Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Shopping for a Car part one, personal notes

Posted by shannonclark on April 5, 2008

This is a personal note about thinking about buying a car. In the next post (which may be posted elsewhere and I’ll then post a link to it from here I’ll analyze the current state of car shopping online in the US, which I will argue is pretty dreadful)

The last time I bought a car was Dec 1999, before buying I did a fairly significant amount of research online, though in the end I didn’t quite do enough, the deal I ended up signing was not particularly great and four years later when my car loan was due in full I calculated the value of my car at that time, how much I was actually using it, and decided to sell it and pay off the loan instead of buying it outright and keeping it. Probably the right move as I had almost not used the car at all, but at times I wonder. Though I went for a few more years where I really didn’t need a car, now I suspect I do really need to own a car again, far too often the lack of having a car is impeding me from real business (and personal) life matters – and no, ZipCar or CityCarShare are not alternatives for me.

First why both ZipCar and CityCarShare are not good options for me.

  1. My usage needs are almost never fixed or known in the future. I never know when I would want to return from someplace when I want to drive, in fact all I usually know is that I don’t know how late I’ll be staying. Mostly I don’t need a car for shopping (I don’t shop all that much at all) rather I would need a car for business events outside of San Francisco, or inside of SF but not nearby (currently it takes me 30-60 mins by public transportation and/or walking to get to many events, time I don’t always have)
  2. While ZipCar’s day rental is indeed an option, it is also a really huge and very new to my budget financial hit. $60/day for car, gas and insurance is I’ll admit a decent deal, but it is pretty painful as compared to typically spending ~$60/month or less on my entire transportation budget. For the month, not for a single day. I buy a $45/mth muni pass and most months may take an occasional taxi or use the BART or CalTrain (at most spending say $100 in a month of a lot of taxis and trains). The very rare exception is taxis to the airport, but even if I owned a car I’d probably still use a taxi to avoid parking fees as my typical trip is usually a week+ in length.
  3. My other likely usage of a car is long trips – driving down to LA, driving up to Wine Country, to Portland, driving to Half Moon Bay, to Monterey, to Santa Barbara. If I owned a car I’d like do such drives on a more regular basis, many weekends most likely in fact (though certainly having a girlfriend or at worst friends to join me on such trips would make that even more likely). This too is not a particularly good option for ZipCar or CityCarShare. I could, I guess, rent cars on a more regular basis (I haven’t rented one yet in 2+ years in SF) or experiment with using ZipCar’s multiday rentals for a few days at a time before I buy a car, that’s an option indeed, though only for shortish trips.
  4. The closest cars for both ZipCar and CityCarShare are a 10 minute or so walk from my house (about 1/2 mile or longer w/hills) That means it is far from spur of the moment, I can’t just walk out of the door and pick up the car, instead I have to reserve the car online (or over the phone I think) and then go there, drive back home if I need to load up the car with items from my house (which very often would be one reason I might need a car). In contrast if I buy a car I’ll likely also negotiate with my landlord for a parking space in my building – which also removes the issues of finding a parking space or dealing with street cleaning on weeks when I’m traveling.

So though I may cancel my CityCarShare account (haven’t used them in 6+ months so it is wasted money) and I may sign up with ZipCar in part to use them as an extended test drive service for the next month or two, I have decided that I almost certainly need to buy a car.

But how to buy a car? Car buying is a pretty horrible and painful process, at least it has always been so for me in the past, rife with scams, pushy salesmen (“used car salesman” is an insult for a reason) and countless issues whether you are buying a new car or an older used car.

A few of the issues I’m considering:

  • Technology inside of cars is more impacted by Moore’s Law. For many decades most of the technology in cars changed slowly with gradual but relatively minor changes. However increasingly cars are deeply computerized and technological, I suspect but don’t know for sure (going to research this) this has some pretty serious impacts in considering a used car. From whether or not mechanics will be able to maintain a car over time to whether even on a not all that old used car I’ll be able to use many modern tools (play my iPod on the car radio, have accurate and updated navigational systems, have a secure car from a locking/alarm standpoint)
  • My tastes and the car industry are clearly diverging. I hate blind spots in cars I drive, yet many “modern” cars seem to me at least to be minimizing the rear window and creating ever larger and more annoying blindspots due to roof framing and window/rear end shapes. Also many cars intended for younger, urban drivers such as myself (Scion for example) have for some bizarre to my eye reasons moved dials etc to the center of the car vs from in front of the driver. Many cars (starting with “new Beetle” from the late-90’s also now have to my eye vast expanses of space in front of the driver yet inside the car (you can literally put a large pizza box on the front dash of a Beetle) which is not a design I like at all.
  • My not owning a car is a statement of my green & environmental bent, but generally I don’t like most of todays hybrids. I hate driving the Prius, I don’t like the look, the controls, the feel of the seats, the blindspots, or the overall feel of the car, I haven’t been comfortable when I’ve driven it in the past (via City Carshare). I’m not much more of a fan of the look of most other hybrids on the market, certain Lexus models being a possible exception, but they are larger, bulkier, far more costly and not all that frugal of cars in any case. Especially given the performance of European sold cars today, I find the majority of US cars depressingly bad and behind the times (why we don’t have current generation diesels for example is something I really don’t understand – in Europe there are many which get 40-50+ mpg, with great performance and very very low emissions.)

