Sunday, April 15, 2012

Buying Well Used Cars, aka Driving the Trusty (and sometimes not so trusty) Rusty

The following was written about two weeks ago, but never posted.  Any references to time need to be converted appropriately. 

Imagine my surprise when I was pulling out of the church parking lot this morning for my walk at Connie's and my car door swung open.  Yep.  I was driving the vehicle that is usually Matt's, the door of which doesn't shut well for reasons I'll get to later.  I wasn't terribly surprised about the door's behavior, since I am aware it has these "door issues."  But it was unusual when I gave the door a slam, and then another, and it still didn't close.  All the while I was trying to shift the manual transmission to accommodate my increasing speed; yet each time I slammed the door, it stubbornly remained open a couple of inches. 

I decided to hold it closed for the duration of my short drive to Connie's.  It wasn't so bad, except the shifting thing was a little bit more challenging with only one hand free.  I would make sure I was driving straight, then quickly let go to shift.  If I needed to, I'd let go of the door for a minute to adjust the wheel.  And then I'd need to time it just right to quickly switch hands in order to hold the door shut once again.  But by then it would be time to shift up again, so the process would start over. 

The real challenge, however, came when I turned onto Connie's road, and the road grader had been past in one direction only, and had left that ridge in the middle of the road which is never really in the middle.  Then, not only was I driving east into the blinding morning sun, holding my door shut while the momentum of my turn was pulling it open, and shifting one handedly after having slowed down for the corner, but I also had to avoid the ridge of gravel that wasn't really in the middle but quite a bit closer to my side of the road.  Ah, the joys!  But I made it to Connie's just fine.  Only after I got to Connie's did I realize that instead of the usual not shutting right problem, the little door closure device gizmo had flipped down so the door clasp couldn't engage. 

We always buy used cars.  Well used cars.

Well, maybe not that used.  But almost.

Part of that is our financial situation.  It's not financially easy to raise a family this large. 

Part of it is our little way of taking a stand against the consumerist lifestyle, one facet of which is having new things constantly.

But probably the biggest part of it is because, even though we get a periodic lemon, when we average our costs, including repair and maintenance, we come out far ahead.  We made a commitment long ago to never have a car loan.  People tell us that the peace of mind that accompanies owning a new vehicle in good repair is well worth the its cost.  But Joe and I are not programmed that way.

At least I'm not.  I think my husband is probably programed more like that than am I, but he humors me.  He really, really hates anything having to do with vehicles.  He has used words like lame, deadbeat, and inept to refer to this part of his personality, but I wouldn't say that.  Not exactly.  He has the most of the skills, but not a very well-stocked shop.  And he just hates the stress of car repairs and car shopping.  Now that I think about it, I'm going to revise my former statement.  I think he would be very comfortable if we had a nice new vehicle with a good warranty. But he would also be very uncomfortable with a car loan.

Whatever the reason, the reality of our life is that we drive used. 

Now there is all kinds of used. 

Some people buy new every couple of years.  They trade those vehicles in for another new one.  Others then buy those trade-ins from the dealers.  That's one kind of used.

Then there are those people, who use the above used cars for a few years and trade them in, but they are a little bit too old for the dealers to sell themselves, so they send the cars to auction and the cars then end up at a used car lot.  That's a second kind of used.

When the people who buy at those used car lots drive their cars for a handful of years get done with their cars, they might sell them through an ad in the paper.  And that's yet another kind of used.

But by now that car is about ten or twelve years old.  So when these shoppers are ready to sell their cars, well, there is not much left of them.  They may not even get much money selling it through an ad in the paper.  They might sell it to a college student, or for parts.  They might haul it to the junkyard.  They might park it in their grove or woods and strip parts off as needed.

Or they might sell it to us. 

That's the kind of used we buy.  Some people find this terribly irresponsible.  Crazy.   How can they be comfortable risking all those little ones driving such junkers?

This winter we've had a higher than normal number of car's call them...well.. adventures.  Part of that is because with teens driving now, we have extra vehicles to maintain.  We almost need to keep a third car running to help with all the various transportation needs around here.  And three junkers understandably break down more often than two, right?

These adventures actually started last summer when Matt's Buick Century couldn't make it up the hills in Mankato.  He had taken a carload of teens down there for the ELS national Youth Convention.  Then on the way home from Mankato, just north of Itasca State Park, late at night, along that hilly, tree lined road with not much of anything but wildlife and forest along it, the car died.  But God took care of the kids by graciously rolling the car to a stop at the end of the driveway of a very kind man.  This man helped them push the car directly into his shop to see what the problem was.  He got them on their way with a little coolant and he topped off the motor oil.  Then home they came.

But Matt continued to have problems with the Century, and finally it was diagnosed with a leaky head gasket, which we decided we didn't want to deal with.  And so we took this car to the junk yard where they were going to either sell it as is, or strip it down for parts.  We got a quote from them on the phone, and took it in.  Once they saw it, they gave us more for it than the amount upon which they had agreed.  Cool.  But it was still sad to see this car go to the junkyard, when it "only" needed a new head gasket and was otherwise in great shape.  I hope they were able to sell it still intact.

