Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Pedestrian No More!

You’re probably asking, “Where the heck has Paul BEEN that past 2 weeks?!” My usual M.O. for blogging is to drive to the coffee shop and blog on my laptop.

Well, No car + no laptop = no blogging.

My car was totaled, as you likely know, and my laptop has been MIA for a while due to a fried-out power cord. It was giving me battery alerts when it was plugged in, but was still occasionally working, until I plugged it in at work one day and heard light ‘ticking’ and saw little puffs of blue smoke. Not good. So, I had to order a new one online, after some extensive searching for good deals. Got it on Saturday, so I’m back in business.

Now, the big news: After a month-and-a-half of walking to work in the bitter cold, snow and rain, begging for rides from friends and co-workers, and having to completely reschedule parts of my family’s life to work around sharing Sonya’s car…I finally have my own set of wheels!

I’ve been on the lookout for a good deal on a reliable car since shortly after my little automotive calamity, recounted in my previous blog “So, How Was YOUR Christmas, Paul? Part 1” (December 31st, 2007). I don’t usually buy cars on my own. Frequently, I just get family hand-me-downs for cheap or free. The nice part of that is that I know what to expect from the car. I usually can get a real clear picture of what it’s been through and how it’s been maintained. I’m wary of dealers, as their goal is usually simply to get the thing off the lot for as much as they can get. Thus, I’ve only purchased 2 of my succession of 10 or so cars from dealers in my entire life.

Thanks to my grandfather co-signing on a loan (well, technically I’M the co-signer in order to qualify for the credit union’s better interest rate), I was able to get enough money for the car and pay some bills to boot.

Rather than trek all over Hell’s half-acres in the FREEZING cold, I figured I’d start with utilizing the wonders of the information age and begin my search online. I started with eBay, hoping I could find a good deal. The problem with eBay is that you rarely – if ever – get a chance to actually SEE and DRIVE the car before you buy. If you do get the chance to check out the car before you bid, you still have to drive all over to get to them. Given the difficulty in my schedule and transportation to do so, not to mention the plethora of seedy malcontents skulking on eBay, waiting for their next prey, I decided to go another direction.

As I was debating which charity to donate my beloved, yet destroyed, Isuzu Rodeo, it occurred to me – why not BUY from them, too? I figured a charity whose goal it is to help people of limited means get reliable transportation is less likely to take advantage them. Naïve? Perhaps, but infinitely preferable to the plaid sport-coated shyster just trying to boost his commission check or the greasy conman spreading his villainy through the relative anonymity of the Internet.

I checked out Charity Motors’s website and was delighted to find that most of their inventory was not only listed online, but was complete with a full description, mileage, amenities, asking price, and pictures from every angle including the interior and odometer. I determined my price range ($1500-$2500) and narrowed my search.

Now, I have a certain amount of vanity, to be sure. I’d want to avoid something akin to my first off-the-lot purchase after destroying my 84 Ford Tempo in PA back when I was 18. That car was a great deal, as reliable transportation goes, costing a mere $750, getting 35MPG, lasting me 3 years, and making damned near 200k miles. It was, however, the ugliest thing on 4 wheels: a beat-to-hell, rusted out 81 Subaru Wagon with a crumpled corner panel, no roof insulation, tricky 2nd gear, ignition switch, AM-FM MONO radio, and no exhaust system to speak of. I want something reliable, of course, but at 33, I want something that looks a bit better than something a 16-year-old bought on his own as a first car.

There were Oldsmobile and Buick sedans (nah, too bulky), A few nice 2-door sedans (nah, getting the kids in and out would be a headache), a couple older compacts with some rust (nah, with the winter salted roads, they’ll be Swiss cheese by spring), a beautiful Ford Explorer (nah, as much as I liked the amenities, higher ride, and spacious interior, it was at the higher end of my price range, had too many miles on it, and I’d had enough of the fuel costs on SUVs). Then I saw it – a 1994 Mercury Tracer Wagon at $1,995. Hmm…intriguing.

The body had little-to-no rust, very few dings and no major dents to speak of. It’s metallic teal – a trendy color for 1994, but not my favorite. Beggars can’t be choosers. It listed a host of comfy features: power windows, locks, steering, mirrors, and seat belts, alloy wheels, cruise control, CD player, great gas mileage, and best of all, it was a wagon, so I had my storage space. The odometer only read 2,006 miles, but as it was only a 5-digit odometer, it was more likely 102,006 miles. I HAD to see this car.

I did a bit of research, checking out stats, reviews, and common problems with that model. I was surprised to find that despite it being 14 years old and basically a Ford Escort (notorious for being Ford’s disposable compact) it still got great reviews for being reliable. Most of the complaints were from folks who were expecting too much by way of comfort and luxury of a low-end compact car, or had poorly maintained them. Regardless, being an older Ford, repairs would likely be inexpensive (if not necessarily infrequent), with most parts being cheap and/or available from local junkyards.

After a bit of finagling with our schedules and with Sonya’s brother Jeremy over for a visit, Sonya, Courtney and I headed out to the lot, just north of Pontiac. Liam chose Spongebob over car shopping – go figure. We looked at a few other cars, briefly, but finally looked long and hard at the Tracer. It had a few more dings than the pictures conveyed, but still nothing major. The interior was a rather Spartan, angular, and a bit boxy, but that’s the early 90’s for ya. No liner for the wagon bed, computer core was hanging out a bit, but it started right up. We took it for a spin, and after getting the engine moving and the brakes cleared of the ice, it ran like a dream. I get back and offer $1500 – sold.

They were able to do all the registration paperwork in-house, but unfortunately, my insurance agent wasn’t open on Saturday. Damn. I’d have to go back to get it on Monday. I now OWNED a car, but still didn’t HAVE a car. GRRRR!

After a day-and-a-half of tortured anticipation, I head to my insurance agent Monday morning and get things squared away there. Sonya drops Liam at school and we head to the lot to get my car. After driving it for the day, I noticed a few things to work on. The CD player, though fancy-schmancy with a removable face, is a bit quirky and 3 of the 4 speakers don’t work. I can fix that. The car wouldn’t warm up at all and the temperature needle stays well below normal, so the thermostat probably needs replacing. I can fix that. There’s no liner in the trunk bed, necessitating a stop by a carpet store for a remnant. I can fix that. Front driver’s side tire is a bit leaky. I can fix that. Driver’s power window is clunking on the way down. I likely can’t fix that, but it works for now.

For now, I finally have a car that works and fits my stuff. The kids love it - especially the power front seat belts (though they shouldn't sit in the front seat, I know), they now refer to as "magic seat belts". As the weeks go by, I’ll get to fixing the minor irritants of my new Fortress of Solitude – adding my bumper stickers, decals, fixing the stereo and presetting my radio stations, etc. – making it my own.

I’m just happy as a lark I don’t have to walk to work in this crappy Michigan Winter weather anymore!!!

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