Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Florian, and what we’ve learned about cars

We thought it was going to be really easy to buy a second-hand car to get us across America. It wasn’t, and the effort took two days short of one month. But we did learn quite a bit about the used car market, and I for one, have expanded my vocabulary to include many an unexpected mechanical term.

What we needed was a vehicle strong enough to pull a trailer over the Rockies – ideally with a tow package (which, if you ask, is not the same as a tow hitch), not too expensive to fix and comfortable enough to keep us sane for six months. Our budget, which started out at $10,000, stretched during the effort to as high as $16,000.

The main thing we learned, though, was that it’s really hard to buy from private sellers, and that dealers are seldom honest. Their top trick is telling you they’ve still got a car at the dealership when you call to confirm, and then – once you’ve dragged your whole family miles away in the baking heat - to say that it has just sold, but would you like to look at a more expensive model. One of them wouldn’t allow us a test drive, while another said that a doing a test drive implied a promise to buy the car – and that was just one of his aggressive moments.

Still, private sellers can be difficult too. Like the guy who agreed to meet Daniel not at his home, but in the parking lot of a Walgreens pharmacy in Orange, New Jersey – he refused a test drive, the idea of an independent mechanic looking at the car and even an offer to buy it.

Our search took us to New Jersey, Connecticut, Rockland County, Brooklyn, the Catskills and Long Island – some of these more than once. Daniel really knows his way around the NYC metropolitan area now.

In terms of car models, we variously decided on a 2001 Volvo XC 70 station wagon/estate car (turns out the reason so many were on the market is that the transmission conks out at around 85,000 miles), Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis (cool in a ‘Hill Street Blues’ kind of way and spacious, but possibly not up to towing) a Honda Pilot (not strong enough for towing), Nissan Pathfinder (not roomy enough to hold all our stuff plus a guest comfortably) and a Toyota Land Cruiser (too expensive).

Finally, we ended up with a good old American giant gas guzzler: a 1999 GMC Yukon SLT with 67,000 miles. We bought it for $5,000 from Joe Ruscillo (pictured above), the owner of Star Auto Glass in Hempstead, Long Island. The best thing about this baby is that its first and only owner was the Franklin Square Fire Station on Long Island – that means it used to have sirens, lights and big sparkly letters spelling out “Fire Chief”.

Unfortunately for us, these have all been removed.

What they did leave is a medallion invoking St Florian, the patron saint of fire fighters.


So, we’ve decided to call the car Florian, Flo for short.

Top tools for our search were:

1. www.autotrader.com -- this is a listing that’s free if you’re a buyer, and paid if you’re a seller. You can search by budget, car type, mileage, model year, distance from where you are, etc.

2. www.edmunds.com -- on this site, you can see how professionals and consumers rate new and used cars and what the average price is for a car by model, year and location. It’s superhelpful.

There’s a similar site called Kelley’s Blue Book www.kbb.com , but we didn’t try that one.

3. Consumer Reports Used Car Guide – a book published yearly that includes an exhaustive list of most models of most cars, with pros and cons by vehicle type, tips for buying and selling, and cars to avoid.

4. Pat Saccomanno, an autobody mechanic who gave us some of his thoughts. If anyone needs their car fixed, his shop is called Beechmont Auto Body.


5. My sister, Annie, who has learned a lot about buying and selling cars through her own research.

6. My father (Stephen, also pictured above), who basically ceded us his own car – a handy Toyota Camry, itself used – to enable us to find The Car. We probably put 1,000 miles on it, so thanks for that.

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