Soon after that, one of our members dropped a Pontiac Sunfire in our lap.  It has many issues, none of which is life-threatening.  We got it for a steal.  At least we feel like it was a steal.  The inner door is splitting from the outer door (so it's a little tricky sometimes to shut the driver's door; the inside part of the door closes,but getting the outside layer to come with doesn't always happen on the first try), the trunk is jammed closed (but we can access it from the backseat), the clutch is temperamental, and every once in awhile the car simply quits for some unknown reason.  We've never had it quit in this manner.  But it had happened on occasion to the previous owners, so they sold it cheap.  We love it.

But Matt has always had periodic trouble with that clutch.  Every time he has trouble, Joe drives it, and it's fine.  We've been unable to figure out what the trouble is.  Matt also had a habit of leaning the seat way back, so we thought that perhaps he wasn't applying proper pressure when he depressed the clutch. 

Our primary family vehicle is an early 90s Dodge Ram 1-ton passenger van.  The kids call it the creeper van, becasue they think it ought to be driven by someone who, well, offers candy to children he doesn't know.  But we don't do that.  We don't even offer candy very often to children we do know.  But we like to be able to pile a bunch of kids in our van to get form point A to point B.  And the creeper van has done that for many, many miles. 

A few years ago we noticed the floor was getting rusty in some spots, so Joe reinforced it with Great Stuff expanding foam. 

Two years ago, the heating system exploded suddenly.  Not actually exploded.  But it was quite shocking when we looked over at the car which was sitting in the driveway and had not been driven for several days, and there was a cloud of greenish steam and spray pouring from beneath, where the rear heating/AC unit was located.

The van always had a cold weather stalling thing that we have just learned to deal with.  It used to be more inconvenient when I had to take the kids to piano lessons each week all winter long in Red Lake Falls.  It would start fine, and get out the driveway fine, but when it was really cold (which remember is sometimes for about two months of our winter) it would die at the corner four miles south of us where I slowed down to turn west, and then die again four miles later at the stop sign at the intersection with the Oklee road.  After that it was fine.  So annoying, but nothing serious.  It always started up again.  It was a little disconcerting, however, imagining a time when it might not start again, and I'd be stranded with all my kids in the freezing temps.

And again last fall, we noticed more thinning and even non-existant spots in the flooring beneath the vinyl rug. More Great Stuff to the rescue.

This winter it pulled a totally new stunt, however.  We were on our way to a groom's dinner at the beginning of February and it died in the driveway.  Just died.  And wouldn't start.  We feared it was the transmission, since that's been a little bit funky ever since we had it rebuilt several years ago.

Between our other two vehicles we made it through the winter just fine.  But soon we will have a second teen driver, and so we really need to have all three cars in working order.  With Matt working part time, and Louisa in plays, the Lenten season with Joe having three evening church services a week, it's been a bit hairy.  But we made it.  Lent is nearly done, but now track practice will be starting.  And as Louisa reminds me frequently, she needs a car with an automatic transmission to take her driver's test.  "If I can't back around a corner well in a car, Mom, how am I supposed to do it in the van?" (That skill was one she got marked down on during her first try.)

Joe had been periodically trying to start the van all winter.  He and Matt tried to push it off the driveway, but it wouldn't go into neutral.  Another sign that it might be the transmission. 

Eventually, when we were expecting one of our few of this winter's snowstorms, we had Todd C. come and tow the creeper van off the driveway.  It towed without grinding, which Joe said was a good thing.  This apparently made the chance of the problem being the tranny slightly less likely.

So there the van sat all winter.

Until one frantic morning a few weeks ago.  Matt was having trouble with his clutch again, so asked if he could take Joe's car to school the next day.  He was going in early for weigh-lifting, so I took the liberty of telling him to go ahead.  I'd let Joe know.  Joe could drive Matt's car, since the clutch didn't generally cause Joe any trouble.

But I forgot to let Joe know.  So when he got up a little bit later to take the girls in to school, because they had something they needed to be early for, too, but not as early as Matt's weight-lifting, he was a little bit aggravated to find his car gone.  But he and the girls got into Matt's car and took off.  And got as far as the church parking lot at the end of our driveway.  This time the clutch issue was not a quirk of Matt's driving.  It just plain wouldn't work.  The girls had to be at school in 20 minutes and they still had to pick up a friend!  What to do, what to do?

Joe told the girls to get into the van and they'd see what happened.  Lo and behold, the thing started on the first try!  What in the world?  But we are not going to complain.  Not one bit.  It's been fine ever since then.  It is a little bit more expensive to drive than the Sunfire.  Truthfully, it's MUCH more expensive to drive.  But that's what we have, so that's what we've been using.  Once the Lenten busyness is done, Joe will have time to look at the Sunfire.  And until then, we'll put (shudder) $120 worth of gas into it every ten days or so.  Yikes!