Features I want in any car I buy in the future:

  • Flexible and ample storage. Two of my past three cars have been a hatchback (and yes, I realize for some bizarre to my mind reason hatchbacks are not popular in the US). I loved the flexibility of having a car that could easily convert to hold a lot of stuff, I didn’t use it all that often but I did my share of moving for myself and friends, here in SF I could easily see using a car with ample storage to take advantage of Craigslist, to help friends move, to throw even better dinner parties, to take trips to Napa and come back with some cases of wine, to perhaps go golfing for the first time in many years.
  • Great city (and highway) gas mileage. 20 mpg is not great neither is 25 mpg, I’m looking more for 30+ mpg ideally closer to 40 than 30. And yes, I know this is here in the US getting into the realm of seemingly impossible to buy, but if you look at the cars for sale in Europe they manage it (for cars larger than Smart cars in fact)
  • Fantastic handling and power when I need it. I am not a crazy or fast driver. But every car I have owned has had sports handling and more than ample power so when I needed it I could always accelerate more. Cars that went to 60 in very fast times (sub 7 secs I think though I’ll see if I can look up the details). Cars that could cruise comfortably at 80-90 mph and were perfectly happy to go much, much faster (my last Honda was happy to go up to 150+ though the fastest I ever took it was about 100 mph).
  • Not a manual transmission. I do not know how to drive stick. Nor am I interested in the least in learning. I do not want to think about driving when I’m driving – I much prefer to think about the road around me, I don’t want to have to monitor my car, revs, current gear etc. I simply do not care. Doesn’t interest me in the least. I’m not a car person – I want to get into the car and drive, under whatever conditions.
  • Extremely reliable. Did I mention I’m not a car person. I do not want to get to know my mechanic on a first name basis, I’d much rather own a car that requires only a minimal amount of regular services – oil changes, tire rotations, checkups occasionally but does not require lots of repairs and tweaking to get good, reliable service. And when or if I do need service, I want to drive a car that can be serviced wherever I happen to be most of the time – i.e .not something so obscure as to only have a handful of mechanics capable of servicing it as needed.
  • Value for my money. For my use a car is an expense, not an investment. I am not going to buying a collectible car or doing so much service and improvements to the car to render it capable of even holding even with what I pay for it, I fully expect nearly any car I buy to lose value as I own it, but my preference would be for a car (like all of my past cars) which holds a good portion of that value even after many years and miles. My last two Acuras even after I used them heavily held their value solidly, as did my Honda. Cars which tend to have solid and relatively stable used values for many, many years would be my preference over cars (such as many American models) that tend to crater quickly and don’t hold a great deal of value when they are much older – due to reliability issues etc.

My guess is that I am not going to be buying a new car (unless I close some amazing sales in the next few months – which is in fact a real possibility) but neither do I want to buy a beater and extremely cheap car (see above, I don’t want to spend my time with a mechanic). Instead I will probably plan on shopping for a lightly used car – a dealer’s demo model, a short term lease return, likely something which is just a year or two old so fairly modern and not yet completely out of date, but possibly with relatively high mileage for that age (my first car I bought for a deep discount because the last owner had put ~40k miles on it in one year).

But at this point I don’t have much of a clue as to what cars I should even start looking at – which models I should try to test drive and then watch out for as used car sales. Nor have I settled on a budget which I’m comfortable spending or once I have settled on that, researched what my CA car insurance rates would add, what my other CA fees (smog, license plates, parking space if my landlord charges me etc) plus estimated the gas costs then I will try to decide if I’m better off just biting the bullet and spending a lot with some combo of zipcar and car rental companies perhaps with taxis to get to the cars I’m renting.

Or if there is some other option I should consider – perhaps a very cheap car + zipcar. i.e. a cheap car with low insurance costs but some reason to also believe low maintenance costs but which might not meet all of my needs (might be smaller for example) and then use Zipcar for certain other uses.

Anyway it will be complex next few months as I research this.

8 Responses to “Shopping for a Car part one, personal notes”

  1. Greg said

    Nice post Shannon. I am curious to hear what you finally end up with. I have listed some sites that may help in your research: (good reviews and handy ‘What others are paying’, be sure to check out their “True cost to own” page:

    When the time is right and you actually go to buy the used car, that seems to be the hardest part. Do you buy from some person selling a used car on Ebay, etc? What risks are you subjected to going this route.. and if they lied, how do you track them down.. get your money back, etc?

