Ready for the road + a guide to buying a car in America
Updated: Dec 14, 2018
PORTLAND, Oregon – This journal is not supposed to star me or my choice of transportation but after being on the used car market for a week, I think this is a good entry post: I got a car.
A $1200 Subaru (Legacy 1996), which is the choice if you’re from the Northwest, where around one in ten in the bigger cities drive this particular Japanese brand. Mine is full of white dog hair and dog scratches, it has a cracked wind shield, the right side mirror is missing and neither the emergency brake nor the right door work.
But that’s all cosmetic. Most important is it that the engine so far sounds smooth and the odometer showed around 208.000 miles when I bought it. Yes, that is in the low-end for a Subaru. At least according to Tony and Mike (left and right on the top picture) from Tony’s Auto World on Southeast 82nd Avenue in Portland, who were eager to sell me the car and even
told me, that I most definitely will make more money on it when I sell. Exciting!
“We have $4000, $5000 and $6000 cars that I wouldn’t put my kids in. But this one, hell yes, it’s a Subaru! I would take my whole family for a ride in this one. Anytime”, said Mike.
The CHECK ENGINE light went on around seven minutes after I left the lot and it has been with me every mile since. But hey, the engine still runs.
Buying a car in America: A guide of sorts
Southeast 82nd is a very busy avenue in Portland, around six miles from Downtown, with used cars packed together in rows on small lots, lying side by side on a stretch of at least 2,5 miles. Usually the poorest cars are parked in the back and a mix of nice and cheap ones face the avenue.
“The cheap ones will get people in because a lot of people are looking to save money”, Tony from Tony’s Auto World said.
Used car dealers have all ethnicities and sizes but they are all men. They compete in different price ranges (most of them from $4000 to $15.000, with a few cheaper cars) and financing seems to be the big thing. Some dealers promise to trade with ANYTHING valuable, while others facilitate loans with a staggering 29 percent interest rate.
Still, “cash talks, always has” as an older dealer told me, while another one reacted to the story about my Danish citizenship with this:
“Well, if you pay cash, you could come from Mars or any other planet. I don’t care”.
According to that same dealer, his lot would lose around 20 percent of their income if they insisted on seeing a valid US driver’s license each time they sold a car (for the record: my cousin helped buy mine, so I’m not doing anything illegal!)
Being out there for a week gave me a truly fascinating insight into the world of used cars, and what made the biggest impression and made me feel like I was in a b-movie from the 1980’s were the shared language and gesticulation.
They use your name suspiciously often in conversation, they constantly say “sorry, what did you say?” to buy themselves extra time, and they will all try to find out how much money you are ready to spend before showing you the first car (which of course is always a little more expensive than what you say – but hey, you get extra wide cup-holders and cream-white leather seats!).
Here is some real life experience that might come in handy when you buy a used car:
If an engine runs but there’s an unspecified rattling sound from under the car or the whole thing just moans like a crying bear, the dealer will tell you that it’s caused by some minor tube or item: “It’s probably gonna cost you $20-25 to fix”. Never more. If the engine doesn’t run, it’s usually around $100-120 to get it spinning like a good ol’ cat. Never more.
If you ask them (after they’ve praised a specific car and made it sound like selling is almost a sacrifice) why nobody bought it already then, I guarantee you that they will say: “It just came in”. Often followed by a “We didn’t even get to look at this” and then they point to the hanging side mirror or some rusty area in the engine. Luckily, it’s a quick fix.
And if you try to connect with their inner human empathy, they will let you know how much they regret being in a business with so many black sheep: “But there’s a reason why we’ve been in business for 22 (or 35 or 47) years. We can’t afford to sell cars like that”.
Oh well, I got a car and with a little help from Jiffy Lube, it is going to spin for another 208.000 miles. Tony and Mike say.
And by the way, when it comes to perceived credibility, auto dealers and journalists are side by side in Denmark. Solidly grounded in the bottom of the list, only a tiny bit better than politicians.