Tuesday, December 23, 2014

I Bought a Car on eBay: Day 1

Well, I did it, I bought a car on eBay. A used car with 144,400 miles on it from 2002.
New 2002 Honda Insight at Swiss Valley near Dubuque
It's crazy right? Buying a car sight unseen, no test drive, totally depending on the seller to give an accurate description and not sell a lemon. Well, first of all, eBay has buyer purchase protection, which is a simple thing that basically says, while it may not be what you thought it was, it's not going to be a disaster. 

Well, first of all some background. When it comes to cars, or really anything, I go all the way, or I usually don't bother. I run… I run so much and well enough that I will probably be going to the world championships in April in Italy. It's a blessing, a gift, that I have, yet I also work at it hours per day in serious training. I climb mountains… 8000 meter peaks, at least I try. I engineer… and I'm pretty good at it. Similarly, cars to me are these engineered things, one of the most engineered things out there with lots of moving parts, lots of functionality, a curiosity. The more unusual and specialized the better. Now that I work on heavy off-road vehicles I have even more appreciation for vehicles of all sorts. Why? I realized that any vehicle, any, is so complicated that any one person cannot possibly understand everything that goes into it. There are companies that specialize in transmissions, with tens of thousands of people, I'm thinking of ZF. That complexity is part of the interest. It is all within human understanding, just not all one person. In other words, I have a basic interest in cars.

Next, I consider myself a tree hugger. Technically, I am a conservationist leaning toward the preservation side with enough knowledge to know that toilet paper comes from trees and cell phones come from big mines. Energy and efficiency are big interests for me. For several reasons, energy costs money, and using less energy costs less money on a recurring basis. My parents, grandparents, my travels to Asia and Africa, and then my unemployment all reinforced the idea that just about everything is finite, some may be finite beyond our comprehension, like the Internet or water in the oceans, but other things like income and expenses and food are all very finite, and we are very fortunate in the USA to have them, and so much more, in spades. In other words, I really try hard not to be a wasteful person. 

In other words, the most fuel efficient mass production car ever made is the 1st generation Honda Insight made from 1999-2006. The covered rear wheels and tapered design scream, "No compromises! This thing is out to get the best mileage we possibly can (without using carbon fiber)!" Every time I have seen one of the old Honda Insights out on the road I think, that's a cool car. It's something that has lingered in the back of my mind for some time that I would like to have one. 

Well, my van, which I fully intend to keep driving, is having trouble starting, has a number of problems, and the rust is accelerating. I just don't feel it is as reliable now as it was the last seven years I have been driving it. For example, it has an electrical problem on the engine, exposed to the road underneath the front seats, so that if I drive through more than two inches of water, it usually dies, and has to dry out for 10-15 minutes on the side of the road before it will run again. That could be a problem with snow this coming the winter. As I thought of how it might finally fail I considered that it would probably be an expensive repair, maybe something with the alternator or transmission, not to mention my exhaust needs work, and I would likely be faced with $1000+ in repair bills, maybe the value of the vehicle. At which point the financial part of me would determine I need to just send it to the junk yard, or sell as is and buy something more reliable that is newer, and during that time I would probably rent a car for a week or two or three. Not a terrible expense, if I have to rent a car for a month once every eight years when my old one falls apart that's not a huge problem. However, being at the mercy of the seller when I don't have a functioning car is not a bargaining position I desire to have. The proactive approach is to buy a car ahead of the old one falling apart.

So as I'm on eBay and Cargurus looking at various cars for sale across the country, I stumbled upon a 2002 Honda Insight about two hours west of Dubuque for sale at a price that I thought was very fair. The big catch was that the seller warned of the IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) battery needing some care. I thought that meant it would have to be replaced, and likely today. So I figured I would have to spend $2000 on a new 76 pound 1.1-4 kWhr battery to be able to use the thing regularly. So I bid, and asked the seller if it would make it back to Dubuque. He said no problem. Now I start to get a little excited, this car might be in better shape then I thought. 

I bid on the first auction, pretty low to see how badly he wanted to sell, he came back with a higher counter offer, and I made a second offer close to his counter offer. Unfortunately the auction ended without him selecting my bid, or any other bid. So he reposted it 20 minutes later between his counter offer and my second offer, and I bought it. In that time I looked at other Insights and decided that to me, the price he had offered was fair and I wanted it. Who knows when I might have another chance like this? Only about 17,000 of these things ever existed, and they have not been made since 2006, so they are getting rarer by the month, and this one is only two hours away. If I want one, that I can pick up in person, this was my chance, this was my unicorn.

