Sunday, April 26, 2015

Fitting the Risk, Risking the Fit (part 2 -- the delivery)

Last week I wrote about the purchase of the 2013 Honda Fit Sport 5-speed with about 9,361 miles on it (I mistakenly listed it in my previous post as 9,317), sight-unseen, off eBay, for $9500. I explained how the car was honestly portrayed as a rebuilt salvage car by the seller who rebuilt such vehicles as a business (Chalev's Rebuildables in Charlotte NC), how I found a salvage web site that showed the car before Chalev's had bought it and saw how, in the pre-repair photos, the damage appeared to be very minor, how I vetted the seller on eBay and with the BBB, how I looked into what it meant for a car to have a rebuilt title, how I came to peace with the fact that, because of the salvage history, the car had no warranty (other cars in that price range had many more miles and thus their warranty had expired anyway) and how, ultimately, buying it was a tradeoff of price versus risk, as many things are.

The one thing I forgot to include was the fact that I'd ordered the car's Carfax report. Now, usually, you order a Carfax to make sure it's clean -- e.g., to be certain the car was never issued a salvage title. Further, hopefully the Carfax shows no evidence of ever having been in an accident of any kind. Here, the Carfax process was turned on its head. I knew the car had been issued a salvage title. I just wanted to see if the rest of the story jived -- that it was a 2013 Honda Fit Sport with very low miles. The Carfax showed the car as originally offered for sale in Virginia Beach in 8/7/2013, then sitting on the dealer lot for over seven months until it was sold on 3/24/2014 with 18 miles on it (sometimes, I love the fact that sticks aren't popular). The owner was issued a title on 3/31/2014. On 11/17/2014, the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company. And on 2/27/2015, the car was purchased (presumably by Chalev's, who sold it to me) and issued a salvage title, with the mileage reported as 9,361.

Now, with electronic speedometers, it's much more difficult to roll back miles than it used to be (having rebuilt the odometer in my 2002 and my 3.0CSi, and having seen that you can literally make those little mechanical gear-driven numbers read anything, I'd never believe a low mileage claim for a vintage car without extensive supporting documentation). It is, however, I believe, not impossible; I believe it can be done electronically. But the fact that the Carfax showed the car as sitting on a dealer lot for seven months, not titled by a first owner until 3/31/2014, and then totaled on 11/17/2014 meant that it was only on the road for nine months, in which case 9,361 miles is quite reasonable. Further, the salvage web site listed the mileage as 9,361 when the car came in for sale, and the Carfax listed the same mileage when the car was sold by that side and issued a salvage title. In other words, there were two independent pieces of documentation that the mileage was that low before Chalev's Rebuildables received the car. This, combined with Chalev's excellent eBay reputation and their A+ BBB rating, and the fact that I found photos of the pre-repair damage and it looked incredibly light, like the car had perhaps slid into a curb and bent the wheel and parts of the suspension, were absolutely necessary prerequisites, the enabling factors for me taking the risk.

So, on Monday April 6th, I committed to buying the car. As required, I immediately Paypal'd the $500 deposit. I then had to pay for the balance and pick up the car.

Now, the only time I'd ever done something like this was years back when we bought the 2000 Mazda MPV. That car was advertised on eBay but didn't meet the seller's reserve. I called the seller and negotiated a price contingent on visual inspection and a test drive. Ethan and I flew down from Boston to Philadelphia (close, cheap nonstop flights) with plates from my other car (in MA it's not illegal to slap existing plates on a car you just bought as long as you have "intent" to transfer the registration). The seller met me at the airport. I didn't see anything wrong with the MPV, drove it once around the airport, handed the guy the money, he handed me the paperwork, I slapped the plates on, and we drove it home. I think we were home by 1 in the afternoon. It was easy. And I loved having the bail-out of being able to walk away; if anything didn't smell right, I could've simply gone back into the airport terminal, bought two more cheap one-way tickets for Ethan and I, and flown home.

But that was an off-eBay sale. In contrast, the Fit was an eBay sale I was already committed to. Legally, there's no walking away from an eBay sale unless the item is not "as advertised." This is a nice bit of protection under eBay. That is, if a car is advertised as "rust free" and you find Fred Flintstone holes in the floor, you can file a grievance with eBay for refund and return. People I know who've done it tell me it's a torturous process, but hey, it's something. However, the Fit was advertised as a repaired salvage car. I suppose that, since the ad said "drives straight," I could've flown down and made sure it did indeed drive straight and walked away if it didn't, but Chalev's other customers gave him glowing reviews. And Charlotte NC was about 850 miles from Boston -- a very long one-day drive.

