Cars & Effect (part 2)

Looking for a replacement for my now deceased 325i was not shaping up to be easy.  I knew what make I wanted. I drive BMWs because I love the way they handle, I’m very familiar with their mechanical workings, and I like how long they last when properly cared for. In fact, they’ve become kind of a hobby. I joined the BMW Car Club of America and go to events like undercarriage tech sessions where I can talk about the merits of things like adjustable camber plates with fellow devotees. To my knowledge there is no twelve-step program for this. But I digress.

Buying a brand new Bimmer would entail either sinking a huge chunk of cash into a depreciating asset, or borrowing money and repaying principal and interest over time, thus paying even more for that depreciating asset.  Both of those ideas run counter to my financial planning instincts. So I scoured lots of car dealer websites for used cars, knowing that preowned cars both cost less and depreciate less dramatically than new ones.

But buying used cars from dealers can be risky, since they don’t generally have the maintenance records for their cars. The way a car is maintained from day one has a tremendous impact on its life expectancy and operating costs after the warranty period is over. Buying a car without knowing its maintenance and repair history is like rolling the dice.  So I looked for private party sales.

Have you seen some of the junk people are trying to sell on Craigslist?  People ask thousands of dollars for cars that can’t be driven, cars whose engines have lost compression, cars with ripped upholstery and cracked dashboards that made my dear departed 325i look pristine.

One night I logged onto www.roadfly.org to check out BMWs for sale. This board is frequented by enthusiast drivers, and I thought I might find better cars than I was seeing on Craigslist. I pulled up a list of older 5-Series cars. The first ad I saw was for a 1995 540i with 109K miles. The owner wanted $7,500. The second ad in the list had been posted just the day before. It was a 1994 530i. This V8 had the preferred manual transmission, was Iceland Green, and looked to be in great condition.  It had 101,000 miles. BMW had replaced the original engine under warranty at 77,000 miles, so there were only 24,000 miles on the engine.  The seller of this very clean car had upgraded the wheels, tires, suspension, and engine software, and added a modern audio system with MP3 and Bluetooth.  He was asking $2,250!

My first thought was that it was a misprint. I’d seen so many people asking $2K or more for beat up old parts cars that didn’t even run, I thought it must be a mistake. I contacted the seller, who was in Brooklyn, NY. I confirmed the price and quizzed him about the history of the vehicle. He had meticulously maintained the car, and he had all the maintenance records.  The car had just been detailed.  The engine compartment was spotless. He didn’t want to sell it, but a change in his job situation made him fear he would not be able to maintain this garage queen in the manner to which it had become accustomed. He wanted it to go to a good home.

I conveyed my appreciation for the model, with its classic design and bulletproof build. I assured him of my intentions to care for his car as religiously as he had. I knew this vehicle would likely be snapped up quickly, so I arranged to go to New York City to check it three days later.  My co-conspirator and I would drive down in one car, and drive back in two.

I never imagined there were such beautiful old neighborhoods in Brooklyn.  His neighborhood featured tree-lined streets and magnificent old houses reminiscent of the nicer sections of Cambridge, MA.  For some reason, I had assumed all New York residences were high rise buildings.  Live and learn.  After giving the car a thorough going over, we traded my cash for his title, and the 530i was mine.

The first trip was to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a temporary transit permit. Since the vehicle would not be registered in NY, I needed a way to drive it back to MA. I had hoped to duck in and out of the DMV fairly quickly, so as to avoid rush hour traffic on the way home.  Silly me. “DMV” and “quickly” are not generally terms you can use together, and they certainly were not this time. I was in the DMV for nearly two hours before I got to the counter. Whereupon I was made to stand for another twenty minutes while the clerk straightened out a problem with the documents from the woman who had preceded me in line.

When she finally turned her attention to me, the clerk was hesitant to give me an in-transit permit, because Massachusetts does not recognize New York in-transit permits. My fair state seems to go out of its way to penalize and antagonize people who buy cars elsewhere.  Fortunately, I had researched this issue and come up with a plan in advance. I informed the clerk that I was not driving the car to Massachusetts, but to Enfield, Connecticut, just south of the MA state line.  There I would park the car, and take my co-conspirator’s car into Massachusetts, to the nearest Registry of Motor Vehicles, just a fifteen-minute drive from Enfield. I’d get the car registered and bring the plates back to Connecticut to put on the new old car. I hoped the New York DMV clerk would go for this plan, because if she did not, I had no way to get the car out of New York. While I held my breath, she stamped my in-transit permit and sent me on my way. Yes!

An awful lot of people live and work in the Big Apple.  And it seems they were all on the road when we set out for Connecticut at 4:00 pm. I generally find that driving a car equipped with a manual transmission is exhilarating.  But not when I’m stuck in stop-and-start traffic from Brooklyn to the Connecticut state line.

Our little two-car convoy pulled into a Hampton Inn in Enfield at around 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night. I was up bright and early to go to the Registry. The first problem I encountered is that the Registry in Springfield was not located where the RMV’s own website said it would be. Turns out they’d moved a year ago, and never updated their website. When I finally found the place, on the other side of the city, I hoped to get in and out quickly, so I could get back home and get to work. I’d already missed a full workday Tuesday, and didn’t want to miss Wednesday, too.  Once again, “RMV” and “quickly” were not a logical pairing.

I assumed the Registry in Springfield would be much less crowded than the one in Brooklyn. And it was indeed much smaller. But just like the one in NYC, this one was packed with people wearing the leaden expression of those resigned to dealing with the pitiless cogs of bureaucratic machinery. I found a small section of unoccupied bench and joined the waiting masses.  I eventually got to a window. And the clerk there wasn’t satisfied with my paperwork. Even though it was what they specified on their website.  Having nothing to lose, I went into sorely aggrieved customer mode, and told the lady I didn’t appreciate all the delays, starting with the outdated address on their website. Perhaps she’d already had her fill of aggrieved customers that day. She called over a supervisor, who immediately and silently stamped my paperwork, gave me my new plates, and sent me on my way.

Two hours later, my properly registered 530i was in my driveway. I’d found a fitting replacement for the car that “Bob” killed. And it was truly a blessing. I had basically traded a homely 191 horsepower 3-Series automatic with 288,000 miles and an iffy transmission for a sharp looking 238 horsepower 5-Series manual with just over one third the mileage, and only 24K miles on the engine. And in this trade I had even gotten several hundred dollars cash back, considering I paid less for the 530i than I got for the insurance settlement on the totaled 325i.

Maybe I should send Bob a thank-you note. Meanwhile, in Part 3, we’ll discuss what this all has to do with your personal finances.