October 2nd, 2007
Owning a car is an expensive proposition these days, even if you aren’t making monthly car payments. Insurance is expensive enough to equal an average person’s car payment, and gas certainly isn’t getting cheaper. Yet for people who choose not to live in a city where there is ready access to public transportation, a way to get to and from work, stores and chores is a necessity rather than a luxury.
Now, if you live in a town – even if it doesn’t have public transportation – or near enough to town, you might decide that having a nice bicycle or motor scooter will serve your needs. And it might, so long as it’s not raining or snowing and you don’t have to transport a month’s worth of groceries, any bulky items for sale or trade, or any of your children, your spouse, or your Mother-in-Law. They just don’t make any cool farings or sidecars for bicycles or mopeds.
Our daughter bought a car back in 1998 that finally gave up the ghost just a couple of weeks ago. She got a great deal on it – ‘slightly used’ Ford Escort station wagon (desert peach) with a mere 16,000 miles on it, still “smelled new.” It was marked $16,000, which I’m pretty sure somebody would have paid, but since she happened to have some cash from an inheritance on hand, she was able to buy it free and clear for only $6,000. Quite the deal!
And that car, which she named “Amadolly” after both Queen Amadala and Dolly Parton, served her very well for all the years since. Particularly considering that she was completely lax about keeping oil in the engine and water in the radiator. I have to admit Ford did good with this design. It got good gas mileage and was tough as nails. But even the toughest of vehicles is eventually going to give up the ghost if it’s not maintained, so when she had the water pump replaced and the mechanic reported a cracked head, she was suddenly in the market for a way to get to and from work 30 miles away – every day – without any cash on hand and no credit rating while living out in the country as far away from mass transit as she is from her job.
Now, if we were rich parents we’d have happily bought her another cute little “barely used” car and she’d have happily abused it as much as she abused Amadolly. But we aren’t rich parents, we’re mountain homesteaders barely getting by as it is. Luckily all of us have had some experience with the “alternative car market” that exists exclusively among little enclaves of friends and acquaintances in cities, towns and rural areas everywhere around the country. It does NOT involve a sleazy used car salesman.
This is the market where someone’s got a semi-beat-up car they couldn’t possibly sell for enough to justify getting rid of it, because it still reliably runs and has new tires and might be a great first vehicle for Junior when he gets old enough to drive (in another 10 years or so). Like a blessing out of the blue, our daughter’s mixed-league softball teammate had one of these in the driveway, a little 1992 Honda Civic 4-door with a sapphire blue paint job (and some primer gray, also some flakes), squeaky doors, two windows that won’t roll down, and an engine that still hums and gets ~35 miles per gallon. Oh yeah… and 206,000 miles on the odometer (but a 2-year old rebuilt engine).
This is not a car you’d trust to drive to Florida or Oklahoma for the weekend. Heck, you probably wouldn’t want to drive it to the airport in Charlotte, because something might break you wouldn’t want anybody but your boyfriend to replace (because it wouldn’t be worth it to get new parts and pay a real mechanic).
But for $100 down and $50 a month for 6 months, you can’t beat it with a stick. That’s not just no compound interest at car loan standards (18-24%), it’s no interest at all. The girl who sold it makes $400 from a car that wasn’t worth junking for $50 on the ‘real’ market, and our daughter gets to and from work – she can keep her low-paying job (hard to come by any jobs here), still afford the gas and insurance and have some left for lunch, and won’t have to feel trapped here where we’re all dependent on a single pickup truck.
Maybe it won’t last 6 months. That would be a shame, but not that big a shame. A different friend has a $250 car he’d sell if we need one, and he’s a shade tree mechanic himself so it does run (but is really, truly ugly and a gas guzzler to boot). If it does last 6 months it will have paid for itself. If it lasts a year she’ll be way ahead. If it lasts longer than that it will have been a godsend.
Her boyfriend is mechanically handy. He can do the tune-ups, replace pieces-parts, even get them cheap from a friend of his who has a junkyard. So I figure it’ll last longer than it takes to pay for it. And that is something to think about in the transportation realm if you’re living on a tight budget too. Newer cars are almost impossible for anyone but a licensed mechanic with specific equipment to work on. Can’t even do a tune-up these days without a computer! Much less get to the electronics governing the engine, or even the hoses, belts and tubes that hook everything together.
Anyone who has bought a new or nearly new vehicle in the last decade knows how difficult it is to have something seemingly minor fixed on the car, to be paid along with this month’s car payment (often $300 or more), this month’s insurance payment (also expensive for full collision coverage required for new cars), and the gas at $3+ a gallon it takes to get to and from wherever you’re going. You’ve got to be trading your time and life for a lot of money these days to afford that. And even if they pay you enough to live in a McMansion in a gated megaburb, you’re still missing out on the time of your life.
Not everyone can choose to live on a lot less. Many people couldn’t even imagine doing so. And those will be the people who are most lost when economic downturns or a major illness, or even a single accident wipes out their savings, renders them bankrupt, and tosses them unceremoniously out of the Upper Class into the Thrifty Class.