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Nicole buys a hooptie: Test drives can be hazardous

After about a week of surfing the Web, I put together a list of my favorite vehicles and set off to meet my auto beauties in the flesh — or the paint.

I was so excited to look at cars that I made a rookie mistake of checking out some lots before I had the money to spend. It only made the loan process more agonizing, an ordeal outlined in the first part of this series. It tortured me to think about somebody else buying my car when I was still struggling to find financing.

Ivan and I made three trips to Tampa to find my dream car, all to North Florida Avenue, which has used cars lots on every block. I liked these smaller lots. Unlike large dealerships, salespeople don't follow you around like chaperones at a junior high dance. They let you do your own thing until you need them.

Ivan and I developed a system for inspecting the cars, mostly Volkswagen Jettas and Honda Civics. We would walk around the car calling out any scuffs, sunspots or flat tires we could find. Do the tires match? Are they worn evenly? I would jot down everything in my notebook for future reference.

Inside, we checked for broken seat belts and cranky doors. Ivan would give me the thumbs up outside as I tested the lights and signals from the comfort of the air-conditioned driver's seat.

The first time we hit the lots, I made the unfortunate error of dressing in business-casual attire — long black pants, a button-up and jewelry. Within 15 minutes of inspecting my first car, I had sweated through my shirt and was practically panting in the heat.

That's what you get for trying to look like you have money, Ivan said.

I'll be honest. I don't know anything about cars. I had a hard time finding the high beams, let alone how to check for rust around the radiator coolant. I don't even know what the radiator looks like!

Ivan says: Know how to find the radiator and leave the Tiffany necklace at home.

Having Ivan around helped. He at least pretended to know what he was looking at. The downside: The dealers kept addressing him, even though I had made it clear several times in my big-girl voice that I was the buyer.

I don't know what exactly I was expecting to find at those used car lots. Maybe a miracle — for under $6,000. They all looked sweet in online photos, but seeing them in person was like having the lights turned on at a party to see that the guy that you had been dancing with all night wasn't really as cute as you thought he was. Peeling tints. Locks that wouldn't lock. Seats that wouldn't recline. Engines that sounded like lawn mowers. Cigarette burns in the cushions and mold on back seats. No car was perfect. Every car had problems.

The test drive sometimes revealed bigger problems.

Ivan says: One dealer thought she was my daughter. Crazy! I'm not old!

Grinding gears. Mysterious noises. One car desperately needed new brake pads. Every time I tried to stop, I ended up a couple of feet past the mark. I had to go around the block twice just to make the turn back into the car lot.

In another test drive, cruising on Interstate 75, I nearly sideswiped a white sedan lingering in my blind spot as I tried to avoid another car that had suddenly stopped in the merge lane in front of me.

"Watch out!" Ivan and the dealer called out in unison.

The two guys ended up bonding over their shared near-death experience. To my chagrin, they teased me for the rest of the visit.

After test-driving a little blue Volkswagen at another lot, the dealer asked me what I thought of the car. I knew it was a loaded question that he would use to gauge how much I was willing to pay. But I was honest. "I like it," I said. I felt like kicking myself for giving him even that small nugget of information. I am normally talkative and bubbly, but when going car shopping I wanted to be casually cool, revealing little of what I was actually thinking.

The dealer told us that two other would-be buyers had looked at the car after we left to get lunch after initially inspecting the car. This sounded fishy. We had only left for an hour, in part to avoid a torrential downpour. It didn't seem like enough time for two people to look at the same car, and plus, who would inspect a car in a thunderstorm? I told him we would think about it and keep looking.

But his words haunted me on the drive back to St. Petersburg. I was worried. "What happens if somebody buys my car?" I asked Ivan.

"Don't fall in love with it," he said.

He was right. The first car of my dreams was out there somewhere. I just had to be patient.

Nicole's notes

Don't be excited. Actually, appear to be a little flaky. The more you look like you want a car, the more they think they can sell it to you. Don't seem like you like anything too much and ask to look at several different cars, not just the one you really want.

Keep notes. Don't worry about looking dorky. It's easy to forget that one car had a missing hubcap or another steered a little to the right. Make sure you share your list with your mechanic later when you get the car checked out.

Check each detail. Just because the driver's door locks when you press the button doesn't mean the right back passenger door does. Check everything. If you don't know what a button does, ask.

After your test drive, leave. It is always better to think about a purchase and not rush.

Use Don't Get Taken Every Time by Remar Sutton. It had a great list of what to look for when inspecting and test-driving a vehicle plus tons of other useful advice.

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.

Today: In this second part, Nicole goes on a test drive.

Next Sunday: Nicole tries her negotiating skills.

Nicole buys a hooptie: Test drives can be hazardous 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 6:04pm]
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