Saturday my dad was gracious enough to drive all the way down from Sheboygan, pick me up in my parents new Prius C and then drive two hours to a small town in central Iowa. It was nice to spend a couple hours talking. The older I get the more I appreciate my parents. We pull into town and call the seller, R. He was getting rid of this car because he had just bought a Nissan Leaf. Talk about out of place, small towns in Iowa don't have Nissan Leafs sitting on main street, they have every variety of US made pickup. In other words, he's a tech guy, as an engineer, that's a good sign. It means to me he probably understands the system better than most. We did a quick walk around then took a short test drive. At the first stop after driving 200 feet the brakes squeaked, and I thought, 'great… I have to replace the brakes, he didn't mention anything about that.' So I'm starting to get a little nervous. However, as we drive around the country block (one mile by one mile) I notice that the IMA light is not on, signaling the battery is not in terrible shape, and it charges and discharges, that's a really good sign. He didn't have any pictures of the seats on eBay, so when I see no major stains and no rips or tears, I'm pretty excited, this thing is in better condition than I thought. Then he shows me the home made stereo system he put in with a subwoofer, and I realize, while I am not a big sound system guy, that he's put some money into this thing, in a good way. He goes through the list of everything he's replaced from brakes a year and a half ago (which sound fine now that I've had a few more stops), to headlights, tires, and a number of other things. During the short ten minute test drive I'm starting to get more excited, R undersold. 

You see, in Iowa, and the midwest in general, and small towns especially, honesty is a big deal. We trade on our reputation. You won't make it far in a small town by cheating people and dealing dishonest, people talk. I realized that everything he discussed in a modest way about the car, that scared other buyers away, were not as bad as we feared. He was simply being honest, and comparing his 12 year old car with 144,000 miles to his new Nissan Leaf. A difficult comparison to be sure, clearly the new car is better, but also worth 10 times as much. 

I count this as a huge eBay buying success! Having driven about 175 miles on it so far it is in great condition, compared to my 1993 Toyota Previa of course. I plan to write another post after one week, one month, one season, and one year, and maybe after unusual incidents like the first repair or letting someone else drive it. Two things about this, yes it only has two seats, and it does not have cruise control. I will probably have cruise control installed so that it is easier to take on longer drives. I plan to take better care of this car than I took of my Previa, like wash it, have some maintenance done at the dealer, garage park it as much as I can. I see this as an iconic historic car. I want it to last a long time. Even longer than my Toyota Previa. Also, yes, I want YOU to drive it! So when the weather is half decent, I'll be offering free test drives. If I don't offer, just ask. This is inspired by Doug DeMuro who let all his friends drive his Ferrari, because let's face it, it you have something cool, it's way better to share that with your friends than hoard it to yourself. I blog because I want to share my life with my family and friends, and even strangers. I'm far too blessed and wealthy to be more selfish than I already am. Thanks for reading this super long article! Merry Christmas!

1 comment:

  1. Seller here. Glad you like it (I already miss it). I didn't notice the brakes squeak during the test drive but I normally did when I drive it for the first time for the day. I didn't think much about you asking about it and would have mentioned that after the initial braking it seems to go away. I was told by mechanic that it was normal and probably due to it being wet/salty. He assured me the brakes that he didn't replace had plenty left on them and the ones he installed were installed correctly (they squeaked before I had them replaced too).

    I usually had a trustworthy local mechanic do basic maintenance like oil changes. If it was even a little complicated or scheduled maintenance I always brought it to a honda dealership in Cedar Falls.

    When I first got the car I was a little bummed about the cruise control too but I got used to not having it. When I looked it up it was more than I wanted to spend to have it. Now in my Leaf I always forget to use it lol. I think the main reason they didn't include it was because its more fuel efficient to not use it.

    I forgot to give you the trunk space carpet cover (where the sub is). I removed it when I installed the sub and didn't want to cut it to install the sub. If you are driving in this direction feel free to give me a call and pick it up if you want. Here is a picture of what I'm talking about: (best pic I could find) http://i.imgur.com/200E9De.jpg
    It's only cosmetic obviously and since it's normally covered up by trunk cover flap I figured I'd just take it out rather than damage it. I also have lots of other maintenance documentation too.

    I'm glad to know the car is in good hands and will be cared for. I was the same way when I got that car (and my current one). Free test drives for all. The first question I always got in that car was how many miles per gallon it got and I was happy to surprise most people.

    If you have any questions/concerns with it I'd be happy to give you as much information as I can.

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