when I drove it so long without oil, and it's just been quietly rattling around in there all this time, gradually doing more and more damage, until now, when it became bad enough to be audible. 

So far my Vibe still runs great. It starts right up and runs smoothly despite the racket. However, as time goes on, I become more and more nervous about the inevitable day when it will finally quit on me. We were lucky that Sarah had recently bought her nice 2008 Jeep Liberty by the time we drove to Northern California last October, so I didn't have to take the Vibe. 

Coming up next will be a weekend trip to my sister's wedding in Mesa. It's less than 200 miles away, but with lots of arduous uphill climbing both directions. As much as I've enjoyed being car-payment-free for the past two years, I was starting to think seriously about buying a new car.

I put off car-shopping for a while, waiting for Jacob's car situation to be resolved. I had cosigned for his loan on the LaCrosse back in November 2014, and I wasn't sure how the unpaid balance after the accident would affect my chances for a good interest rate. Then, at the end of January, I started doing some research and online shopping.

I finally settled on a 2008 Toyota Highlander (color: "pearl") with 112,000 miles on it. I wasn't thrilled with the high mileage, but the asking price of $14,400 seemed like a fair point to start negotiating from. And the asking price was pretty typical for a comparable Highlander, with its high rankings and safety ratings, from the online searches I'd done. I opened an online dialogue with a dealer on Saturday and arranged to do a test drive on Thursday.

Our rental car for the day as we drove up the northern coast of California
on October 8, 2015, was a 2015 Chevy Traverse. This was in Bodega Bay.

As it turned out, two things happened. First, I went to the wrong branch of the dealership. Second, the dealer I'd been corresponding with had a family emergency and wasn't able to meet me. So, instead, I met with a dealer named Raymond. While we discussed what I was looking for--an SUV with roomy seating and plenty of cargo space for my travels--I mentioned that my first choice would be a Chevy Traverse. We'd rented a Traverse on our family vacation in October and, although the third-row seats were a little tight, I'd liked how it handled. And the Traverse is rated slightly better than the Highlander. Unfortunately, a used Traverse also costs at least $1,000 more than a comparable Highlander. And besides, there wasn't a single used Traverse available on the entire mountain.

Raymond's eyes lit up. It just so happened that they'd gotten in a Traverse the day before. (It was even the same color as the one we'd driven in Cali.) They'd done the safety inspection, but hadn't even washed or detailed it yet. Was I interested? We checked it out. Very nice, very clean. I test-drove it straight to my dad's house. It was already 6:45, getting dark, but my dad came out with a flashlight, in the icy cold, to go over everything he could very carefully. Other than needing new rear tires, he pronounced it to be fit.

And so the negotiations began, with their asking price of $15,900 as my starting point.

Mary with her new car, a 2009 Chevy Traverse 4WD 6-cylinder.
4 Feb 2016

I'd already been clear that their asking price wasn't going to happen, and they seemed prepared to work with me. I'd also already told them I would not pay one penny more than the current Kelly Blue Book fair market value. I had explained Jacob's situation with his car being totaled, yet being left holding the bag for an accident that wasn't his fault, simply because he still owed more than his LaCrosse was worth. I told them I refuse to start out paying more than the car was worth right now. Cars depreciate much too fast.

The Kelly Blue Book value for this car was $14,700. I offered them $14,100. They came back with $14,900. I sneered (not really) and came back with an offer of $14,600. They took it, as long as I agreed to pose for a picture with Raymond and my new car on their Facebook page. But of course! I'd been prepared to offer $13,000 for the Highlander, so for $1,600 more I got a more highly-rated, one-year-newer SUV with 17,000 fewer miles on it. I call that a win!

My new Traverse on the evening I purchased it.

The financing came next. Raymond assured me that my credit was great despite still waiting for Jacob's car to be paid off. There were plenty of bank offers to take my loan, but I was disappointed that the best interest rate that came in was for 4.5%. I'd really been hoping for 3.9%. I know it's harder to get lower interest rates for used vehicles, but my credit is pristine. I wondered if the cosigner with Jacob had affected my rate, after all.

I went home without my new car on Thursday night so they could detail it for me on Friday. At 4:00 on Friday, Dylan and I drove over to the dealership to pick up my car and get my picture taken. When I walked into the office, Raymond told me they had a surprise for me. I asked if they were going to take another $1,000 off the price of my car. He laughed and said, no, but it was something good.

He went in the back and came out with another loan document in his hand. He told me to throw away the old one, because early this morning another bank had offered me a loan with 3.1% interest! That's even better than I'd dared to hope for. It's not quite $1,000 off, but it will save me almost $800 in interest! Not to mention bringing down my monthly payment by about $25.

Oh, and by the way, someone else bought the Highlander the same night I bought the Traverse.

In with the new 2009, out with the old 2003.

I'm keeping the old Vibe until it finally keels over. Dylan will be able to drive it for now, until his LaCrosse gets here. After that, Mark will get his license back when his parole ends on the 24th of this month, and he'll need something to knock around in until he can buy himself a truck, his preferred mode of transport. He'll have to get and pay for his own insurance, of course.

Nice to have three cars in the driveway again, soon to be four!

As it turned out, my purchase of the Traverse was most fortuitous. When Dylan drove my car home from the dealership on Friday night, it was perfectly fine. The next morning it wouldn't start; the cable clamp attached to the positive post on the battery had mysteriously broken in two. And there were issues with the old Buick, as well, that rendered it undrivable, making my new Traverse our only mode of transportation for the weekend.

Perhaps Someone was reassuring me that buying this car was a good choice, in case I'd been worried that I shouldn't have taken on a new car payment at this time (which I was). We'd have been in a bad position, with three people needing to be at work at differing times and places, without the new car.

Thankfully, the Vibe and the old Buick should both be back on the road by Monday or Tuesday. At least, we hope so. And then, if our luck holds out, our car trials should be over for awhile!

Mark poses with the cars from the rear-view.
February 6, 2016

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