People like to gripe about car dealers, but when all’s said and done, we’re the ones out there replacing our cars. Nobody’s got a gun to our heads – yet anywhere between 13- and 15-million of us willingly sign away an average of $34,000 for a brand-new every five or six years. In 2012, 40.3 million people bought used cars, with an average price tag of $14,375, according to Forbes.
I’ve got a friend who just traded in his 2006 Ford Escape on a 2010 Toyota RAV4 with 44,000 miles. A long list of bad choices got him to the point where, just three years after purchasing the 2006 Escape, he had to buy a new vehicle. What happened?
Deferred maintenance: There was a lot going on with the Ford that should’ve been addressed early on. It had just under 100,000 miles, and this guy just spent $4,000 trying to get the car to pass emissions. With the exception of the catalytic converter, which he had replaced under the federally mandated 100,000-mile warranty, he essentially replaced every single emissions-related part on it over the last six months.
Why? Because he’d been driving around with the check engine light on for months, and that caused a chain of failures that ended up costing thousands of dollars. I can’t imagine what he was spending in additional fuel cost.
Upside down on the trade: He purchased the 2006 Ford Escape at the end of 2009 from a new car dealer. He overpaid for it, and then financed it out for five years. Over the next three years, the value of that Escape plummeted as a new Ford Escape came on-line.
In 2013, his 100,000-mile Escape was worth $4,000. He owed $5,200 on it; he'd have to sell it for $7,200 to have enough for a down payment on the new car. Nobody in their right mind was going to pay him $7,200 for a car worth $4,000, so his only recourse was a franchised new car dealer, who can jimmy numbers around and make it feel like you’re getting more money for your trade, when in actuality, you’re not.
The bank doesn’t like used cars: Regardless of the fact that there are literally millions of good used cars in the marketplace which have reached the end of the steepest part of the depreciation curve, banks won’t generally finance cars more than about eight years old. My credit union currently won’t finance anything older than a 2007.
So not only are you going to have to purchase cars at the peak of their used vehicle value from a new car dealer, but the value of the car you just purchased is going to plummet faster than Paula Deen’s career.
The loan on an average new car for five years, with 20 percent down payment and 2.9% financing is $485.75. That’s not a car loan. That’s a prison sentence. Four years from now, that car’s worth 49% of what you paid for it, or $16,600, and you’ll still owe almost $11,000. It’s a perpetual cycle that’s difficult to break out of once you’re in it.
In the last 10 years, I haven’t lost money on the cars I’ve purchased. I’ve either broken even or made a few bucks. I have no advanced mechanical aptitude, and I’m not able to see into the future.
For the last three years, I’ve been driving a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. It’s a 350-cubic-inch V-8-powered, eight-passenger wagon that I purchased for $3,200. I might be paying more in gas than somebody with a Prius every week, but over the course of five years of ownership, I’ll have spent at least $15,000 less.
Buy cars for cash: I haven’t had a car loan since 2002, and I haven’t paid more than $3,500 for a car since then.
Buy models well past their sell-by date: The 1996 Buick Roadmaster was an expensive car when it was new, but by 2010, it was a dinosaur built on a platform GM abandoned that year. It has a cassette player, for crying out loud. Nevertheless, it’s a comfortable car that gets me and my family around for a tenth of what a new minivan costs, and it’s way more fun to own.
Get them fixed: I’ve been pretty good about fixing problems the minute they arise so that they don’t manifest themselves as bigger, more expensive issues. Shocks were replaced immediately. The thermostat and fan clutch were, too. Those are the only things I’ve had to fix in almost three years, and the total maintenance spend was $650.
There’s some fantasy that if you buy a new car, you won’t have maintenance bills. You’ll still have them. They might be a little less, but unless you’re purchasing one of a handful of luxury cars, nobody but you is going to be paying for oil changes.
Keep them clean: I’ve been pretty fanatical about keeping my cars clean inside and out. First off, it makes any issues readily apparent. Second, it means that when I sell a car, I sell it for very close to what my asking price is, because the car is so well cared for.
Make cosmetic improvements: Over the last few years, I bought nice wheels and tires and new floor mats for the wagon, and I’ve made cosmetic fixes as the years have gone on. I did the same with a Saab 900 I once owned, and managed to get more for that car than I paid for it.
Spending $34,000 on a car you’re just going to drive to work is like ordering a $52 twin lobster dinner and eating at your desk. Think about what you’re using your car for, and whether you really want to spend that kind of money. In the long run, you’ll save a small fortune.
Craig Fitzgerald is a writer and editor in Holliston, Massachusetts. He's the brilliant mind behind ClunkerNation.com, a publication that covers cars that about six people ever cared about. He's also a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, and he's been published in the Boston Globe Magazine, Esquire and Forbes. He's also the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car magazine.