Okay, this post is based solely on anecdotal evidence. On Saturday, I sold a car and bought a new one, and no, I didn’t just do a trade-in. A fair amount of this was luck, but may provide some guidance for someone wanting to do the same. You may not be able to duplicate the one-day record, but it might help you buy and/or sell a car.
What prompted this was the near-demise of my beloved 16-year-old Honda Civic. In truth, the car had been showing its age, though the interior was still remarkably good. However, we had stopped taking it out of town, considering that the tires were very old with good tread, and who knows what else could break on car of this age, despite the fact that it only had just under 50,000 miles. Still, we were toying with the idea of keeping it until in just wouldn’t run. Then we came home from vacation (great where we were, but very rainy at home for the three weeks we were gone) and we found the interior covered in mold. Okay, I exaggerate, on further inspection, it was primarily on the steering wheel and some on the dash and doors. At first, we were ready to torch the thing, but then I read about it and realized it could be cleaned. The problem was caused by a leak in the door seal or somewhere on the passenger side. I had noticed this the previous summer, but the mold hadn’t been so bad — confined only to a floor mat.
To be honest, this problem of a leaky passenger side something (windshield seal was an early theory, or maybe a plugged drain that was overflowing into the floorboard in a heavy rain) had already led me to start thinking about getting another car, so I had done some research already in the spring and had some ideas on what car we might replace the Honda with. More on that choice in a minute. First, back to prepping for the sale.
Friday was spent cleaning the car. Actually, on Thursday I had gotten out our carpet cleaner and sucked out as much of the water in the wet carpet as possible. On Friday morning, I discovered the passenger-side carpet in back was wet as well as the front. I also bought mold and mildew remover/inhibitor to use in clean-up. But after reading the instructions, I realized that I should get the worst of it cleaned up before applying the product. So I steam-cleaned the carpets and seats. Left the doors open for ventilation and to help with drying while I did this. I also took normal bathroom cleaner and cleaned the dash, doors, any other hard surface. Once this had dried (and after washing the exterior), the final cleaning step was to apply the mold remover and let it dry.
Saturday we were having a yard sale, so my goal was to have the car ready and put a sign in the window, which I did. I had looked up the Kelly Blue Book price for the car in fair condition, and decided to knock off 1/4 of that price, given the leak and the mold issue. Everything else (old tires and any other unanticipated repairs) were covered in the description of ‘fair.’ I also knew that if I got serious about selling it, I would have to get a new inspection sticker and an oil change, and of course, I’d put an ad in the paper and deal with all the callers. So I was willing to go a little low and still make a reasonable amount from the sale of this car that had certainly served us well over the years and had been worth what we paid for it!
The rest took care of itself. One of our neighbors from up the street came by the yard sale. In a little while, his son came back and wanted to buy the car. The son works at a dealership and has access to help and tools to make the needed repairs. He’ll have time to track down the leak. And he knew what a great car the Civic is. He’ll probably drive it, but even if he only bought it to fix up and resell it, I won’t feel bad. It’s work I’m not prepared to do to get more out of the car! A couple of other people were interested as well, so if the deal with the neighbor boy had fallen through, I would have likely been able to sell it anyway.
Could I have gotten more out of it? Probably. But I feel good about this sale, and I don’t feel like I took advantage of anyone. I was up front about the leak and the mold issue. The age and condition of the car are obvious. I’m pretty sure everyone is happy with this deal (except the poor guys who called too late!). I also sold the car and could take off the plate and return it for the few bucks’ worth of credit on a new tag. But it left me without a second car.
The Decision (A Turbo, Not a Mid-Life Crisis):
Given how little we drive two cars, that wasn’t too much of an issue. Why do you think the Honda only had 50,000 miles on it? We were looking for a similar size car that would be better for our small family of 3. When I bought the Honda, I was single, so I wasn’t thinking of having a kid to put in the back of a 2-door, and I wasn’t worried about safety. We wanted a new car that could be more of a true second car. One with good gas mileage, and a high safety rating. As I said, I had done some research in the spring and renewed that when we made the quick decision to unload the Honda.