For all these reasons, I elected to send a check and ship the car. I got a bank check for the remaining nine grand and sent it on Tuesday April 7th via USPS Priority Mail. It didn't arrive in Charlotte until Friday April 10th. (Lesson: If you want true next day, use Fedex). It wasn't until the seller, Nasko Dinev, received the check that the car was actually paid for and could be shipped.

And now we come to shipping. I've bought many cars and shown up with my Suburban towing a rented U-Haul trailer and hauled them home on the spot.  But for longer hauls, you need to contract a shipping company. There are basically two ways to do this.

The first is to contract a shipper directly. That is, if you have a high-value or fragile car, you want to minimize the car's exposure. When I bought my '74 Lotus Europa sight-unseen in Chicago, I contracted Intercity Lines (who Jay Leno uses to ship his cars). An Intercity enclosed trailer with air suspension (that's what I paid for; it was a fragile fiberglass-bodied car that hasn't run since 1979) showed up in Chicago and picked up the car, and the same truck driven by the same people, who work directly for Intercity, delivered the car to my house. This is called point to point shipping.

In contrast, for cars that are commodities (ie, non-classic, non-high value), the shipping is also more of a commodity. The vast majority of the time, you're not even directly hiring a shipper -- you're contracting with a broker who hires a shipper, or several shippers. And unless you pay for enclosed shipping, the car is typically transported on one of those very large open multi-level carriers. I've sold cars to people who have had them shipped, and watched as the transporter driver loaded them on the very front of the top deck. My reaction has ranged from "geez, this guy is a freaking artist and shows a tremendous amount of care moving this car" to "oh god I can't watch." Further, the transporters may unload the car at a shipping terminal, where it may sit before being loaded onto another transporter operated by a different company. All of this increases the exposure of the car and the chance for damage. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It's just what low-cost shipping is.

Having bought the Fit, the main thing was to get it here in a timely and cost-effective manner. And the Fit was very much a commodity car. I had nothing against commodity low-cost shipping.

A popular way to ship eBay automotive purchases is with UShip, which is like a reverse eBay for shipping of all kinds. That is, you can put a shipment up for bid you UShip. You say what the origin and destination addresses are, what car is, whether it's running or not, and whether you want open or enclosed shipping. Shippers can then bid, and you can select whatever bid you want (presumably the lowest, unless you research their reputation, find it horrible, and select the second lowest). eBay and UShip make this easy, with a UShip link right on eBay car auctions.

In addition, right on the eBay auction for the Fit, there were a list of shipping options and estimates for transportation from Charlotte to Boston. The lowest was an estimate of $538 and a pickup time of one week. I mentioned this to Nasko. "I can get it shipped much cheaper than that," he said, "maybe $350 to $400 from Charlotte to Boston. Let me handle it for you. I can put it up on the shipping site everyone uses." Great, I thought.

The paperwork for the car arrived. I sent it to my insurance company to start the process of getting plates. When I wasn't working, I'd just run to the insurance company and then the registry myself, but now that I'm gainfully employed again, this needs to be done through the mail, which all takes time.

In the meantime, I kept waiting to hear from Nasko about shipping. "Nothing yet," he'd say. "Let me raise the offered shipping amount." He jacked it up from $350 to $400, to $450, then to $500. Nasko expressed surprise that were were still no takers.

It was now Tuesday, April 14th, a week after I'd bought the car. I wanted to get my hands on it. So, as I sometimes do, I set in motion several things at once.

First, I looked at airfare, and found that, with 10 day advanced purchase, there were cheap ($153) one-way nonstop flights from Boston to Charlotte. So I booked one for two weekends hence (Friday, April 24th). I figured that I could fly down Friday evening after work, get a cheap hotel, and drive the car back Saturday. And, through Expedia, I had 24 hours to cancel the flight. So I bought a ticket. I estimated that, with the cheap flight, a hotel room, meals, and gas, it'd probably cost me a little over $300 if I had to do it myself. I didn't want to do this, but I wanted to get my hands on the car.

Second, I told Nasko about these plans -- that, while I appreciated his efforts to get the car shipped to me, if no one bit on the shipping within 24 hours, I'd just fly down the 24th and pick it up myself.

