Buying Used Cars: Is This Really Worth My Time?


“That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” – Henry David Thoreau

On Sunday, as I drove to church, my 1990 Chrysler Town & Country minivan’s odometer rolled over 230,000 miles. I bought it for $8,000 when it had 120,000 miles on it. That was in 1996, I think. I had to make a few repairs, but, on the whole, I have limited costs to about $500 a year. Adding this money to the initial purchase price, we get about $11,000. A new Chrysler T&C minivan in 1996 was about $28,000 plus taxes — call it $30,000.

Not including insurance and gasoline, I have driven that car for about 10 cents per mile. It got about 15 mpg — so with gasoline at $1.30 per gallon on the average, my gasoline cost per mile was about 9 cents. That adds up to under 20 cents per mile, total. For purposes of comparison, the IRS allows 36 cents per mile as a business deduction.

The car is finally reaching the limits of my patience. It handles OK, but the heater is bad, the air conditioner is gone, the lifters are noisy, and I don’t trust it for anything other than local driving.

If I were in the market for a new minivan, I would buy a Toyota Siena. But I don’t buy new cars. The depreciation is too high.

A used Plymouth/Dodge/Chrysler doesn’t command the higher price that a used Toyota or Honda minivan commands. Yet the quality is close enough for just driving around, which is all I am interested in paying for. So, I went shopping for a used Plymouth/Dodge/Chrysler minivan.

I was after a bargain: low price, low risk. After reading Consumer Reports, I narrowed it down to a 1993 minivan. I checked the newspaper. Sure enough, there was a 1993 model for $2,250. That price seemed reasonable to me. I went to see it. It was clean.

The next step was to take it to a car-repair company we have used for several years to have it inspected.

There is an old line: “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.” When you get a used-car analysis from a repair shop, you are likely to get an inflated list of things that are wrong — several of them high-ticket items. Of course, if the company overdoes it, you may decide not to buy the car. It’s a trade-off.

The estimate came in at $1,340. That seemed high to me, so I called another shop to get a second opinion and listed the items I had been told needed to be repaired. They called back in an hour. Their price was $650 — under half.

I drove over to the second shop and had them check the car for the two most expensive suggested repairs, a total of $711. They checked them both. “No problem,” was their answer.

That made my decision much easier: (1) Buy the car and (2) from now on, always get a second opinion from a repair shop.

Will I still go to the first repair shop? Only if I decide to have them inspect another used car. That costs $27. If they spot something wrong, I’ll verify that with the second shop and then ask for a competing bid.

The point is, the free market provides lots of competition. When we are talking about hundreds of dollars, I’m willing to spend a couple of hours shopping.

Is this really worth my time?

On the basis of a pure cost-benefit analysis of the value of my time, probably not. My time should be spent writing. But we are creatures of our youth. I grew up middle-class. For me to abandon that mindset at this late date would probably be close to impossible. In any case, the middle-class mindset is a good one. It is careful in budgeting money, though it trades off with budgeting time.

The middle-class buyer wants his cars and tools to work well, but he is willing to buy a car or a tool that doesn’t look new or impressive. In fact, he has a sense of victory when he locates a bargain.

That same attitude is beneficial in business, when a lack of a budget is almost a guarantee of overspending and future bankruptcy.

Thomas Stanley, author of “The Millionaire Next Door”, and “The Millionaire Mind”, tells the story of a very rich executive whose staff planned to buy him a new Cadillac as a present. They had all done very well with bonuses and what-not. (This was pre-Enron.) The man got word of it and told them not to do it. The plan’s organizer wanted to know why. After all, it was a free car. “No, it isn’t,” the boss said. “A man who drives that kind of car has to live in a neighborhood to go with it. Then his wife has to buy the furniture to go with the new home. The free car would cost him a fortune.” (Mattel exploited this budgeting pressure with Barbie.)

A person who shops for bargains when he has the money to buy premium stuff is like a driver who signals that he’s going to turn even though he is driving down a deserted highway. Habits save us when we don’t have time to make careful decisions. When you have a good habit, it’s wise to honor it. It may be a life-or-death matter, and you want instincts to take over. It’s like checking a gun to make sure it’s not loaded if you haven’t had your eyes on it the entire time. I say this as a man whose great uncle was shot dead by an “unloaded” rifle. His son pulled the trigger.