My name is Scott Bowles, and I'm an autoholic.
It's been one week since my last car purchase, when I bought a Fiat 500 that just happened to have belonged to the woman once at the center of the Internet sensation Lonelygirl15. In the 33 years I've been licensed to drive, I've practiced unsafe shopping with at least 100 vehicular partners: more than 70 cars and 30 motorcycles.
I'm not rich, knowledgeable about cars or a shrewd negotiator. I just love junkers.
And I've had a few: a Renault Le Car; a Yugo that broke down on the freeway the day I bought (and abandoned) it; a Suzuki X-90, perhaps the ugliest car ever built.
But I can't shake my addiction to Harleys. My bike is the Harley 48, an old-school bobber with whitewalls, springer seat and 1,200 cc's -- but still diminutive in the Hog world.
Similarly, small cars do it for me. In Los Angeles, parking is as rare as clean air, and horsepower is pretty moot when freeway resembles a drive-in movie eight hours a day. I almost bought the electric Sparrow, a three-wheeled, one-passenger "car" sold by Sharper Image.
Alas, fate ended the Sparrow's run before I could empty my wallet. Lately, I'd been eyeing the Fiat 500, the Italian subcompact that dots the city. Yeah, the reviews have been middling and Charlie Sheen stars in one of their ads. But it's funky looking, the size of a clown car and dropping fast in price; my trifecta.
Having decided to sell my smart four two (an underrated clown car), I begin the ritual of the hunt, which starts with the first universal rule of junker shopping.
1. Craigslist is the only name in the used car game -- unless you need dealer financing.
Time was, you could find a good second-hand car on sites like Autotrader.com and Cars.com. But those are pay sites that have become classifieds for used car dealers. If you want to buy from a private party, the cheapest way to buy a car, the only place to go is Craigslist.
Of course, there's a catch to anything free:
2. Craigslist is rife with backyard dealers. The site has spawned a breed of salesmen who specialize in lowball offers, cheap fixes and "salvage" cars, autos deemed by the state to have been totaled or stolen. Sellers will claim a car has a salvage title because of a fender-bender, but a title check through the Vehicle Identification Number (the VIN, a must before buying) usually details the reasons for a salvage or rebuilt title.
My search through Craigslist found scads of salvaged Fiats, though they still ran about $10,000, the upper echelon of my comfort zone. Like Jeep Wranglers, Fiats retain more value than you'd expect for a vehicle with spotty reliability.
I found an ad I assumed was from a dealer: 2012 Fiat 500, 17,000 miles, $10,700. The pictures were grainy, the details sparing. I dropped a one-line email: Are you the original owner? I expected an explanation that he wasn't, but he was a second-cousin to the guy who bought it.
Instead, I got this: "I guess so. I leased it new."
Suddenly, I was interested.
3. Find an original owner.
Let's face it, we take better care of new things, and any car that's had more than two honors before the warranty expires is either a lemon or possessed.
The email was signed "Jess," raising my hopes.
4. Female owners rule. Sorry, guys, there's a reason our insurance rates are higher. We're a lot more likely to punish the ones we drive.
I immediately write back asking to see the car (and signing the email to demonstrate I'm serious). She writes back her full name, and I'm off to do the real research, which has nothing to do with cars. Even cursory Google searches of an owner will turn up valuable information: they belong to a motor club; they don't live in the state; they have several cars for sale.
Or, in my case, they're famous. At least by internet standards: The seller was lonelygirl15, the YouTube personality whose video journal from 2006-2008 made her one of the web's earliest celebs. She wrote in one email that she was moving to live with her boyfriend in Australia, and simply wanted to pay off the car before leaving.
She couldn't know it, but the Fiat was sold. Whether you're buying a car or having it repaired, honesty is the only accessory that must be standard equipment.
I gave it a cursory ride, and normally would have offered a little less than the asking price. But when she said the price had dropped a couple hundred because she made a lease payment, I simply said "I'll take it."
She asked if she could use the car for a week to pack up her things. I told her of course; just let me know when she was done. Leaving with nothing more than a handshake, I completed the oddest car purchase of my life and realized the true golden rule of secondhand wheels:
5. Used cars are an investment in the person, not the vehicle.
The Fiat sits in the garage now as perhaps my most impetuous purchase. I'm still waiting on the title. I'd never recommend committing to a car before seeing it, leaving without a deposit or lending your car before you've owned it.
But there's nothing like buying a car you've fallen for from someone who loved it, too, no matter what a new car dealer's incentives may be.
It's almost addictive.