October 2009

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

It might have something to do with growing up near North Woodward Avenue outside of Detroit, but I love cars. Always have. I love driving big V-8s really fast, and have the tickets to prove it, which is why I don’t drive big V-8s anymore. It’s also part of the reason that I hate cars almost as much as I love them.

They really can be a pain in the rear, or in whichever pocket you happen to keep your wallet. First you’ve got to buy or lease the thing, which isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re not picky; but if your heart is set on something really nice or something that you really need, it’s probably going to cost you. Then you’ve got to toss some salad into insuring it. (By the way, I think that little gecko dude is full of it. The cartoon babe with pink hair saved me nearly 60 percent over just about everybody else.) Then you’ve got to pay for your registration and property tax as we do here in the land of Smiling Faces, Beautiful Plac…ahem…land of TravelSC.com (I almost forgot about our new, much more heartwarming license plate slogan). Some states make you get an inspection sticker instead of the property tax, and some might have both as far as I know. The point is, it’s more money.

So you’ve got the car, it’s insured, and your tags and registration are in order. Yet you are only just beginning. The car isn’t going anywhere without gas, and it certainly isn’t going as far as it used to on a full tank. You’ve got to keep it clean because, as everybody knows, a clean car runs better than a dirty one. You’ve got to keep up with scheduled maintenance and maybe take care of some repairs here and there. If you have an accident, hopefully it was the other guy’s fault.

Otherwise, you pay out of pocket to keep your insurance premium from going up, or let the insurance take care of it and watch your premium rise. Either way, you pay. Where does it end?

Face it. It doesn’t end. That’s the cost of doing business when the business is getting from Point A to Point B. That car is only going to serve you faithfully if you keep throwing money at it. Doesn’t it make you wonder why we bother to call it an investment? Isn’t an investment something for which there is some probability that it will throw money back at you?

In one of his famous radio spots, Mike Cody, president of Lowcountry Motors, says; “A car is the worst investment you’ll ever make.” On a certain level he’s correct. Cars do not appreciate in value, but a car really isn’t an investment at all; a car is an expense.

Finding A Used Car
In the present economic climate, everybody is trying to cut expenses and costs. Of course, you can cut out the upfront costs of a new car (or used car that is new to you) by not buying one; but if that’s not an option and you’ve just got to get a set of wheels, a used car is a great economic choice—if you do it right.

By “used car,” we’re not talking about an old clunker that “runs good.” Those might be dirt cheap, but you’re likely going to end up spending a lot on upkeep and new parts, and who knows how long the thing is going to last? Used cars that you might consider suitable alternatives to a new car are late models that are only a few years old—many of them off lease—and don’t make your jaw drop when you look at the odometer.

“A typical new car loses 20 to 30 percent of its value in the first year,” said Cody. However, he is talking about dollar value. A car that has been properly maintained and operated sensibly is as useful after one, two or three years as it was the day it left the lot. “So if you buy a two- or three-year-old car that has been well kept, you’re pretty much as well of as if you’d bought it new,” Cody said. And you’d have spent a lot less.

So how do you know if the car has been well kept? That’s a good question and one for which you should definitely get an answer. Another benefit to buying a less experienced used car is that there’s a good chance that the warranty is still intact, and the car may be covered by a certified used car program by which the manufacturer backs the quality of a used vehicle as if it were new. For example, a GM-certified used car must be five or fewer model years old and have a maximum of 75,000 miles on the odometer, must contain all of the original equipment in working order, must have a clean title and vehicle history report, and must pass a 117-point inspection to be eligible. Certified used cars are about as new as a used car can get.

A car that does not meet the manufacturer’s certified used car criteria still might be in great shape. Bring along a trusted auto tech to check it out before you buy, and make sure you get a vehicle history report, which the dealer should provide. If not, look somewhere else. If you’re buying directly from the previous owner, you can get a vehicle history report from CarFax for about $30. The report will show you things like accident and damage history, title problems, frame damage, odometer rollbacks, and other items in the car’s history that could be deal breakers.

New Car Fever
To some of us a new car just has to be a new car. It’s that new car smell or something. If that sounds like you, the folks out at the New River Auto Mall, Hilton Head Automotive, or any other Lowcountry new car dealership would love to do business with you. It would be nice for the economy too.

You’re obviously going to pay more than you would for a used model, but you know that going in. Your job is to get the best deal possible. It’s a good idea to do your shopping at the end of a model year when everybody’s having a clearance sale, and for heaven’s sake, don’t fall in love with the first thing you see!