    Carfax reports seem to help with some of the risk, and some sort of warranty too. (I just recently bought an H3 (almost 2 years ago now, and it was/is a lemon). Even with a new car, dealing with such an issue is not easy. I wanted my money back (per the state lemon law it is up to the owner of the vehicle to decide, however GMC only offered another GM vehicle). I contacted our State Attorney General, bought another car (not GM) and I am waiting to hear back.

    I think we all are looking for the best price, or cheapest price on the car we want. But dealing with most dealerships can be a huge waste of time. The back and forth of negotiating, etc.

    Personally, I favor the dealerships that offer a flat price, or the ones that will find the used car you are looking for (once your research is done). recently started offering a service like this. You tell them what your looking for, no more than x miles, and what your max is you want to pay for the vehicle. They then go through their network and try to get the best price on a certified car with a bumper-to-bumper warranty. There are probably other dealers in your area that do something like this too. It seems to be a nice approach in that it can be time-consuming going through all the cars at or Autotrader and with Harleys they simply charge a flat fee for finding, and procuring the certified vehicle and ensuring it is shipped to you and that when it arrives it meets all the requirements requested.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more on how your search progresses.

  2. Greg,

    Thanks – as I’ll write in my follow up posts (probably on CenterNetworks and cross-posted/linked to from my personal blog here) I find Edmonds (and most other US centric sites) to be very behind the times, especially in comparison to UK & EU alternatives (and I’ll be looking for other global car research/shopping sites).

    For one, the underly assumption at Edmonds and all the other sites is that you already know the make & model (and year probably) of the cars you are interested in – and you simply want to either research that model directly (for local deals etc) or compare it to a small number of also very specifically identified car models.

    In contrast I’m looking for (as I’ve seen in UK sites) an ability to research across the full spectrum of cars (used and new ideally) by features and characteristics (city mpg + not a manual transmission being my likely starting point) and then I’d want to drill in further and start to research specific cars, makes, models, option packages, insurance rates, local availability etc.

    I’m also deeply frustrated by the US car market broadly – why can’t we have the multitude of very low emission, high gas mileage diesel cars which are so common across the board in the UK & EU? Or for that matter why are we satisfied with cars that almost all get < 25 mpg when the UK & EU have gas & esp diesel cars often in the 30+ (or 40+ mpg for diesel range).

    And as a green consumer I’d like to be able to see carbon emission ratings as they have in the EU – and to sort & search by a variety of related features (insurance rating categories as in the UK would also be very nice).

    thanks for the feedback!


  3. […] My response to Shannon’s thinking about buying a car: […]

  4. Pat Moore said

    First of all congratulations on being able to save so much money by avoiding car ownership for so long.

    Here is my feedback.

  5. Pat Moore said

    Well I know you said that you don’t know how to drive a manual (or it was a hassle).

    Here is how to learn and here is how to drive one well.

  6. Pat,

    Thanks but I still have zero (actually negative) interest in driving a manual/stick car. I simply don’t ever want to have to think or pay that much attention to a car I’m driving or the process of driving it – I just want to feel comfortable and safe as I get from point one to two.

    Also I’ve never had problems with any of the automatics I’ve owned (due to the automatic, I did have one engine failure due to a broken timing belt but once that was fixed that car was great for another 60k miles or so)

    In contrast everyone I know who owns a stick has had a much more first name basis relationship with mechanics – and I don’t want that in the least. Further, I don’t want to reteach my body habits of how to drive – I NEVER use my left foot and I’m fairly comfortable (though now rusty) with how I drive – stick would be an entirely new physical and mental way to drive – and I really, truly and deeply do not want to do that in the least – as I said, negative interest in driving stick.

    thanks for the posts & discussion in any case, and I’m sure your lessons are helpful for others who don’t have my negative reaction to driving stick.

  7. M.Al' Amin said

    wow, good youre literatur,thanks

  8. Mr K said

    Well hello there …. Sounds like an interesting list for buying a car. I know what you mean about the blind spots, however I think you’ll find many new cars eliminate these quite well.

    I would highly recommend the Suzuki Swift, great cheap car, good technology through out, big mirrors to reduce blind spots, easy to drive, park etc and good fuel economy. I bought my wife one for carting our daughter around and there is heaps of room in it for all bubs things etc.

    If you want a bit more “class” then you might want to consider the BMW 1, or Audi A3, these are both great European cars with heaps of gadgets and toys – sadly a price tag that reflects that too.

    The Hyundai i30 is another great, cheap car …

    Good luck on your hunt

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