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Deal's done: Nicole buys her hooptie — a 2002 Volkswagen Golf GLS

I had grown tired. • Almost a month had passed since I started searching for a used car. I wanted it to end. It was time to make a purchase.

Ivan says: Tired? Wait until the cycle of service and repairs begins. Cars are a financial black hole.

I didn't really like any of my options, so far. Either the dealer was too shady or the price was too high. I just didn't feel comfortable. • I got up the nerve to ask Ivan to test drive one more car. I had seen it online a couple of times, but I had never considered driving it because the dealer was farther out in Tampa, and she didn't have her own lot. In her photo online, she resembled a soccer mom, with a brown bob and "I-know-what's-best-for-you" look in her eyes. I decided to give her a try.

Ivan says: Kudos to Nicole for finding these garage operations.

It was drizzling. We examined the car in a garage where she kept a couple of other vehicles for sale. While we couldn't find anything substantially wrong with the car, I had it checked out by a Volkswagen dealership just to make sure. The diagnostic cost me $100. The next day the dealership called to relay a breakdown of the needed repairs.

Ivan says: Good tip! Always have a mechanic look it over. A dealer can make a Yugo seem sexy.

The car needed a new timing belt. The coolant flange leaked coolant. Both tag light bulbs were out. The upper strut mounts were worn, as were the rear control arm bushings — whatever those are. The small and large coolant fans didn't operate on low speed.

Oh, and there was a nail in one of the tires. How did I miss that?

The total repair cost … drumroll please: more than $2,500. I almost choked. I had heard Volkswagens were expensive to maintain, but I didn't think it would be anything more than $800. Maybe I was fated to ride the bus all my life.

Ivan says: Welcome to car repair reality. Did I mention financial black holes?

I called and told the seller. She said the dealership was overcharging and that "her guy" could do the repairs for less. I was skeptical. I called a repair shop that specialized in foreign cars. They gave me a price of $1,900 based on the rundown of repairs from the dealership. They didn't think that the car would need all of those fixes, and I might not have to get them all done right away.

I thought it over and spoke to a few people, including my father, who was still trying to persuade me to wait until after college to get a car. We agreed that I would ask to take half of the $2,500 repair cost off the price. I also wanted the two front tires to be replaced. (Someone had once told me that you replace two tires at a time.)

I called the dealer, thinking as I dialed that my plan was reasonable enough.

She basically laughed at me. I was way off what she was willing to give me, she said. She swore her private mechanic, who she said worked on a dirt lot behind her office, could fix my car for $600.

I countered that the parts alone would probably cost him more than that. We continued to bicker.

She said she could take off $500. I didn't say anything.

She said she could take off $600. I made a noise like I was thinking.

She said she would replace the damaged tire. Neither of us spoke for a while.

My chest began to hurt. That would bring the price down to about $5,400. I wanted it to be $5,000, but I didn't think she was going to budge, and I was just fed up with the whole thing. She was the pro. I was the amateur. I muttered an "okay" and asked her to send a purchase order for me to fax to my credit union.

She had given me exactly half of what I wanted. Instead of $1,200 off and two new tires, I got $600 and one new tire.

Ivan says: No one gets everything, but everything's negotiable. You don't have to settle for what someone hands you.

With taxes, fees and tags, the car came out to $5,979, which would be completely covered by my loan. It took me a day to get my insurance in order and for the dealer to get the paperwork together.

The car was delivered to me at the St. Petersburg Times office. I signed the papers outside on a patio table.

After the dealer left, I stood outside and stared at the car. It was like a baby dropped off on my front step. I took a picture with my phone to send to friends, but I felt like the car and I were strangers, despite all the work I had put in to get her.

I opened the door and sat down in the driver's seat. The dealer hadn't done a great cleaning job. It still smelled like someone else. Like it wasn't yet my home. "It will just take a little time," I thought as I started the engine. "Maybe I should name her?"

I parked her as far away as possible from the other cars in the employee lot. As I walked toward the building, I felt a raindrop. I entered the lobby and smiled.

At least, I wouldn't have to wait at the bus stop.

Nicole's baby (Tina)

What: 2002 Volkswagen Golf GLS

How much: $5,979 total after fees and taxes

History: One owner, no reported accidents, hatchback, silver, sunroof

Nicole's notes

• Before you buy a car, take it to a reliable mechanic. A test drive and fast inspection are not enough to find all of the problems. If dealers won't let you take it to a mechanic, walk away. They are probably hiding something.

Shop around for car insurance. For a new driver, insurance could cost as much as or more than your car payment. You may qualify for discounts if you have good grades in school or belong to a certain credit union.

Print out a CarFax BuyBack Guarantee. You've paid for the report (if you followed my earlier advice), so print the guarantee. CarFax says it will buy back the vehicle if it was salvaged or had other serious problems not revealed in the report.

About the series

July 26: In the first part, 22-year-old reporting intern Nicole Norfleet discovers the importance of research and the realities of used car financing.

Aug. 2: Nicole goes on a test drive.

Today: Nicole tries her negotiating skills.

Deal's done: Nicole buys her hooptie — a 2002 Volkswagen Golf GLS 08/07/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 6:16pm]
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