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How To Do Everything Wrong Just Right When Buying a Vehicle on Craigslist

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On: Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 2:39PM | By: Andrew W Davis


How To Do Everything Wrong Just Right When Buying a Vehicle on Craigslist

Never buy a car at night. Never buy a car in the rain. Never bring thousands of dollars in cash to a nearby-yet-unfamiliar-to-you city to a transaction site set up by a person you’ve never met—and who, of course, has an out-of-state phone number—to purchase a car about which you know nothing but what you’ve read and seen in a generic-looking Craigslist ad.

Any idiot knows how batcrap-crazy you’d have to be to buy a pack of gum this way, let alone something as expensive—both to initially buy and then to fix once all its warts reveal themselves in the harsh light of day—as a luxury SUV.

Well, I am proud to say I am certainly not just any idiot. That’s right, folks. I am THE idiot. And welcome to the tale of how I got a better vehicle that I could’ve hoped for despite doing everything I possibly could to get myself cheated, robbed or worse in the process.

Whether you want to call it luck, angels or—as I see it—“cars picking their owners”, out of the thirty-some vehicles that’ve passed through my hands, I have yet to have had one go out of its way to harm me in any way I didn’t deserve, be it physically or financially.

Sure, a lot of those cars were from the halcyon days before eBay ruined everything and people would give automotively minded lads such as myself cars just to get them out of their driveways (a cycle repeated after a few weeks of our fruitless tinkering wore out our parents’ driveways’ welcome as well), but any vehicle I’ve ever bought to actually use has been useable, as expected—if not more so.

This vehicle—a full-boat 2001 Infiniti QX4 Luxury 4x4—is actually my second Craigslist purchase, and is serving as a seasonal stand-in for the first. That car, a 1989 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wood-sided wagon you can read about here, was my answer to having a practical second car for Michigan’s varied climate when media cars weren’t available because I wasn’t about to bring my beloved million-plus-mile, in-the-family-since-new baby ’81 Volvo wagon (see here) out of her climate-controlled nest pretty much, well, ever.

But I digress.

My wife, God bless her, treats me as though my choice of vehicles is due to some type of head injury or brain abnormality, so that while she wants to be wildly angry and shouty with me, she instead defaults to wanting to have no part of it.

But, if I press—which I stupidly do more often than you’d think—it turns into, “You were supposed to buy a car for both of us to use. You didn’t. You bought what you wanted like you always do…” and then the shouty bit floodgates open.

To be perfectly honest, with the Oldsmobile, I didn’t care. I saw her, I grabbed $900, and I drove to Ohio and bought her. [Hey, some people can’t resist hookers or gambling. My bag’s seriously underpriced station wagons.] She was so cheap because the guy that owned her didn’t realize that the scary leaks and noises she was making were actually cheap to fix. So after a total investment of around $1900 I had a cherry wagon worth around $4k.

As a Michigan winter car, she wasn’t that great. A LOT of snow accumulates on a car that’s 19 feet by 6 feet, and an emissions-strangled—and still carbureted!—307 cu. in. V8 has a hard time moving all that mass on a clear day, let alone on a snowbound one. And so, unsurprisingly, after more than 25 years and 175k miles, her engine started giving up the ghost. And with a rebuild costing as much as a decent—or even better, as it turned out—SUV, I decided to save her for summertime cruising and hit the interweb for something dashing for snow bashing.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started out with a budget of $3k and every intention of buying something perfectly suited to the missus and myself. Sure, she has always had “her” Honda Odyssey to sail around in majestically while I was always wondering if I had enough extra quarts of oil in the cargo compartment or spare PCV valves and filters and—you get the idea.

Still, the folks at Honda really didn’t design the nose of the Odyssey for smashing through the razorback of ice the city’s plow leaves at the end of your driveway every morning that wants to rip your oil pan off, so having a four-by around on snow days for her to drive (as I work from home) only makes sense.

So I did my homework. And it worked out thusly: If you wanted an all-wheel drive midsize SUV with all the bells and whistles like leather upholstery, heated seats, keyless entry, power everything, etc., you were looking at something in the 1998-2003 range, depending on manufacturer. With a Ford Explorer, for instance, you could get a newer model but it would be less-equipped/fancy than an older version of its sister, the Mercury Mountaineer.

I will spare you the weeks of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that goes into verifying that a posting is real, verifying that the car is as-stated, getting a license plate or VIN so you can use Carfax or AutoCheck—USE BOTH. SERIOUSLY. IT IS TOTALLY WORTH IT.—to investigate it and then, at long last, to set up an actual meeting to see and possibly buy the damn vehicle.

