Ahh! We Bought a Minivan
Is it just me, or do people seem to either love or hate minivans? I’ve never been rabidly anti-minivan, but I’ve never longed for one, either. I just really love our station wagon, tape player and all. But the time was drawing near. Our station wagon only seats three children, meaning we’re maxed out. Having the option to drive the kids’ friends along with us sometimes is important to us. And weaving the baby car seat over a booster seat is not exactly easy.
However, we didn’t see these limitations as reason to rush out and buy a minivan the moment we had a positive pregnancy test, or a live infant for that matter. An inconvenient car seat situation hardly constitutes an emergency.
Neil started researching and looking at ads for minivans during his baby-batical, in part because he had more time for this type of thing than usual. We concluded that, while we didn’t need a larger vehicle right away, we’d like to get one within the year, when it would become even more inconvenient to fish the baby in and out of the car. Also, that would mean we’d be able to take the kids’ friends places by next summer.
The options for third row seating these days are: giant, expensive SUV; full-size van; or minivan. Not surprisingly, pricey SUV was never on the table for us. And despite having learned to drive on a Club Wagon, I’m afraid of how many mailboxes I’d hit in a full-size van, not to mention the abysmal gas mileage. Minivan it is.
But who cares how we became minivan converts? What you need to know is how to shop for a car, minivan or otherwise. The whole process is fraught with pitfalls and surrounded by myths. We concede there’s more than one sane way to buy a car, but naturally, we highly recommend our way 🙂
“What type of car payment are you used to?” a friend asked when chatting about being in the market for a van. Clearly not a reader of the blog 🙂
None, my friend. None. Never had one, never want one. Neil’s last car cost $200. The one before that was $750. Check out a car post written by him: “How I Spent Less Than $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.”
What about reliability? We do spend more on the family vehicle (which goes on my car spending tally, which was not much more than Neil’s). Our budget for the van was somewhere around $6000. Of course we’d already saved for our next car in our Car Fund. I highly recommend that, rather than paying interest on a monthly car payment, everyone set aside money in a Car Fund until you have enough to buy your next vehicle outright. Rinse and repeat and you’ll never need a car payment.
Neil approached the van purchase with his usual analytical research. He bought a month of online Consumer Reports and read their reviews. He read online about common problems with the different brands. He test drove a Toyota and a Kia for a side-by-side comparison. The Toyota Sienna was the clear winner on all fronts so he narrowed his search to those. And although he didn’t put much weight on anecdotes, all my Sienna-driving mom friends sang its praises.
Neil’s ideal scenario for buying a van was to skiplag somewhere south on a weekend, buy a rust-free van, and drive it back. Our station wagon was purchased from a small private dealer who sells cars from the south, and Neil has always dreamed of doing this himself rather than paying someone else to. Big surprise, right?
But he found that the private sellers he was contacting weren’t getting back to him, and who wants to fly somewhere only to have a seller flake out? Our weekends can also be pretty packed, making it too much to pull off right now.
He started searching Facebook and Craigslist, but in the end he got this car the same way he bought two other cars: through work connections. He works, as most do, with people who upgrade their cars fairly frequently. So he put the word out that he was looking for a minivan and would pay trade-in value or higher. Soon enough, someone was looking to trade in their 2006 Toyota Sienna with 130,000 miles. Perfect! While many people are scared of cars with that kind of mileage, we think that’s around the sweet spot for buying a car–depreciation rapidly drops off around this point and some major scheduled maintenance has already been done.
Only in this case, the timing belt needed to be done. It was 40,000 miles past due! We were prepared to pay someone to do the job. But after Neil watched some YouTube videos, read about the job for that year and model, and consulted a mechanic friend, he decided to do the work himself. We purchased the van at trade in value for $3500. Typically a similar van would be listed privately around $6000. He spent around $500 on parts since he also ended up replacing the radiator. He estimates the work would have cost $1800 at a mechanic. A timing belt job is not for the faint of heart; there were some hairy moments, but overall he seemed to enjoy the challenge.
Even if we’d paid someone to fix the van it would still be a fair value. We were prepared to spend that much. But with Neil taking the leap to do a tricky major repair himself, we’ve got ourselves a decent deal. We’ll see how it does for us. But it runs smoothly and is by far the most luxurious vehicle we’ve ever owned.
I’ll admit not everything about our approach this time is reproducible. Maybe you don’t have wide connections to spendy coworkers. Maybe you don’t have a lot of experience working on cars and the necessary tools. But here’s what everyone can try to do:
- Don’t rush out and buy the car you need a year–or two or three–from now. Be patient.
- Save for your next vehicle in a designated account that you don’t touch otherwise.
- Buy used, preferably past the 100,000 miles to minimize depreciation.
- Do your research. Check out consumer reports and other online reviews.
- Put out the word that you’ll pay trade-in value or more when people you are know are upgrading.
What’s your approach to buying cars? Have you ever done a major job on a car?