Buying a Car – Part I

How much is your car worth may depend on how you feel about it.

The other day a client expressed a concern about replacing his wife’s car in a few years. I asked if the car was breaking down, getting poor mileage or had some other problem.

“Oh no. It runs like a top. It’s only two years old, but you know you’ve got to trade them in before they get too old, otherwise you don’t get much for them.”

Clearly this gentleman preferred to buy a new car. “I don’t want to buy somebody else’s problems,” he said. While I understand this frame of mind, buying a brand-new car is no guarantee that the vehicle will be problem free. The only brand-new car I ever bought was a 1992 Ford Taurus, which immediately flashed its check engine light in the first week and was in the shop at least once a quarter for the rest of its miserable ten-year lifespan.

Trade in value is mostly from the perspective of the dealer: “How little can I pay for this vehicle, and for how much can I sell it?” You, on the other hand, have a completely different perspective: “How much is it going to cost me to keep this car vs. replacing it?”

In 1988, when my husband was a graduate student, we purchased a 1973 Mercury Comet with a straight 6 from our local mechanic. It had been his daughter’s vehicle. This was the most basic of transportation, but it was our exclusive vehicle until 1992. It was in the shop far less than the 1992 Ford Taurus, which until 2013 was our only new car. The Comet might still be running were it not for a freak accident. 

On a cold and rainy Winter night in 2000, my husband was driving back from Chapel Hill with our then-two-year-old son strapped into his car seat in the back. By this time the Comet’s oil had been changed so many times that the oil pan plug threads were shot. Our mechanic had “invented” a solution, but that night Gregg ran over a metal shard in the roadway that flew up and dislodged the plug allowing the oil to leak out slowly. Still, that Mighty Comet brought my husband and son home safely. We didn’t know that the oil was gone until the next morning when unlubricated engine froze forevermore.

Not many cars driven every day last for 27 years. That’s what you call priceless.

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