You would think that if you drew a hundred-mile circle centered in southeast Michigan it would encompass a fair number of sport-utility vehicles. You would be correct. You might also assume that many would have been through some hard times, but seeing as how most rarely strayed more than a day’s drive from where they were built, they probably would’ve been taken care of at least a little bit, especially since parts are cheap and plentiful.

You would be absolutely wrong.

I ran a fleet of cars for Enterprise for years and I saw some heinous things done to vehicles. But here it was almost like every new owner took it upon themselves to one-up the previous owner in how badly they could beat on their poor car right up until the day they Craigslisted it to the next De Sade in line. I was seriously thinking about spending my money on opening a shelter for these abused and neglected vehicles until on the last day of my Carfax subscription, she appeared…

"2001 Infiniti QX4 4x4. Two-tone paint. 170k-plus mileage. Some rust. Runs well. Leather. Remote start. Aftermarket audio with touch screen and navigation."

I got that same punch in the gut I got when I saw “Angie” (my Oldsmobile) for the first time. I was on it in a flash. Replied instantly with my full data personal email account. Didn’t care. Wanted to prove I was a real-deal human being and cut through the bull. Got a response. Though the listing was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the respondent’s phone number was in Toledo, Ohio. Again, didn’t care. Called with my personal cell phone, asked for VIN. Guy was hesitant. Sealed the deal—no lie—by referring him to my writing on this site.

Ran the VIN, and it read like a dream: Three owners, but No. 2 was his mom starting in 2004 and then him. Serviced at the dealership regularly—even for oil changes—its entire life. Nearly everything that could have worn had been replaced, and everything that couldn’t had been checked by the dealer during an extensive servicing just months before.

Did I mention this posting went up on a Sunday? Right, so as it turned out the seller—an orthopedic surgeon at a prominent local hospital—had fielded a few calls and made some appointments for after work during the week. By now it was Sunday night. And raining. And I got his address. And “logic” went out the window.

By now you know that truck was mine as soon as I ran the VIN. I’m stupid like that. But it tends to work out in my favor, and this was no exception.

THE BAD: One headlamp out. The paint was bubbling off the wheels. There was a horrible shrieking noise from the engine compartment on startup. Transmission kicked like a mule shifting out of first when cold.

All told, I got $3k asking price down to $2,800, happy as a clam. Because:

THE GOOD: 2001 was Infiniti’s first year of Xenon HIDs, and the dealer wanted $300 per, and they had to be done in pairs. BUT, I found the bulbs could be had on Amazon for $80 including shipping for a pair, with $50 for installation of both. Shrieking was worn belts, eighty bucks to fix. The transmission sorted itself out for free. Go figure. And, yes, the stock wheels needed refinishing, but the tires were all brand new, and the truck came with an additional set of wheels: CHROME 20-INCHERS with SPINNERS! And those had near-new tires on them as well! Oh, and on the inside it had a DVD player in the glovebox with two roof-mounted fold-down screens, was wired for rear-mounted subwoofers and amps, had full limo tint on all the windows, a chrome front push bar; I mean this thing was, well, exactly what a med student would do to his hand-me-down luxury SUV as soon as he started making that serious medical-man money.

According to the window sticker—oh yeah, got that too—this QX4 came with everything but the factory navigation system, and according to its VIN, it’s one of the ultra-desirable “2001.5” late-build models that have many improvements over the earlier ‘01s. Thanks to its having been dealer-serviced its entire life, it never experienced any of the strut tower issues or other recall problems that have cropped up on other QX4s/Pathfinders, and that “some rust” mentioned is purely cosmetic.

So, shopping for a vehicle on Craigslist basically boils down to this: You ABSOLUTELY have to know what kind of vehicle you want, you ABSOLUTELY have to do your homework (as best you can) and—most importantly—you ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY have to have cash-in-hand and be able to pull the trigger on a moment’s notice, because I can guarantee that the number of factory-fresh, surgeon-owned, fully-loaded sport-utilities available at rock-bottom prices is really, REALLY small.

[BTW, my wife hates the QX4, too. Doctor Soup-Up put on a Flowmaster muffler that made the Nissan V6 sound like a NASCAR V8, but even after I got rid of that she “just didn’t feel comfortable in it.” I’m betting that when the snow comes she’ll change her mind. Or not. All I know is she promised not to shout at me so long as I didn’t come home with another station wagon, so I’m going to hold her to that…]

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