We were looking for a sub-compact or compact hatchback car, and had gotten interested in the Chevy Sonic because it has more room in the back seat for carpool. We also wanted as much cargo room as we could get in this size, so we could take it on shorter trips (where we won’t need too much luggage). Our Mazda5 minivan will still be the go-to car for longer trips where we need to really pack well. And our other main consideration was gas mileage. We still didn’t quite want to make the leap to hybrid, due to concerns about the batteries’ impact on the environment, if we could get a conventional car with gas mileage that was anywhere close. The Sonic fits that bill, rated at 29 mpg in town and 40 mpg on the highway. But here is the kicker. I had read that to get this mileage, you had to have the turbo engine. This engine isn’t standard, but is an option on the low-end models. It is standard on the LTZ. Either way, it could significantly increase the cost of a car: ordering new with an optional engine would mean less chance of getting a deal from a dealership (maybe factory incentives would still be available, but no wheeling and dealing). Ordering the luxury package LTZ would mean paying for features we don’t really need. In the spring, I had given up on this car, but when faced with the other choices (Fiesta, Focus, Fit, etc.), it still had the best set of features and mileage. Fortunately, we found a used LTZ with a manual transmission at a dealer that was about 60 miles from our town.
Here’s where the luck really happened. Finding a manual transmission car in our area is a challenge. Finding a manual with the turbo engine that was available on the same day we sold our Honda seems like kismet. What are the odds? You tell me, but we felt very lucky! Searching online helped a lot, as did trying multiple sites from AutoTrader (where our car wasn’t listed) to UsedCars.com, Cars. com, and even Chevy.com (where it was listed on all three). Still, we weren’t ready to buy sight unseen. The price was great (more than $1000 under the Blue Book value). We had communicated with the dealer already, and we had read the CarFax online, so we had some sense of the car’s history. It had been leased to an individual and had 20,000 miles on it in a year and a half. We always say it’s better to buy used, but our last cars have been purchased new because that way we could get exactly what we wanted. If luck had gone against us, we could have waited and tried to find another car that met our needs, but this Sonic presented itself. The only real issues seemed to be the color (Black would not be our first choice) and the state of the car. The only way to really know that would be to take it for a test drive. So on the afternoon of the yard sale, we piled in the Mazda and drove to Hamilton, Alabama, to see what we would find.
We liked the car quite a lot when we saw it in person. It was our first car to test drive — normally, we might want to test several models for comparison, but with limited time and after driving an hour and twenty minutes to get there, we didn’t want to lose the chance at this used car, so we were ready to buy if we liked it. Both my wife and I took a turn with it on the test drive. We liked the way it handled, and our son was comfortable in the back seat. i wouldn’t call it ‘roomy’ (as some of the reviews had in comparing it to other cars in its class), but it was definitely not cramped. I also sat in back, so I know that even a man over six feet can fit. The cargo space is impressive, too. And though the clutch and the 6-speed transmission took a little getting used to, we were happy with it once we got the feel of things. Other controls and features like a digital speedometer that also tells the current gas mileage or the number of miles before you have to fill up are neat, but not a major factor in our decision. OnStar and satellite radio may not get used past the free trial period, though I’ll admit that listening to bluegrass on the satellite radio on the way home was nice. The car was averaging 37 mpg, and had been mostly driven on test drives around town and short trips down the interstate a few miles. Not bad. We were pretty sure this was the car for us, if we could work out a good deal with the salesman.
This part went very easily, since we had already communicated with him. In our emails, I had indicated we were interested enough to make the drive to see the car, but I had also said we might go on to Tupelo to see some other vehicles. I wanted to sound interested but not too interested. I have no way of knowing if this helped or what led to the price we were offered on this car, but after I asked the salesman what price he would give us if we wrote him a check that day, he took me back to his office, ran a few calculations, and gave us over $1000 off the sticker. This was about $600 off the sales price we later saw in their newspaper circular in the dealership waiting area. I talked to Kim and then signed the contract, since the price was about $2000 under the Blue Book estimate, maybe a little more. A few more papers to sign, and we were back on the road in time to get home, get dinner, and get Aidan to the dance at the community center on time, where he played fiddle with his teacher.
