Car Corner
Buying A First Car (Part II)

July 3, 2012
By Scott Lewis

Last month I introduced you to the process I was going through trying to buy my son his first car. I would like to start this column with a couple of tips for people selling their cars:

1) Don't advertise a car for sale unless you are going to sell it.
2) Don't advertise a car for sale unless you have the title.
3) Clean your car when you sell it.
4) Take decent pictures of your car.

I looked at a few cars without my son... based on pictures. A 2001 Accord, a 1997 Lexus ES 300 and a 1999 Lexus GS 300. The GS 300 was a piece of crap. It was advertised at $3,500.. and I was hoping for a bargain. When I arrived it was priced down to $3,000... with good reason. It was crap. The Accord and ES 300 were completely acceptable vehicles. Mileage and condition was good enough. The Accord had a bad window tint job, with bubbles in the rear window (a huge pet peeve of mine) and the ES 300's hood struts would not hold the hood up, and the steering wheel was slightly off center when travelling straight. It also pulled a little when braking.

Since none of these cars were stand outs I did not buy them, not take my son to look at them. So I took my son with me to meet someone for our first privately owned car for sale (and here comes the trouble).

We went to see a 2002 Honda Accord EX, white, V-6, leather interior and power everything. It had 144K miles and it drove very well, if just a slight drift to the right on the highway. I assumed it would just need an alignment. I took down the VIN and told the guy I would contact him as soon as I ran a CarFax on it. I did and the CarFax was just fine. He had it advertised for $5,600. When I looked it up on NADA (incorrectly, more in a second) it showed to be between $4,100 and $5,000 for average to clean trade. So I offered $4,600. He responded with the fact it was a V-6 and I had looked up the 4 cylinder price. Fair enough. The V-6 price range for NADA trade-in was $4,500 - $5,275. He said he would go as low as $5,000. My son really liked the car, so I agreed to the $5,000. We made plans to buy the car the following day after work.

Here is where things went wrong... and the reason for tip #1 above. The guy selling it (a college student) wanted to get a Jeep. He told me he was going to bring the car my way with his father after work. Perfect. This saved me the trouble of getting a ride to him. Well, he was running late and texted me that he took his father to see the Jeep he was interested in. Then he was even later, and texted me he would be by soon. After being a little over two hours late... he calls me and tells me he ran a CarFax on the Jeep, and it had a salvage and a rebuilt title and some other nasties on the CarFax report. So he did not buy it.... AND he still needed the Accord and could not sell it to me.

So... do not advertise a car for sale unless you plan to sell it. What a crock!!!

Next car. I saw a 2000 Nissan Maxima, gray, V-6, leather, 145K miles for $3,800... cash only. Perfect... I am a cash buyer. I texted him and everything was going perfectly. I told him that if he texted me the VIN I would run a CarFax report on the car before coming... and bring the cash to buy the car if all checked out. He texted me the VIN and I ran the report. The only odd thing... it had changed owners in November 2011.. just 7 month before. Hmmm. Then he sends me a text saying he sent away for the title two weeks ago... and he is still waiting for it to come in the mail.

So... do not advertise a car for sale... unless you are able to sell it... which means... unless you have the title. Jiminy Cricket! What is it with these people.

The car was crap. The interior was very dirty (see tip #3 above). The front seats had major wear on them and were barely acceptable. The paint on the spoiler was completely ruined. There was paint issues on the nose. The exhaust was kind of boomy. Hard to describe, but definitely too load for a car with leather interior. There may have been a leek. Overall... this was a poor car. My son gave me "the look" very early and I caught it. But we went on the drive anyway... to be polite. When the drive was over I asked about the title. He showed me the receipt for paying for it... and that it would come in the mail any day. However... why did he drive this car around for 7 months under the previous owner's name. Why didn't he transfer the ownership and such back in November 2011.

I did a quack check of NADA. Average trade-in would be $3,050, a clean trade-in would be $3,775. And he was asking $3,800. Wow... he is really proud of this worn out car. I can't imagine anyone paying him more than mid $2K for this car... on the hopes it turns out to be reliable. This car would be embarrassing for my son to drive.

The next car I saw was a 2002 Honda Accord in gray (it look more like gray than silver, but it might have been silver). It was an LX edition with cloth interior and a 4 cylinder engine with 139K miles. The asking price was $5,500 or $5,000 (the price in the ad changed). In his ad, he stated that the car was between $6,700 and $7,100 for NADA and Kelley Blue Book. It took a bit of time on NADA to match the $6,700. I had to put in the trim level and include the allow wheels to get a match. Even so, the average trade-in value was $3,650, and the clean trade-in was $4,375. Retail was $6,700... and this is not a dealership, so retail does not count. I think asking $5,500 was too much... even before I saw the car in person. And I was not wrong. The cloth interior had some stains... including on the door panels. The person selling it did not spend much time... if any... cleaning it. There were a lot of small leaves above the weather-stripping for the trunk... visible when you opened the trunk. Meaning the car is parked outside and has not been given a good cleaning since the fall. Overall the car seemed competent, but it did not overwhelm by any stretch of the imagination. I took the VIN down and said I would talk to my son. I didn't have to. I would only buy this car if everything else was worse... and then I would have to offer something like $4,000 at the most.

