The idea of buying a car terrified me.
I take pride in not having major responsibilities. No kids. No long-term relationship. No substantial debt. No car payments. The biggest single purchase I had ever made was a $200 Coach handbag.
Ivan says: Time to face reality.
I never really needed a car before. Back at home 15 minutes outside Philadelphia, I just jumped on a train or called a friend to bum a ride. Free buses chauffeur students around my college town in North Carolina.
Now my reporting job required that I get to places fast. Plus, I was growing weary of living on other people's schedules or that of the local public transportation system.
Sweaty walks to the bus stop in Florida's ungodly heat. Shuddering under an umbrella during all those June storms. Fending off advances from guys who looked older than my father as they shouted pickup lines to me from their bike seats. (Who was I to judge them? At least they had their own transportation.) It was all wearing thin, literally. Even my new work flats, only a month out of the box, had reached their limit from all of the walking. A sizable hole had developed in the leather covering my right heel. I needed my own car.
Unlike with other major steps in my life, I was on my own for this one. My parents thought I was too inexperienced of a driver to buy my own car. It didn't help that I wrecked a company car by driving over a curb in the St. Petersburg Times parking lot.
Ivan says: I wish I'd known that before I agreed to go on a test drive with you.
My search began online with a list of more than 20 cars. AutoTrader gives a lot of useful information for car buyers including vehicle identification numbers (VIN) and primary car information such as mileage and the type of transmission. I narrowed my search to used cars, built this millennium and offered by dealers. I didn't want to buy a car from someone's cousin's best friend named Pookie.
I ponied up $40 for a month of CARFAX, which offers online vehicle history reports that include information on the number of owners, maintenance, accidents and even flooding. No one wants to find out after making a purchase that a storm surge from Hurricane Charley had turned their dream car's interior into a temporary aquarium.
Ivan says: Not a bad start. CARFAX is a must for used car buyers.
Before hitting the used car lots, I needed one more thing: money.
I had been working since high school. I had good credit, some cash in savings and a four-year relationship with my bank, Wachovia. I figured I was a lock for a $5,000 loan at 6 percent. I'd pay it back over three years at little more than $150 month. Of course, I also had to factor in maintenance and insurance.
It took Wachovia less than a half-hour to burst my bubble. They blamed it on the age of the car. Plus, their minimum loan was $7,500. For me, the bank said, the interest rate would run about 12 percent even if I got a newer car.
Disgusted and hurt, I fought off tears as I left the Wachovia lobby. The little blue 2002 Volkswagen Jetta that had stolen my heart was slipping away.
Ivan says: Classic rookie mistake. Don't fall in love. Several factors determine value. "Stealing one's heart" is not in the Blue Book.
Wachovia wasn't the only lender that thought I was a lousy risk.
Capitol One passed me up because I had "insufficient credit history." Navy Federal Credit Union said my "length of employment" and "temporary or irregular employment income" were the factors.
A call to Jesse Toprak, a senior industry analyst with Edmunds.com, provided little solace. He confirmed that for my demographic of new drivers with unstable employment, a 9 to 12 percent interest rate was normal.
I suddenly missed my parents or, more specifically, my father's bank account. I thought about tapping savings, but I needed the money for my last semester of college. I nearly gave in and went to one of those Buy-Here Pay-Here lots in Tampa that Times consumer reporter Ivan Penn had warned me could be shadier than a baobab tree.
As desperation set in, my uncle suggested I try his credit union. He had talked with a representative about my situation and had been assured that the credit union could help.
I was skeptical at best. I went through all the reasons that other lenders had turned me down. The credit union rep didn't seem put off. I then said how I wasn't an employee of any of his member companies. For a $10 fee, I could join a charity and be eligible, he told me.
Ivan says: Credit unions can be your best friend for loans. Great rates and flexible programs.
They said they'd contact me in two to three days. A week passed. I called them. They wanted more information.
Finally an e-mail arrived.
"You are officially approved."
I got the loan!
And not just any loan, mind you. I was approved for $6,500 over 36 months with a rate of 4.74 percent. Take that, Edmunds.com.
I was practically doing cartwheels around the office. My car search was back in full motion. I could practically feel the wind blowing through my hair as I drove my imaginary little blue Volkswagen into the horizon.
Send questions to Nicole and Ivan on Twitter at twitter.com/SPTimesMoney.