Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Scintillating tale of a new car

To give the patient its due, I took it in to another “doctor” for a second opinion.  While the diagnosis was slightly different and he provided an auto-equivalent aspirin of $60 worth of a radiator “conditioner” and a  new radiator cap that should keep it going for awhile, his ultimate evaluation was stark:  “I think it’d be ok as long as you weren’t relying on it for road trips into the desert and going up the Cottonwood canyons”.  Hmm.  Well, considering that those two things are pretty much why we own the car, this didn’t sound very promising for us. 

So we were faced with a decision that nearly everyone faces, usually multiple times throughout their lives:  fix or buy a different car?  And if a different car, what model? And go new or used?  I reached out to the Facebook community and got a great array of responses, and despite similar demographics the responses were varied; most were in favor of buy, and buy used.  But a few suggested fix it; still somewhat low miles for such an old car, and in order to have a car on the road it’s better to have a totally styled engine for $4k than spending $10-30k for a different car. 

My dear old dad was not necessarily much for waxing poetic on life or imparting wisdom on his sons, but one thing I vividly remember him saying, with a  grand sweep of his arms to indicate the vastness of our run-down little hobby farm:  “You see this?  All that we have now is essentially due to one thing:  I have always bought cars and held on to them until they die.  Buying and selling cars too often is the best way to lose a lot of money”  Of course, not only was he far more mechanical than me  and actually enjoyed working on cars - and passed that knowledge/desire on to brother Paul – but also in his last months he impetuously bought a Triumph TR8, one of the worst cars ever.  But for better or for worse, I have ended up following his advice and had cars that were 24, 17, and now 18 years old.    And despite the fact that there were plenty of other things that could go wrong with an old car, it was pretty tempting to fix it.  But a friend put it succinctly:  “That’s to keep you in the game.”  But that’s not winning the game, and – as alluded to above, as a non-mechanical guy – I wasn’t sure I even wanted to play the game any more. 

So it was a good time to apply some of the stuff that I have learned from the books I’ve read on decision-making.  I have been a bit melodramatic about in the past, telling myself that the decisions are – in the context of adventuring – about life or death.  In this case, it was….very much not that.  But the stakes seem high, since cars are so expensive, and as we all know, cars are – whether we like it or not – very much a salient representation to the world of Who We Are.   So they are so much a personal, emotional device.  But being so mechanical and utilitarian –getting us where we need to go – they also should lend themselves to rationality.  Aka, great representations of Daniel Kahneman’s System One – the quick, emotion, intuition-based decision making process, and System Two – the analytical, thoughtful, and rational process that are perpetually at odds with another in our complex little minds. 

To fix? 
  • “Fer heck’s sake… $4k is a lot better’n buying a new car!” (but what happens when the transmission detonates somewhere between Hanksville and I-70?).
  • “I just bought 4 awesome new snow tires and put them on spare wheels for that car!” (I can sell those on Craig’s list). 
  • “I dread the prospect of shopping for a used car and all that entails!” (it’s not that bad, and if you don’t want to do that, buy a new car). 
  • “I dread even more the prospect of walking into a dealer and buying a new car!” (it’s not that bad, it’s only one morning of non-recreation so pipe down, and people do it every day.)
  • It’s so much more money for a new car!” (yes, but a car is a necessary evil, and how much would we be willing to pay for a “good” car when it dies 150 miles down a burly road in Canyonlands?)
  • “There aren’t any other good cars out there now!” (this is actually sorta true in our book; why the manufacturers haven’t been able to combine “good” (>35mpg) gas mileage  with driveability with a medium-size that has decent clearance without a ton of forgettable, breakable, and expensive gadgets in an affordable price range…I don’t know).
  • “I’m gonna fix that car because that’s what old pappy told me to do, that’s what I’ve done and it’s worked out just like he said!”  (Even old pappy knew when to throw in the towel, and the only thing stupider than buying and selling too many cars is throwing good money after bad). 

