Let’s Make a Deal

The People’s Buying Process

Larry Jewett - February 02, 2012 10:00 AM


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Project cars can come from just about anywhere. We see potentials in the salvage yard stories we do each month. We hear about barn finds and the plans of future glory.

We know about the ones that are handed down because the previous owner had great plans, but no time or money. There are even the ones that get passed from generation to generation when a father-son project becomes all on the son due to the length of time it took to put it all together. The road is very diverse.

These days, you might even find the one you’re looking for in a “buy here, pay here” lot.

In one day of looking, I saw a handful of Fox Mustangs, a Trans Am with potential, a third-generation Camaro and two Corvettes. The purpose of this trip, though, was to seek out daily transportation for a friend.

It would be a good idea not to get judgmental about the choice of location. Times are tough all over and scraping together a down payment while trying to pay all of the other bills that life throws at you can be a bit of a challenge. If you want to keep a job that wasn’t that easy to get in the first place while also paying those bills, you gotta do what you gotta do. These places provide a service that big box mega dealers don’t offer. Raise your hand if your credit score or your home equity is as high as it used to be … didn’t think so.

It started innocently enough (but doesn’t it always?). We went on a drive-by, cruising down the street past the different lots looking for possibilities. There has to be a plan or you can go from customer to victim, even victim of circumstance. We had a set down payment in mind, only to find out that was about the minimum they were looking for. Then, there’s the matter of the weekly payment. We found quite a range on those and the figure we were contemplating wasn’t appealing to most of these places. Of course, they had what we wanted (a car) and we had what they wanted (an opportunity to create an empty spot in their lot and a chance to gain back something on their investment), so it just came down to who’s going to blink.

Before we get into the staring contest, there are a few procedural matters. A lot of these places work off reputation, which is why some of them aren’t there when you go back in three months. In addition to the visual inspection, we had to see how it works. A project car, well, it doesn’t matter that much because that area is going to be a target of your work attention anyway. One dealer told us to take the car to a mechanic and let them look it over, reinforcing what he had were quality cars. The funniest story was about the guy who suggested a car that had clearly been repainted (the factory emblems were now body color on a car that never did that). When we said it appeared it had been wrecked, he said no, but then my friend lowered her glance from her sunglasses to look him in the eye and he said, “only a little one.” We couldn’t get off that lot fast enough.

While we didn’t see a single plaid jacket in the bunch, it was pretty obvious that buying a car from one of these lots is as much an exercise in people watching as it is in getting a car. Yes, we did see gold chains. Yes, we did go to places that seemed to make it up as they went along. We did see a lot of places where people were watching us like we were going to steal the hubcaps. Most had the cars locked, even though they were in plain sight. It was rare to find a place where you felt comfortable enough to stand there and talk. It was even more rare to get the feeling that you would want to do business with this place again, if you did the first time because you had no other choices.

Buying a utility car is not for the faint of heart, so if you don’t have to, be thankful. If you do, just know that the car Grandma only drove to church on Sundays is a thing of the past.