Car Buying Articles

The Zen of Car Shopping


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    Use every tool in your search for a new or used car. But keep in mind that, if your attitude is right, you will be led through this dark maze by serendipity and good fortune. | March 18, 2010

You have to buy a new car, but all you can think is, I don't have time for this. I don't have the money. And the last thing I want to do is schlep around to car lots.

It may not surprise you to hear that your attitude is sorely lacking for the task at hand. As a friend of mine would say, "You need a checkup, from the neck up."

OK, so you don't want to buy a new car now. But you have to. Maybe the old heap finally died. Or maybe a tree fell on it. Rather than fight reality, why not look at this as a golden opportunity?

Opportunity? For what? To get taken to the cleaners by opportunistic salespeople?

No. This is a good chance to prove one of the oft-quoted verses in the good book, "Seek and ye shall find." Don't worry. I'm not going to start preaching. But I have noticed that there is a mysterious, and sometimes wonderful, aspect to the shopping process. And that even applies to the seemingly mundane task of car shopping.

I had a friend in high school who had a supernatural ability to find things. We were walking along a trail in the woods one day when he dropped to his knees and began digging with his bare hands. He came up with a wallet someone had buried. His collection of found articles was astounding.

I emulated my friend and soon things came mysteriously into my life. We're not talking hundred dollar bills here. Everyone would like a hundred bucks. We're talking about something far more specific — and wonderful.

For example, I once decided I wanted one of those wool caps that British sports car drivers are known to wear. It was one of those affectations you go through when you're young, like smoking cigars. I thought I'd look good in one of those caps. The next day, one blew down the street toward me and wound up at my feet. My size, too. I still have it today.

Later, I was given an old Peugeot 403, and I was crazy enough to get it running and begin driving it. Do you think it's easy to find parts for an old Peugeot? Non! Parts were virtually nonexistent on this side of the Atlantic. But one day, I found an entire Peugeot engine in the town dump. Just lying there like it was waiting for me. I took the whole thing home and cannibalized its parts for years.

So what does this have to do with car shopping? I'm finally getting to that part. But first, back to that "seek and ye shall find" concept.

There's a Zen expression that goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." This means, when you open your mind to change, you'll find a way to learn and grow. I might adapt this expression to car buying: "When your old junker finally craps out on you, you'll find a pretty good used car to replace it."

Car shopping can be taught using numbers, steps, charts and tables. But that's only part of the picture. There is a world of intuitive material we are processing without even realizing it. Then (and this is where it gets spooky) there is a whole level beyond that which can't be controlled by anyone or anything except, maybe, your attitude. If you have faith, and patience, and you enjoy the ride, you'll probably find what you're looking for.

I tried this idea out on a few of the editors here at Edmunds, and they seemed to know what I was talking about. One of our scribes nodded vigorously saying, "I used to get the paper every day searching for the right car. For weeks there would be nothing. Then one day, I'd open up the paper and there it was — just what I was looking for."

Another editor related that his daily driver went on the fritz. Thinking his car was down for the count, he visited a car lot on a whim and found a vintage muscle car for several thousand dollars below its value. He negotiated aggressively and drove out in the muscle car (probably in a big smoky burnout) only to find his old faithful had pulled through with minor surgery.

For the past year I've been buying the cars for the Edmunds.com long-term test fleet. This isn't what I intended to do with my life, mainly because I didn't know such a great job existed. Of course, as John Lennon supposedly said, "Life is what happens to you while you make other plans."

Each time I buy a long-term car, the process is filled with coincidence and serendipity. Our search for a PT Cruiser led us by chance to Massachusetts where we got exactly what we wanted without the mortal price gouging of local dealers. Our search for a certified used Passat led to a dealership in Long Beach, Calif. It seemed like the perfect car. But someone bought the thing out from under us. I was discouraged — until we found a better car, at a lower price, in a nicer color, the very next day.

Well, I couldn't make it through an entire column without a bullet list of some kind. So here are some things that will probably happen to you along the road to car-buying nirvana:

  • You will be overwhelmed by the task and be tempted to utter foul curses
  • You will meet some pushy salesmen who give you the creeps
  • You will meet some good salesmen who will give you valuable assistance
  • You will have what appears to be bad luck that unexpectedly reverses itself
  • You will have what appears to be good luck that unexpectedly goes sour
  • You will not find the car of your dreams
  • You will find a much better car than the car of your dreams

Finally, remember that the car you buy will appear out of nowhere, drawn to you by a mysterious combination of luck, research and skill.

Let me close with one final quote that pertains to what you will do shortly after buying a new car. And I will award 25 bonus points to anyone who identifies the speaker of these wise words: "Wax on. Wax off."

For this, and other buying and leasing strategies, pick up a copy of STRATEGIES FOR SMART CAR BUYERS, by the editors at Edmunds.com.

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