To buy?
  • “What if the old car breaks?” (well, we had a mechanic we trust look it over, much of the guts will be rebuilt
  • “I want a new car!” (really?  why?  Because I’ve dropped too many crumbs between the seats and stained the seats with my spilt beer?  Can’t we just buy a spray can of “That New Car Smell”? and call it good?)
  •  “New cars are so much safer!” That is a true statement, from what I can tell, but how realistic is it that we will “use” that aspect? A low likelihood. But given that there were three auto fatalities in the SL Valley on Tuesday alone, perhaps not that unrealistic? 
  • “Having a new car is so exciting!”  Daniel Kahneman writes about the human condition that makes us oblivious to the rapid demise of excitement as the newness of anything wears off.  Thus the next new shiny thing seems so exciting, but wait…..weren’t we just as excited about this now-“old” thing not so very long ago? 
My mind was spinning so hard on this issue over the past week that I was getting dizzy.  But generally speaking we came around from “fix” to “buy”; while the appeal of less $$ was strong, we realized that the risk of having a possibly-compromised car and wondering for the next several years when it was going to strand us and/or we’d have to throw another $2k into it was not worthy. 

And then to buy:  EVERYONE said “NEVER buy new!  They lose so much value when they are driven off the lot!”  Of course they do:  everyone “knows” that. But is it really true, and does it really matter?  Feeling a bit like the Freakonomics guys, I thought I’d actually put that theory to the test and do a bit of research.  

The truth is that many cars do not devalue quickly; many famously-durable and popular cars/trucks don’t devalue very much at all (our friend Jim – who provided invaluable advice during this process – said that he would have a tough time now buying the Honda Element he bought several years ago because the value has gone UP! To be fair, Honda inexplicably dropped that popular car….).  But generally, yes it’s true: cars lose value over time/miles.  But as brother Paul put it, that’s assuming that the car is an asset – ­as opposed to simply a good, and that asset will be sold.    But given that Ash and I are (thankfully) on the same page of the “buy a car and keep it for a long time” theory, that point actually becomes moot:  we fully anticipate that in 15+ years we will likely sell/trade in/give away whatever car we have for less than $1000.  And the difference between a 10 year old, $2000 car is not much different than a 15 year old, $1000 car. 

Yes, we could buy a car with 10-30k miles on it and take advantage of what I like to call “humans’ inherent propensity to make irresponsible purchasing decisions”, but the truth is that every car has a finite life, and buying a car with 30k miles on it means that we would ultimately arrive at the exact same point as we would with a new car…..two years earlier.  No one talks about how their riding lawn mower loses value the moment it’s “driven off the lot”, or after driving their beautiful sofa off the lot, knowing in the back of their mind that ultimately it will sit on the curb for days with a “free” sign on it.  But because of the emotion, personality, reliance, and expense associated with cars, we tend to apply more “value” to them  - and also tend to turn them over for those very same reasons. 

This was Ash’s theory when she bought her Subaru Loyale in new 1991 for $12k and sold it for $900 in 2008, and thinking through her rationale brought me full circle in these last few days.  Therefore, in lieu of going out to ski some corn on a high-value nice spring Saturday morning, we put on our virtual armor and grudgingly headed down to the new car dealer to see what fate awaited us. 

We got an early start and rolled into the Subaru dealership just as they were setting up for….a big party.  Huh? “We are giving away a 2 year lease on a Cross Trek Hybrid!”  Wow.  Bands, radio stations, kids’ huge bumper tent thing, barbeque, the works!  We were tempted to just check into that and spend the day in this awesome car lot party.  But instead we walked past that into the building, walked up to a sales guy and said “We want to buy a standard transmission Cross Trek”. 
It was so exciting that we were tempted to just stay at the party all day!  
The truth is that it was not that painful of an experience.  We took the car for a 4 1/2 minute test drive, came back, and said “ok”.  We were a little chagrined to find that not only did they not have any standard transmission models (less than 5% of cars sold today have standards) but there were none in the entire state, and ordering one was going to be 8 weeks. It could have been a serious test of our resolve, but they found one in Jackson, WY and said they could get it.  Then we settled into negotiating.  Ash was the bright, affable, good cop (which was an easy role for her) and I was the sullen, grumpy bad cop (also an easy role), and I realized that the old school perception of negotiating over car prices has sorta changed, because the Interweb now tells us what the dealer paid for the car and what consumers have been paying for them, and we all know that we all know that information (known knowns, as it were).  The fact that it was coming from Jackson at their expense eroded our position a little, and we bought some of the plastic cover stuff in a feeble attempt to avoid the car getting Diegel-ized, but we were out of there in three hours and were relatively satisfied.  Though it was hard not to feel a little weird about being so dramatically consumerish for a coupla folks who like to fool ourselves into thinking we are not!  

So it went, and we now own a new car, ready to whisk us off to adventures both near and far, for many years to come.  
any pangs of regret or sense of loss?  It's just a car.....

Am I excited?  It's just a car.......or is it more??!  

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