Posted by: patti | July 26, 2010

How Not to Buy a Car, Part 1

When I moved to New Haven last summer, I did so assuming I would manage just fine without a car.  I was a city girl, more used to not having a car than having one, and I’d been without for eight or so years.  I had chosen New Haven specifically because it’s a compact, lively, walkable city.  I didn’t want the expense, the hassle, the responsibility of a car.

I underestimated the need to have a car in the Nutmeg State, however.  It was a long walk to the train station, not impossible, but long, and it got old fast.  I had a supermarket and most amenities within walking distance, but I was renting a car almost every weekend to visit my family or to do bigger errands or to just get out of my sweltering apartment.

The truth is, I was restless.  Looking back, I think I probably could have continued occasionally renting a car or joined ZipCar, but just as my need to move out of Inwood had grown and grown and grown and could not be ignored, my need for the independence and freedom of a car grew and grew and could not be ignored.

I found my car on the interwebnets.  Private sale, Volkswagen New Beetle, 2001, only 59K miles — that’s a baby for a Volkswagen — listed as “$5,500 but negotiable.”   There was just one detail — it was a manual transmission, which I did not know how to drive.  I’d tried to learn, many times, eons ago, but I had a kind of mental block about it and I’d run out of friends and family willing to sacrifice their transmission to teach me.

I decided I’d go for it anyway.  I emailed the guy, he emailed back.  I bought the CarFax report and emailed him a long list of questions based on what I found, and asked if I could arrange a pre-buy inspection.  He answered the questions as best he could, and explained that he was selling the car because he worked for the Chinese Consulate and was being transferred to Japan.  He was sorry, he didn’t have time for a pre-buy, he had to sell it now, and would I please come see it Friday and buy it for $4,200?

Hells yeah, I would.  I found a credit union, got a car loan for an insanely low rate, and took the train to meet him on East Thirty-First Street, right across from NYU Medical Center.  I had it all worked out — I’d go, see that it wasn’t a piece of junk, try to drive it without giving away that I’d only watched instructional videos on driving stick on the Internet and didn’t really know what I was doing, hand over the check, do the paperwork, get the title and keys.

I figured I would leave the car in the city with his plates, go back to Connecticut to get the temporary registration and new plates, watch more instructional videos, and return to the city and drive home.  Mee-meep.  Perfect.

Of course that’s not what happened.

The seller was a tall, thin, agitated Chinese man.  I found him twitching against the low wall outside the parking garage, clutching a plastic bag to his chest with one hand, flipping his phone open and closed with the other.   He was on the wall, off the wall, on the wall, feet and hands a blur of nervous energy.  His agitation made me calmer.

I had been worried that because I was a woman buying a car on my own, I was going to run into some problems.  And, oh, I ran into problems, but not because I was a woman on my own.  But, unexpectedly, Jittery was soft-spoken and gentle, and his English was hesitant but perfect.  He handed me the plastic bag — it contained the full documentation for the car, from user manuals to mechanical records — and disappeared into the parking garage to get the car.

It was not love at first sight, when I sat in the little black Beetle.  I’d learned in the paperwork that Jittery had only owned the car about a year; he had purchased it from a family in Brooklyn.  There was evidence of this family all over the inside of the car:  the glove box handle was broken, the bud vase was gone, the cup holders were missing or melted to unusable lumps (. . . I have no idea), most of the inside trim was all scratched and worn.  The center console was busted.  The automatic window switches had a tendency to stick.

But it was a little black Beetle, cute as can be, with a toy black Beetle glued to its dashboard, and the seats were comfy and all the problems were minor and truly cosmetic.  I looked at the engine for cracked hoses and belts (I’d read an article online about what to look for), checked for signs of oil leaks, and kicked the tires, but really, I was just delaying the inevitable.  Eventually, I would have to admit that I was going to grind his gears down to little nubs because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Lucky for me, Jittery was fascinated that I would buy a car I didn’t know how to drive, and he gave me a few pointers to get me started.  Literally, he had to get me started — I didn’t know, or forgot, that you have to hold the clutch down to start the car.  I drove around the block in first gear —  I realize now that First Avenue and Thirty-First Street on a Friday afternoon would not have let most people out of first gear — and stalled about a dozen times.  But the reading I had done and Jittery’s suggestions were starting to make sense, even though I had my own blur of nervous energy in my chest the whole time.

We pulled into the parking garage again — we switched once he realized there was no way I’d manage the ramps — and I handed him the check from the credit union.  Yes, the car was a cosmetic mess, yes, it might turn out to have mechanical issues I was too inexperienced to detect, and yes, yes, yes, I didn’t exactly know how to drive it, but it was a good, cheap car, and I had found it by myself and I was buying it.

Now, what I hadn’t counted on, other than Jittery’s nerves, was how the detail of his employment with the Chinese Consulate would affect the purchase of his car.  The car had plates issued by the State Department, which meant that the title was with the State Department, which meant he couldn’t fill out any paperwork, which meant my plan was not going to happen.

As disappointed I was to be returning to Connecticut without owning a car I couldn’t drive, Jittery was more nervous about the check I had showed him.  It was an official check from the credit union, but it wasn’t a bank check, and because he had been cheated in the past, he needed it to be cash or a “real” bank check.  I could not convince him that it was an official check.  And there was no way I was handing over the check without getting something in return.  And he had nothing to give me, anyway, because the title was with the State Department.  With this impasse, I headed back to Connecticut, Beetle-less and disappointed.

A week went by.  I researched the car some more, discovered that 2001 Beetles have some known problems, mostly electrical.  Everyone I spoke with insisted that this deal was obviously not meant to be, and that I should keep looking.  My dad kept suggesting that I look for a “nice Honda Civic.”  But I couldn’t let it go — where else was I going to find a great car for so little money?  And this disaster of a Beetle was my disaster of a Beetle.

Jittery had obviously decided that it was my Beetle, too, because he called me and said that he had turned in the plates to the State Department and was getting the title.  He wanted me to mail him the check so that he could cash it in advance and be certain that I wasn’t cheating him.  Instead, I gave him the name and number of the loan officer of the credit union, and he called her for assurances that no one was cheating him.   We agreed to meet on Friday at his bank, which was on First Avenue and Forty-Second Street.

Now I was faced with a new problem.  If I gave Jittery the check that Friday, I would take possession of a car that had no license plates and had to get from New York to Connecticut to be registered.  A car I didn’t know how to drive.

So I did the only logical thing to do in this situation.  I rented a pickup truck and a flatbed car trailer from U-Haul and drove it into midtown Manhattan on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day.  And I got my car.

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