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On buying used cars.

by Dear Jon
January 29, 2001

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Twentieth Sort_Dear Jon-On buying used cars. ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON

Dear Jon,
Thank you for the recipe for Macaroni and Cheese that I requested/suggested; ah yes, I remember it well. Would you like to know how I make it for my daughter, the thick, cheesy white-sauce, in which the macaroni bakes in the oven for 40 minutes? Affectionately, Looong Again.

Dear Looong: No.


Dear Jon,
Do you have any tips when it comes to buying a used car?
Road Rager

Dear Rager,
Used car buyers fall into two categories: Those who have time to look things up, and those who don't. The first category has sub-categories: "Classic" car collectors, "Consumer Reports" readers, internet junkies, and deliberative penny-pinching "best value" shopping misers. The advice from each sub-category is different. For example, "Classic" car buyers see themselves as investors, so their approach is much different from the "best value" miser. On average, People Who Have Time to Look Things Up, take about one month to buy a used car from their first inquiry. What they all have in common is a working knowledge of automobiles, and an innate distrust in the seller of the vehicle. The speak in Latin phrases like "Caveat Emptor" and "Habeus Corpus" (the reason they are likely to check the contents of the trunk before they agree to buy the car). People who know Latin are the kind of people who spend so much time looking things up.

I fit into the second category. I don't have time to look anything up. When I have a need of a car, I view it as similar to buying a gallon of milk: It is a same-day, one-store, one-stop errand. What I want from a seller of used car, is someone thinking the same way I do: Let's wrap up the deal and go home! Typically I have found used car sellers to be very helpful when I approach them with this attitude. I figure I can speed the process along by admitting to them that, although thoroughly one-hundred percent as macho as the next guy, I have no working knowledge of automobiles. Their empathy is palpable. I find used car sellers to be some of the nicest people in the world.

The first car I bought, in 1988, was a 1976 Chrysler Cordoba Coupe with 106,000 miles on it. The guy was great: I drove off the lot with it in about two hours. The next day it was towed back to the lot, and the guy was very friendly about putting in a new alternator after I threatened to stop the payment on the check. I drove put another 6,000 miles on the car and then parked it in my parent's garage, where it stayed until I sold it to a scrap dealer.

The second car I bought, in 1992, was a 1978 Oldsmobile with 130,000 miles on it. I added 20,000 miles before I sold it to a scrap dealer.

The third car I bought, in 1995, was a serious upgrade: a 1990 Ford Tempo with only 50,000 miles on it. That car lasted 4 years and 40,000 miles before some missionaries to Mexico towed it to their junk shop. It was unclear to me whether my generous donation was going to be fixed and driven, or raided for parts.

The fourth car I bought, in 1999, was a 1998 Mazda Protege. So far, so good. I have added 26,000 miles to it. I hope it lasts, because this used car dealer I worked with was the nicest guy in the bunch.

Thought for the Day: Only 213 days until the kick-off of the NFL regular season.

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