Buying a Cheap P.O.S. and Hoping for the Best
A Craigslist Deal for the Books
Updated August 28, 2017
Buying a cheap car isn’t easy. There are far more variables to consider on your vehicle when you have limited funds. The choices are going to be high mileage vehicles that have the potential to break down at any time from years of abuse. I’ve never been mechanically inclined; like many people, I am great at taking it apart, but not so great at putting it back together. That’s why I appreciate art, I can take things apart and put it back together however I choose.
Despite my lack of technical knowledge, I have always managed to get by with a few internet videos and some good Do It Yourself advice. I had the same 2005 Chevy Cavalier for a decade and it finally quit on me after 220,000 miles. The engine was done for, the car donated, and I needed a way to get to work with an hour commute one way. I had around $1400 I could spend and had one day to figure it out. I started my research at a car lot the evening before. I test drove a 2004 Ford Taurus with just over 100,000 miles and they said they could do $2000 for it. It was either that or a 2001 Cavalier (identical to my old one) with 130,000 miles. I decided those were my backup options should all else fail.
I got home and started my research. I started at Auto Trader and didn’t find much there. Then I tried Craigslist and listed from lowest to highest price. Mistake. Remember those people on the Price is Right that would just bid one dollar in an attempt to play the odds? People like to put their car for one dollar in order to get clicks or for trades. It can make it difficult to sort through the mess so make sure to put a minimum value that is realistic to skip past all of that.
After finding some more realistic options I started listing them down and keeping tabs open to compare. I checked ebay and found some good deals at local car lots. I joined a group for cars under $1,500 in my area and had a look around. I was narrowing down my search for the next day to be as efficient as possible so I could get this all over with.
What I really always wanted was a sleeper – a run-of-the-mill car that nobody would suspect to be loaded with power. A 2009 Ford Crown Victoria police interceptor with 100,000 miles came up in my search from Craigslist. The picture was from the side and it looked pretty beat up, but the mileage was good and the article seemed to be very up front and open to all its character flaws. It said he was hoping to sell the vehicle tonight. While I was wary that the ad was so urgent, I sent a message to see if it was still available and continued to look around.
The seller got back to me and wanted to meet that night and said he would come to me. A generous gesture, but as I had no idea about who they were other than the picture and description of the vehicle, I politely declined, “Sorry, but not from the internet. I will meet you at a neutral location with the vehicle tomorrow morning, as early as you wish.” He said he understood completely and anytime after 8 am would be good. I set my alarm knowing it would be a long day.
We had agreed to meet at a McDonald’s. I sent texts letting him know I was ready whenever and started my thirty minute commute into town. After not hearing anything for quite some time I decided to go have a look around the city and see what I could find. I passed a few car lots and did a drive through to realize they were way out of my price range. I wanted to avoid credit if at all possible.
I finally saw a car lot with a variety of old cars with price tags written on the windshields around $2,000 dollars and up. I pulled in and the owner of Osburn Motor Company let me drive all the cars I was interested in and check them out without any hassle. He let me know there was a big price drop for cash. I tried an old Camaro. It felt like driving a motor bus across a desert with all kinds of interesting noises to decipher. Sadly, the Camaro’s ‘get up and go’ had long-since gotten up and left.
I drove several cars around listening for any noises that might spook me. Finally, I got to drive a Mercury Grand Marquis with 185,000 miles that drove beautifully and sounded great. I found a nearby mechanic to look at it for me at Unique Designs in Fayetteville and scheduled an appointment at 1…shortly thereafter, I received a message from the Craigslist seller.
McDonald’s at 12:30. Alright, it’s not far, might as well check it out.
Back to McDonald’s for a large fry and more waiting. 12:45 still a no show. By this point, I’ve already bummed a stress smoke from the local crew at McDonald’s and had a chat. I sent another text: ’12:50 and I’m out of here.’ I left. I went back to Osburn’s Motor Company and got the Grand Marquis ready for an inspection and the owner said he encourages it. Incoming text, ‘at Mcdonald’s if you still want to check out the car.’ I’m getting frustrated at this point. Last chance. I go back, and there it is: a 2009 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor model with just over 100,000 miles.
The first thing I notice is that it looks like someone took a baseball bat to the windshield a few times. A censored John Goodman pops into my head screaming, “This is what happens, Larry, when you meet a stranger in the Alps!” The small rear passenger window was replaced with a black piece of plastic that looked like it was glued in. A small square has been cut out of the plastic and is open to the elements. Someone kicked a large dent in the driver’s side door just above the handle. A small blood stain drip is on the passenger door. The trunk is being held down by a cheap tow strap because the trunk latch has been twisted as if someone tried to pry it open with a crowbar.