Look long and hard and you might be surprised at what you find. A friend of mine has a great story. He found a car on a dealer lot that had been sitting there for two or three model years. The dealer couldn’t sell it and had apparently stopped trying. I think it was a Chevy Malibu or Impala, and it was brand new and well equipped. Current models start at $21,000-$23,000, but he got it for somewhere around $12,000. The dealer was just glad to see it go. Now, a crazy bargain like that is pretty rare, but it goes to show that it pays to be fastidious in your shopping around.

Ideally, we’d all love to be able to plunk down the cash for a new car and be done with it. Unfortunately, most folks have to finance. When negotiating your deal, remember to stay focused on negotiating the best price, not the most affordable payment. It’s easy to get caught up thinking in terms of how much you’re going to pay each month, and then end up financing for a longer term to lower the payment. This hurts you in two ways; first, the interest will really pile up, and second, you will be upside-down on the loan for a longer period, which might prevent you from selling when you want to because you owe more than you can get for the car.

A lot of people are not comfortable negotiating with car dealers and as a result never realize that they could have gotten a better price. If you’re not the wheeler/dealer type, do yourself a favor and bring along a friend or family member who is. You can also find some tips on how to shop and get the best price for a car from Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com).

Maintain and gain
Okay, enough about buying cars. Let’s talk about keeping them purring like a kitten. A lot of folks today are keeping their current cars longer than they might have ordinarily to put off laying out the cost of a new vehicle. This is wise, but you have to make sure you take good care of it or all of that service, maintenance, and repair stuff is going to add up and offset any benefit to hanging on a little longer.
The most important thing you can do to keep your car in good working order is to keep up with the scheduled maintenance. An ounce of prevention…

“Scheduled maintenance is the most common thing that people neglect,” said Sam Johnson of Beachside Tire & Auto, “and when I say that, I’m not just talking about oil changes. A lot of people forget about the other fluids. That’s the biggest thing we’re seeing lately, especially with people keeping their cars longer.”

Engine oil is often called the lifeblood of your car, but things like brake fluid, transmission fluid, engine coolant, and power steering fluid (unless you’re really old school) are just as important. So crack open your owner’s manual—that’s the little book in the plastic bag in your glove compartment—and turn to the scheduled maintenance chapter. Learn what you need to do and when, then mark your calendar. It’s an annoyance, but far less of one than replacing a transmission.

That takes care of the inside, but what about the outside? Of course, everybody likes a clean car, but keeping your car looking good is about more than aesthetics. “There are lots of enemies to a car’s finish around here,” said Ryan Brogan, owner of Auto Spa. “Pine sap is detrimental to the paint, and love bugs (those little flies that accumulate on your car’s front fascia) can leave a permanent mark. There is no remedy other than to repaint if you leave the bugs or tree sap too long.”
Brogan suggests using isopropyl rubbing alcohol to remove those annoying dollops of pine sap, and recommends that you do it as soon as possible. “But not if it is warm to the touch,” he said. “Wait until it cools down in the evening.”

Now that you are convinced that you need to start taking better care of your car, who’s going to do the work? Everybody’s heard a story or two about somebody having a bad experience at a garage, so how can you be sure that you’re dealing with somebody who is reputable? Start by asking people you know. There’s no better proof than actual results. If you don’t get any satisfactory recommendations, look for affiliation with a brand that you know to be reputable.

For example, NAPA Auto Care is a quality standards program that independent auto repair businesses can join to reap the benefits of a recognized brand name. If a repair shop meets NAPA’s standards, it can participate in national cooperative advertising budgets, get technical training for employees, and offer a nationwide warranty program among other benefits. “We call it the ‘Peace of Mind Warranty,’” said Mike Bourque who is in charge of the NAPA Auto Care program in the Hilton Head/Bluffton area. Let’s say you had a repair done at a NAPA Auto Care Center in Bluffton and one of the parts breaks while you’re driving across Texas on a cross-country trip. Just take it to the nearest NAPA Auto Care Center and the warranty will be honored there. “You don’t have to go to the same store, and that’s a big deal to people,” said Bourque.

There are plenty of Napa Auto Care Centers in the area, including Island Auto Service, Auto Doctors, Inc., H & H Auto Body, Advance Automotive & Towing, Matt Auto, Inc., Morris Garage & Towing, Lambert’s Automotive, Messex One Stop Service, Inc., Tommy’s Towing & Auto Service Center, and All-Pro Tire & Lube Center.

Happy Motoring!

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