As I said, this could have all been blind luck, but I do think I can get a few lessons from it. For selling your car — clean it up! Even if it’s not in bad shape, a car that looks good will sell faster and for more money than one that needs a good wash. It seems like a no-brainer, but the day I spent cleaning the Honda surely earned me some money or at the very least saved me time in making the sale. Also, know the Blue Book value of your car and price accordingly. I’m not saying you have to low-ball it, but if you do your research, you can be satisfied with the price you get for your car, and an informed buyer will also be happy with the price they get. The yard sale tactic worked great, and I might do it again. The sale brought people to our yard who saw the car for sale. We did sell some things we wanted to get rid of, and we did make some money, though not a lot. I wouldn’t have a sale just to sell the car, but I might time the selling of my next car with a yard sale, if I think I have enough stuff to sell — Kim took care of the yard sale, so without her help, I wouldn’t have done it that way! Aidan was a help getting that ready as well, which left me free to clean the car.
For buying a car, the first lesson is to do your research. Know what kind of car you want (or kinds, if you have time to test drive a few for comparison). Look around. Don’t just go to the dealership in your town, but see what is available in your area. This is especially true for used cars, but even new cars might be available in the color or with the options you want 50 miles down the road. And you aren’t stuck working with our hometown dealer. If you don’t like the dealership’s sales tactics, go somewhere else. If you do like your dealer, it’s likely they can trade or otherwise bring in a car you want. (When we bought our Mazda, we looked at two dealers who each told us they could bring in a new car with a manual transmission from another dealer — different cars in different cities).
Do your research. Know what other dealers are offering. Know what is available in your market. Know the Blue Book estimate. If buying used, check out the car’s history with CarFax or another service. And let the dealer know that you know what you’re talking about. I can’t prove you’ll get a better deal that way, but it stands to reason. Let the dealer know you’re willing to go elsewhere — I’ve read that you should walk away from the first offer because they’ll probably come down. I could have done that, but the offer we were given was good enough that I felt they wouldn’t come down much. We were pressed for time, but even if we weren’t, I probably wouldn’t have done that. I don’t really like wheeling and dealing, and I don’t mind paying a fair price. Like anyone, I want to pay as little as possible, but I don’t want to go through too many theatrics to get it. Being up front with the dealer. Not sounding too eager, but showing my interest, these were my strategies for getting a better deal.
On the Mazda, we test drove a car at one dealer and called the other dealer from our cell phone while on the drive — we just wanted to be sure we were getting the best price, but he came down significantly to make that sale. It meant another hour’s drive the next day to get that car, but we were happy with it. I might have tried that again this time, but the price on this used car was so good even before we got our final offer, and it had all the features we wanted, so we didn’t want to mess around with it. Again, there just wasn’t much wiggle room on the price, so it didn’t seem worth the extra trouble. Knowing what to expect and knowing when you have a good deal makes all the difference. Even if I could have gotten the salesman to come down further, I know the price I paid was very fair and I was happy with the way the negotiations went. To me, that is worth it, even if I could have chipped away a few dollars with a more stressful negotiation.
We had a good feeling about the car and a good feeling about the dealer and sales staff. If at any point we had reservations, we were prepared to walk away. Since we never got bad vibes, and we never felt pressured, we have no buyer’s remorse. It was time to buy a new car, we knew what car we wanted, we liked it once we saw it, and we made a good deal on a lightly used car that saved us nearly $10,000 off the sticker price of a new car with the same features that we needed (to get the improved gas mileage). Sure, we could have gotten the new car for less than full sticker, but the used car was an excellent deal. So we have no buyer’s remorse. We are just glad this car came along when it did, and we were able to find it and act on it before someone else did. We could feel confident because we knew what we were looking for.
It may seem like an impulse buy to purchase a car in one afternoon, but in reality it wasn’t. It was just that all the pieces came together in a few days, from the day we decided it was time, to finding the car online, and to making the final purchase. In reality, the process started months before and involved many conversations and deliberations about what kind of car we might want next. The only thing I might do differently is to test drive a few cars in that stage. But we didn’t have time for that, and in the end we are very satisfied with our purchase, even though it wouldn’t have been the first car we would have considered. Hopefully we’ll be just as happy with it in the coming months and years!