I jumped in the driver’s seat and we drove it around. It moved and sounded great. The inside had rubber floors and a small cup holder wedged between the seats. The aftermarket stereo had bright blue lights. Long cables to hook up a subwoofer in the trunk were dangling from an open latch beneath the front console. He had wired an A/C adapter directly to the battery and tried to balance it in the middle so it went flying at every turn before coming to a rest on the passenger floor board. He claimed to have a clean title, no liens with only two owners: the police department and the man who was now selling it. His urgency to get rid of it made me doubt it could be that simple.
I tried to remember the right questions to ask, but he did most of the talking and openly told me all of its flaws. As it turns out, he was having to use his phone only where he could get a wi-fi connection so he was bouncing from gas station to restaurant to get a hold of me. When it came time to talk about the cracked windshield and other strange things, he was very vague and didn’t want to talk about it. Fair enough.
I took it straight to the mechanic fifteen minutes late for my appointment. A mechanic at Unique Designs opened up the hood and it looked great, clean with shiny belts. He gave it a quick check for any major issues and said it was a good car on the inside. Alright, I wanted it. Let’s get this clean title to the bank and the DMV.
Well, it turns out he doesn’t actually have the title, but he put in the paperwork to get it. It was supposed to come in the mail, but never arrived. He has an idea of where it might be and if all else failed he was willing to sit at the DMV and put in for a change in title. He asked to borrow my phone to call the DMV in Little Rock and he put it on speaker phone. They said it had been mailed and received over a month ago. He asked for the address it went to and that’s when things got weird.
I called Osburn’s again, realizing I just took off without saying anything right after telling him I was going to take the Grand Marquis for an inspection. I explained the situation and he said whether I bought a car from him or not to bring him the vehicle’s title and let him have a look at it. He had seen too many people get stuck from a Craigslist ad and wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting the shaft. Thank you again Osburn Motor Company. It felt like I had a good team on my side and it gave me piece of mind. I was talking with the Super Nazario Brothers and tapping into their vast knowledge for advice and options. They sent me information on what to look for and what to ask. I was going to see this adventure through and find out where it led.
Turns out the title was at his parent’s apartment. We headed that way while he got a hold of his mother to ask her if she’d seen it and to let us in. We wait in the apartment complex parking lot in cold, piercing winds for another thirty minutes while more stress smokes were graciously accepted. His mother shows up with all the mail that has been collecting and graciously lets us in. She asks if I want anything to drink, so I get some mountain dew from the fridge. She tells me I need to park the car somewhere else because it can’t be seen out front. I go move the car to an adjacent lot around the corner while alarm bells ring in my head.
I am skeptical and ready to walk. They check the mail and find nothing. That’s when they decide to call the father and ask if he’s seen it. The tension in the room rises at the mention of it. Yup, he’s seen it and has been holding onto the title for his son’s own good. He agrees to bring the title to us at the apartment when he gets off work. I am warned by both of them that he is going to storm in and be an a-hole about it. I replied, “I won’t be a whipping boy. I’ll just walk.”
I am continuously assured everything is legit and legal, they’re just going through hard times. I understand that life can be rough, and was willing to sit through a domestic dispute if it got me a car. In the meantime, more stress smokes and Mountain Dew are given and we sit back and just have a good chat. His mother is a wonderful and nice woman who fills me in on some of the situation.
The father shows up, storms in the front door, throws the title on the counter, looks directly at his son and says, “You need to get the f$%# out of here, now. You’ve gotta go. Get your things and get out, now. You can’t be seen here.” He repeats similar commands over and over with no break in between. The urgency and command is clear.
The father hasn’t looked at me yet. I stand up and say, “I’ve got someone to look at the title.” I turn to his mother, “Can you grab his things?”
She says, “yes.”
The father finally acknowledges me and is stern but polite, “If he is seen here we get evicted. He’s not on the lease.” I’m guessing whatever went down probably happened there.
“I understand,” I say politely, and we’re out the door with the title.
Mr. Osburn checked the title and said it was good to go before telling me where to sign and what to do next. I headed to the bank and the DMV. We sign the title and exchange at the DMV parking lot. While he is unloading bags out of the trunk and filling a friend’s vehicle I am having my insurance info faxed to the DMV and clearing through the process as quick as I can.
New tags, insurance, and then it’s officially mine. We said our farewells and I wished him luck. Being without a car can be tough. I was lucky to have good people around me to help me out and get through it. Seeing a family going through a difficult time also put things into perspective for me.
Thank you to all the kind and wonderful people who have helped me out through this whole process. Thank you Jeremy Clarkson, James May, Richard Hammond, and your amazing crew for showing the world what we can do with a cheap internet vehicle. I am glad to have a vehicle of my own again and can finally start thinking about the future. I hold up my glass of wine to good people the world over. Here’s a toast to the kind-hearted, a prayer for the hurt, good wishes to all who are in need, and a hope for the future to all who still dare to dream.
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