How to Buy a Car in California

This post should probably be called how NOT to buy a car, because we made some pretty big mistakes in our first fews weeks here. Everything started off fine. We found a used car rental agency in the North Bay Quality Used Cars, and were very happy with their service. Very friendly and much cheaper than the standard car rental agencies. A little bit out of the way (we were living in Woodside), but we managed to catch a bus over the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. Our plan was to rent the car for a couple of weeks until we found a decent second hand car to buy.

We started our search on Craigslist – a hugely popular classifieds site in the US, especially in the Bay Area. It’s an amazing resource but can often be quite daunting due to the vast number of postings. Hundreds of cars are posted online everyday, and we rushed around for 2 weeks looking at cars all over the Peninsula. We test drove a few  – a Ford Focus in San Jose, a Honda Civic in San Mateo and a Toyota Corolla at Stanford. I wish that we had just gone for one of those – but we were keen on a Subaru Outback, so that we could fit two bikes in the back and use it for camping trips. We eventually found a nice looking one in San Bruno. 130 000 miles on the clock and $4500. The price was right according to Kelly Blue Book . KBB and Consumer Guide Auto are two very useful sites for finding out how much a second hand car is worth, based on model, year and milage. Consumer Guide Auto also gives you estimates for the running and maintenance costs of each vehicle – very handy.

Anyway – we ended up buying the Subaru (in cash as you can’t get an auto loan until you’ve built a credit history) and enjoyed it for a whole two weeks before the head gasket blew! We were on the highway (fortunately close to our exit) when it suddenly just started shuddering and came to a stop. We were able to limp home and get it to the Subaru dealership the next morning. We were expecting bad news – but not the $10 000 worth of bad news we got that day! The car was a complete write-off. Our $4500 vanished into thin air and didn’t have the money or the energy to even think of looking at another car.

With the clarity of hindsight, its obvious that we should have had the car checked out by a mechanic before buying it. But we were new to the area, didn’t know how the system worked, were under the pressure of paying for the rental car car each day, and wanted to settle into a normal routine – so we made a huge mistake. The upside was that my wife and I got really fit as we had to cycle to campus every day for the next 3 months!

Commuting by bike was fine in summer, but it got a bit much in winter when the rain started coming. We were eventually able to get an auto loan from Stanford Federal Credit Union (SFCU), which is a really great bank on campus, to help buy another car. We ended up finding great VW Jetta from a nice family in Palo Alto. Before buying it however, we took it to Planet Auto (Menlo Park) for a pre-sale inspection. It costs about $120 but is definitely worth it for peace of mind. We strongly recommend doing this, and suggest using either them or Fred’s Garage in Redwood City.

Tips & Insights:

  • take your car to a mechanic before you buy it
  • check out consumer guide auto to make sure you are getting a fair price
  • be aware of scams on Craigslist
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