Friday, April 20, 2007

Lessons learned from buying a used van

The search is over. I wrote in January that M and I were in the market for a minivan and we finally bought one: a silver-blue 1999 Honda Odyssey EX that has just 89,000 miles. It’s already proven a nice addition to the family; on a road trip last weekend, we buckled CJ Jr. into his carseat and peeled off wet jackets while staying warm and dry within its spacious interior, as a Nor’easter raged outside our windows.

As an added benefit, we saved about $1,000 on the purchase price—money we plan to shift toward our goal of building an emergency fund of three months cash reserves.

As thrilled as M and I are with our purchase, it wasn’t easy. At times, we both longed for the convenience and security of buying brand new. But I did learn a few good lessons from our Odyssey-shopping “odyssey.”

Be patient
The search was slow, lasting six weeks start to finish. Along the way, I visited nine dealerships within a 50-mile radius of our home. I responded to four private ads, even test driving one vehicle while on the way to a family function (for which we ended up being late). And I spent many evening and weekend hours hunting for prospects on,, and

Even more maddening than the time spent was the time wasted, checking out vehicles that didn’t live up to their billing. Opening the hood of an Odyssey at one small dealer revealed what looked like actual tumbleweeds lodged in a grime-covered engine. A 2001 Nissan Quest advertised as “well-maintained” vibrated unnervingly as M eased it out of the driveway on a test drive.

Was the time and effort worth the ultimate benefit? It didn’t always feel like it. More than once we considered throwing in the towel and diving deeper into savings to increase the $10,000 maximum pricetag we wanted to pay. Now, as we enjoy the extra space and the automatic sliding doors (which CJ Jr. opens with an enthusiastic “Abracadabra!”)—all within our original budget and requirements—I’m glad we patiently stuck to our plan.

Be skeptical
I’m smart enough to raise an eyebrow when a vehicle’s seller says the emergency brake-indicator that continually stays on during my test drive “doesn’t mean anything.” But I almost gave in on one of my key buying criteria—having my own mechanic inspect the vehicle I wanted to buy—because I wasn’t skeptical enough.

Several used car dealers told me I couldn’t drive their vehicle to my mechanic before buying it. The reason? Insurance wouldn’t cover it (my mechanic is near my home, so it usually meant a trip of several miles). After the first few dealers threw up the same roadblock, I was almost ready to concede the point.

But my father, an attorney with lots of experience suing car dealerships, said the dealers’ rationale was nonsense. It was unlikely the vehicles weren’t insured, and even if that was the case, I had coverage as a driver. Most likely, the dealers didn’t want to take the chance that my mechanic would find something wrong.

Sure enough, the dealership that eventually won my business had no problem with me driving the Odyssey the 25-plus miles to my mechanic before I paid a cent. Jason, the salesperson, didn’t ask for a deposit or even the keys to my car. “We’re confident that our guys found everything and anything, so have at it,” he said. My mechanic gave the van a nice thumbs-up (“It’s got a lot of life left in it,” he said) and I had some much-needed peace of mind.

Make an offer
Like many people, I don’t like haggling over a car’s price. But I know that haggling can mean money in my pocket, and I am cheap by nature. So I haggle.

And it works. In buying our Odyssey, I made an initial offer of $8,000, 20% below the dealer’s $10,000 advertised price. I thought it absurdly low for one of the best vans I’d seen, and Jason seemed to confirm it by quickly shaking his head.

“No way,” he said. “There might be some wiggle room, but not that much. We don’t price our cars artificially high and then discount them thousand of dollars during the sale to make buyers think they got a great deal. We advertise what we feel is our best price.”

I took a breath. The Odyssey’s price was certainly in line with others I’d seen advertised for similar vans, I said. But it wasn’t the lowest either, and besides, we had no real idea what other vans were actually selling for. It was probably less than $10,000, I concluded.

“Let me take it to my sales manager and see what we can do,” Jason said.

Five minutes later, he came back with a $9,000 offer. I shook his hand and sealed the deal. Looking back, I wonder if I my “absurdly low” offer was really too high.

1 comment:

RM said...

In car-buying situations, I'm always left with the feeling that I should have bid lower. Sounds like you got a good deal. Magic doors are worth the extra $1000 alone.

Congratulations on your purchase!