Yesterday, however, changed all that.

Joe had a hospital call to do in Grand Forks, so I had asked if the little girls and I could go along.  I needed some shelving from Menard's.  "No problem, sure."  After the kids got on the school bus, I sat down for my coffee, and Joe kind of said, "I don't want to get going late, so make it a quick cup."  Meanwhile we had to decide before Matt and Louisa left for school, which vehicle we wanted them to take, and which we'd take to Grand Forks.  If we took the car, an Olds Eighty-eight (again, mid 90s) we'd have to find someone else to haul our shelving home.  As it turned out, one of our neighbors who has a construction business had a load from Menard's being delivered one day this week, so that would work slick.  We could drive the car and save the gas.  Except that when we finally got the car seats strapped in, and everything together to hit the road, (remember, Joe didn't want to get too late a start?), there was a strange rattling from the back wheels.  And yes, I know.  There are many strange rattlings from that car. But this was a new and different strange rattle.

When we bought this car (that was also dropped from heaven in the form of one our members) the family we bought it from said, "Well, I don't want you to pay too much for a car that maybe only has a few months of life left in it."  We responded that at the price he was asking, even if we did only get a couple of months out of it, it was a good deal.  Joe's been driving it for almost three years. It's gone many, many miles.

But this winter, it's really getting old.  It needs many things, any one of which we'd not hesitate to fix. But taken all together on a car with 270,000 miles on the odometer, well, we've just not been sure how much to fix.  The muffler is getting very loud, the tires are thin, something in the front end (tie rods, maybe?) has been really vibrating lately, ...the list goes on.

But yesterday, when Joe got out to see what was making the new strange noise, guess what?  I'm embarrassed to even say...the tires had gone from merely thin, to wires poking out and scraping against the inside of the rim.  Oy veh!  (Sorry, I meant Uffda!  I'm from northern Minnesota now, after all.)

So we piled out. 

Joe was quite worked up by this time, since he really needed to get to the hospital.  The shelving at Menard's was not important.  But the hospital, yes, that was pretty important. 

We have many neighbors who have extra cars sitting in their buildings or woods, so Joe called Connie and asked if they had anything we could drive.  Good old Connie and Kelly.  They have rescued us numerous times with vehicular emergencies.  But this time, Connie went over the top.  She brought over her nearly brand new Kia Sorento for us to drive.  Talk about sitting in the lap of luxury.  I think I could get used to that.  We are very blessed to have such friends. 

Joe mentioned on the way home that one of the family members he was visiting with in the hospital suggested checking the fluid for the clutch.  Well, as we had explained to Matt when he asked, checking fluids for a manual transmission was a complicated thing needing a lift and special know-how.  And we knew that it didn't really need as frequent regular maintenance as other fluids.  But what we didn't know is that the clutch itself uses a fluid that is very simple to check and fill.  Hmm.  Joe would have to check that when we get home.  He figured he could handle that simple task, even during Lent.

We got home and got Connie's car back to her.  We picked her up on the way home, and she then drove herself and her car home after we unloaded.  Until Matt got home from his track meet, we were without a vehicle.  Which normally would not be a problem.  Except that in a pastor's line of work, one never knows. 

After we had been home a few minutes, Joe got another call, and needed to leave again after supper.  That gave us a little bit of time to figure out how he would transport himself. 

Joe took a look at the clutch fluid reservoir as it had been described to him.  And yes, it was bone dry.  It told us on the lid what kind of brake fluid it needed.  Alas, we didn't happen to have any sitting around.  But we do have many neighbors who farm, and if there is one things farmers seem to always have around it's a variety of fluids for the variety of vehicles they have to keep operational.  They just may not always know which of the buildings it's in at the time you call.

Joe called Connie again, but talked to her husband instead this time.  Kelly called his dad who rummaged around the shop and came up with what we needed.  Which they then had to bring over here, since we had no way to come get it.  Thank you, Darrow and Shirley.  Second rescue of the day.  (I had a girlfriend tell me once during my college years that one of my personality problems was that I always needed rescuing. That I was prone to constant little emergencies, because I was never properly prepared for anything.  Oops, on days like this I can really see her point.) 

After Darrow and Joe got the car working, Joe took off in the new and improved Sunfire.

Now we still have only two vehicles that are in working order.  But I can hardly keep up, since which ones happen to be working at any given time seem to be varying from week to week. 

Matt scans Craig's list constantly, and regularly asks whether we can go to Fargo, or Bemidji, or wherever to check out a car.  So far we've not had time to shop. We've had a couple offers, from local people, but the cars they have to offer have not been quite down to our caliber of junker. 

Taxes are done now, thought, and that redistribution of wealth our federal government is so good at will be coming our way soon.  I have a pretty good idea what that money will be going toward this year.


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theMom said...

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