So... when you advertise your car for sale... clean it. What is the problem here. Shouldn't you spend an hour or two cleaning it before you take the pictures. Wow! He is asking more than $1,000 over top dollar trade-in... and did not clean it.

The next car to see was a 2000 Camry with leather and a 4 cylinder with 154K miles. Asking price was $4,650. I was surprised that it had leather and the 4 cylinder. an unusual combination. This car was very competent. I say that as a compliment. It drove very nice. Up to this point it was the quietest car I had test drove... even more quite than the V6 Accord (that the guy didn't sell... after haggling me on the price). The overall condition of this car was mediocre. There was a lot of wear and tear of some of the smaller interior pieces... like the door handles and such. But the leather was fine and it was generally clean. There was a crack in the windshield, but it was in an arc around the registration sticker... so it started and stopped at the edges in that lower corner. This should count against the car's price, yet it is something that could be lived with easily. The NADA trade-in values for this car was $3,725 - $4,425 (average to clean). Given the crack in the windshield I would have to rate this car at or below the average trade-in. Meaning I would put this car at about $3,500. But it would be a very competent car for $3,500. To this point I listed it as my #2 car... right behind the Accord that the seller did not sell. If I had one thing to say to this seller... take better pictures of the car. Take it out of the driveway and get a nice overall view of the car. The pictures he posted did not do the car justice.

My next tale is about a 2000 Camry I did not visit in person... because it had a major flaw. The paint on the hood was a mess. The clear coat was pealing and there were issues down to the metal in some places. I contacted the seller and asked for pictures of this... and he sent 3. The worst picture is to the right. Even as a low resolution picture, I could zoom in enough to see this hood needs serious work. In the upper right you can see rust forming. So this goes down to the bare metal. This hood would have to be stripped to bare metal before being properly prepped and repainted. I would have to price in that repair as part of buying this car for my son. All that being said... the reason I considered this car was because it had only 84K miles... the least of any car I looked at. So if a $500-$1,000 repair bill got this looking like new... I would not have a problem with that. He was asking $5,950. NADA put this at trade-in of $5,250 - $5,950. I would pay no more than $5,000 for this car... and would try to offer even lower because I would have to get the hood painted.

Time to head back to the dealers.

I saw a 1995 Lexus ES 300 at a dealer in Austin. It looked very nice in the pictures, but so did the 97 Lexus and first Accord I saw as a dealer. This one had 120K miles and was advertised for $5,995... the maximum I could afford. A quick check of NADA shows this car to have an average to clean trade-in value of $2,625 - $3,200, with a clean retail of $5,000. So we have justification for offering $5,000. From the pictures online this car looked excellent. This was my favorite... from the pictures. If it looked as good in person I might think about busting my budget and paying what they are asking. It was a one owner car and the CarFax for it showed nothing but regular renewals of the registration and inspection throughout its life. Driven approximately 7,100 miles per year. My kind of car. Too bad I could not have been there to buy it from the original owner. That is the kind of car you really want.

I took my son with me on a road trip to Austin. When we got to the dealer I was initially worried by the dealership... it was a tiny place... we drove right past it without even seeing it, and had to call. The lot was small, with no more than a dozen cars... but as we pulled in we noticed two things... all the cars were very clean... and the Lexus was by the building and they were still cleaning it.

We took it for a drive. I do not know my way around Austin, so they told us were to go to get to the highway. We didn't get that far. Before the first turn we turned around because both my son and I wanted the car.

I tried as best I could to get the price down. And failed. In the end I could not do it to them. This was a tiny two man operation. The building as a small trailer type building with two cramped offices. They even showed me their receipt for buying the car. The paid $5,015 for the car and a $180 transportation fee to get it in from Dallas. They were basically going to make $800 on this car. And that $800 had to be split between the owner and the salesman... and well as cover overhead and advertising costs.

In the end I gave them what they were asking. And the next day I searched for Lexii to see if I could find anything like it. The closest I could come was a car with similar mileage, a 1998 with a little over 100K miles for $7,350. I still think mine was nicer than the $7K car. Plus the one I bought had the wood grain interior (yea, I know, it is fake wood at this price point). But it looked better than the pictures of the $7K car which had a black dash.


Obviously we stopped looking since we bought the car. And I did not regret anything about it. Next month I will show you pictures and do a complete write up on the car.