I told you before about how Grey was revving hard to get his own wheels. Well, he’s now the proud owner of a new used car. Here’s how it went down.
Back to Craigslist
After nearly being burnt on the Craigslist stove, Grey went right back to it, with hot mitts on this time. I don’t know anywhere else that has the selection of really-cheap local cars.
But what to search for? Grey was open, which is good, but he needed a way to limit the field beyond his $2,000 budget. As with colleges, as we’ve recently discovered, having too many choices is overwhelming.
“Why don’t you search for manual transmissions?” I suggested. He seemed favorably inclined, then I dropped the clincher. “Your sister wouldn’t be able to drive it.” His face lit up like a xenon headlight. Despite my dogging her, Pippa had never fully learned to drive a stick shift.
Test Drive #1
Grey went searching and the first hit that looked interesting was a high-mileage 2000 Honda Accord in Eldersburg, Md. The two of us went for a test drive on the weekend. On the way there, I tried to temper his expectations, mentioning that it is very unusual to buy the first used car you drive.
Sure enough, the thing had been driven pretty hard, seemed to have been sitting for a while, and had a number of missing/broken pieces. We headed home.
Test Drive #2
A couple days later, he found another 2000 Honda Accord under $2k, this time in East Baltimore. When we got there, the car was already running, enveloped in a cloud of blue smoke.
“Don’t mind the exhaust,” the owner said, waving his arms as if he could clear it. “You won’t believe it, but I got the oil changed and they screwed up and put old oil in it. It just needs to burn off.”
“Mmm hmmm,” I said. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t, but I’m a naturally skeptical person.
Grey got into the driver’s seat, and put the car through its paces for a few blocks, turned around, and headed back.
“Pull over,” the owner said. “I wanna show you how this thing sings.” Grey barely got resettled into the backseat when the wheels squealed, adding some white smoke to the blue. Very shortly, we were going 60 mph on a city street. It did have impressive pickup. I thought it would be rude to brace my hand against the dashboard, so I held on with two hands to my seat.
We returned with a short skid. “Whadya think?”
“You know that character in Peanuts that walks around with a cloud of dust around him all the time?” I remarked.
“Peanuts?” he said quizzically.
“Yeah, you know, Charlie Brown and Snoopy and all that?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of ’em. What about it?”
“Never mind, let us talk for a sec,” I said, and we walked a couple steps away and huddled.
To Grey, I said, “I don’t feel good about it. A car this old with this many miles that spews blue smoke isn’t a good investment. It seems to be burning a lot of oil.”
“Are you sure?” asked Grey, his face fallen. He had the ‘I’ll never get a car’ look.
We informed the owner and he yelled “Make me an offer!” to our backs as we walked back to my car.
Test Drive #3
Grey was disappointed but undeterred. Before long, he found a 2009 Mazda 3 on the west side just outside the Baltimore beltway.
When we arrived for the test drive, a dark black man greeted us in full ethnic dress. I complimented him on his look and he told us in a distinctive accent that it was a traditional Nigerian outfit.
I don’t know many Nigerians, but the ones I keep in best touch with are the princes that send me emails about how they need help getting huge sums of money out of their country, and can I help?
Regardless, we took off for a drive with Grey at the wheel, me in the passenger seat, and the owner in the back.
The car seemed sound, was ‘only’ a decade old, and had just over 125,000 miles on the odometer, so this one seemed more promising than the others.
At the turnaround point, I took over driving from Grey. I put the car in gear, waited for an opening, then listened as the engine raced before it finally caught at the very top of the clutch release.
“Feels like it’s going to need a replacement clutch soon,” I said over my shoulder to the owner. No response.
“Also, the battery seemed pretty weak when we started up. And I noticed a small tear in the body panel above the front bumper.” I was trying to model to Grey how you point out all the deficiencies of a used car while you are evaluating it, so they understand why you walk away or make a lower offer.
Grey leans slightly toward me and stage whispers, “He’s not listening.” I look in the rearview mirror and sure enough, he’s in his own world, alternatively playing with his phone, and looking out the window. It’s like he’s a teenager, with his parents up front. I guess my ‘owner conditioning’ wasn’t buying us much.
We get back and huddle separately once again. “This one is better than the others,” I told Grey. “It will need a clutch at some point. He’s asking $2,150 – what do you think?”
“Can we offer $1,000?” he replied.
“Heheh, no, that will shut everything down,” I said. “If you really want it, I’d go for $1,700. If he says no, then you’ll have a decision to make.”
This was a lot of new information for a 17-year-old first-time used car buyer, but I was leading the conversation, so that took some of the heat off.
We returned to the owner. With Grey’s OK, I proffered the question: “Would you consider $1,700?”
No change of expression, just a simple puckered “No.” With his accent, it was a truncated half-syllable No. “I won’t go less than $1,800.”
I turned to Grey. “What do you think kiddo?”
Grey wasn’t sure what to do or say, and we all stood there silently for a few moments. Which was probably a good thing, although Grey surely wished the earth would open beneath his feet and devour him whole.
After a strong dose of discomfort all around, I said, “It’s his money, so he’s going to have to think hard about it.”
“Maybe dad can chip in $100?” said Nigerian man.
“Nope, this is all him,” I assured.
More silence and awkwardness, then finally, “OK, $1,700 for the young man.” Handshakes and smiles all around.
He asked for cash, which honestly is easier and cheaper than getting a certified check, so we said we’d go home and round up the dough.
After agreeing to a price and finding the cash, the hardest part of buying a used car is actually taking possession of it. Do you go through the rigmarole of getting a temporary tag, or do you figure out a shortcut?
The car needed to be safety inspected, like every used car that changes hands in Maryland, and the owner was gracious enough to deliver the car to the inspection station at Brentwood Automotive (since renamed AutoStream Car Care) in Hampden, making the car pickup unnecessary for now.
The only issue was he couldn’t meet before 9pm, so we’d be handing over a fat envelope of cash in the city in the dark of night to a guy we’d met only once. Got it.
To go full Hollywood, Grey wore a trench coat, with the swelled envelope hiding in an inside pocket. Every few minutes, he’d pat the bulge to verify it was still there.
A bit after 9pm, the owner rolled in, trailed by a friend in a second car who would take him home. I’m not sure how I remembered, but I recalled the weak battery issue and blurted out, “The car start OK on the way over?”
“Actually, we had to jump it.” A pause, then: “Tell you what. If the battery is bad, I’ll pay for a new used one at Interstate Battery in Glen Burnie.” I didn’t know new used batteries was a thing, but I was impressed with his promise. We were fully committed by that point, and he didn’t have to make it.
“You got the cash?” he asked. I subtly tipped my head toward Grey, and he took the baton and did his own little confirming nod. “Let’s get in the car,” he said, clearly a veteran of these transactions. I took on the role of watchman. And photographer:
Soon, they both reappeared, both with smiles. The Nigerian had Grey sign a bill of sale, removed his tags, gave final handshakes, and was off.
We headed home also, Grey glowing in the seat next to me.
Next time, I’ll detail all the post-purchase expenses Grey encountered in getting the Mazda 3 on the road, including inspection, repairs, registration, and insurance.