Third, I looked at the shipping estimates on the eBay auction page itself. The lowest estimate of $538 was from a company called "Ship a Car Direct." It was still showing a lead time of a week. I noticed that next to it was a button that said "Book Shipment." Well, I thought, we were now at the point where shipping through Nasko was no cheaper than this. Why not just hit the "Book Shipment" button, cancel the other options, wait a week, and be done with it?

So I did.

And I learned that that's not how it works.  I received an e-mail from UShip that Ship A Car Direct has 24 hours to accept or reject this bid. So much for "Book Shipment."

So, fourth, I went directly to the web site of "Ship a Car Direct" and entered in the parameters of the shipment to get a quote from them directly. The quote came back as not $538 but $600.

What was going on?

Shortly after, I received an e-mail from a fellow at Ship a Car Direct asking me to call them and clear up some confusion over my shipment. I did, and the gentleman was quite helpful. He explained the following:

--This is a particularly bad time to ship a car from the mid-Atlantic up North. All the "snowbirds," he said, are heading home from Florida and shipping their cars to NY, NJ, Boston, and Chicago. So the car transporters are heading up Route 95 from Florida, already full. No one wants to reserve an open space and stop in Charlotte, at least not cheaply. This seemed to explain why Nasko's "it should cost $350 to $400" wasn't holding water.

--Just about everyone in the shipping world uses a site called Central Dispatch, which is actually a different site from UShip. Shipments, including some of UShip's are put up on Central Dispatch with an offer amount.

--The $538 "Book Shipment" button did not, in fact, book a shipment, but put it up on Central Dispatch for $538 to see if any shippers would take it at that price.

--He saw that my Fit, going from Charlotte to Boston, was listed on Central Dispatch twice -- once by Chalev's Rebuildables, and again by my hitting the "Book Shipment" button.

--Listing the same shipment twice, he said, is not helpful, and in fact is counterproductive. All the trucking companies can tell its the same shipment. No shipper wants to commit to picking up a listing only to show up to pick it up and find that it's already been picked up by someone who committed to it on another listing. So, instead, he said, shippers stay clear of multiple listings until they're straightened out.

--He explained that companies (brokers) like his have to take their cut. So if they quote a customer $525, and take a $125 cut, the actual trucking company gets $400. He asked me if Chalev's was taking a cut. I said no, I didn't think so.

--I asked "so, what do I need to get a commitment from someone to ship this car to me, at a given price, in a given time frame?" He again said that this was a particularly bad time of year, and said that, candidly, I should stick with Chalev's, because if they offered the shipment on Central Dispatch at, say, $550, that meant a trucking company would get the whole $550, and thus would be more likely to take the job.

With that, I cancelled the UShip listing, which was showing up on Central Dispatch as a second listing, and asked Nasko to raise the price to $575 to make it happen.

About 20 minutes later, Nasko called me, saying said that a shipping company called him and said they'd do it for $600, pickup within three days, delivery within five. "Take it," I said. I cancelled my plane ticket.

I spoke with the shipper. It was a brother and sister local to Massachusetts. It seemed all set.

The next morning, Nasko calld me. "I'm really sorry," he said, "but the shipper just called me. They said they were on the way to pick up the Fit, but 20 minutes later they called and said they just picked up a van and it was bigger than they thought and they no longer have room for the Fit. So they're cancelling the shipment. They offered me money to not give them negative feedback on Central Dispatch." He strongly implied he told them what they could do with their money.


I hopped back on Expedia and bought another plane ticket, again with 24 hour cancellation. Cheap fares were sold out for Friday the 24th. I now had to fly down the morning of Saturday the 25th. With no way to cover 825 miles with a late start, that meant breaking the drive up into two days -- occupying the entire weekend.

I looked at the math again. It was about $325 in estimated expenses to fly down and drive the Fit home. If I had to pay $600 to ship it, that meant that I was, essentially, paying $275 to avoid doing the drive myself.

"Put it back on Central Dispatch at $600," I said.

I was literally on Craigslist looking in every city between Charlotte and Boston for BBS RC090 wheels, Alpina wheels, Recaro seats, Getrag 5 and 6 speed transmissions, and Guild guitars that I could stop and buy and cram into the back of the Fit to make the drive worthwhile when Nasko called, saying had a commitment from another local MA shipper. Both he and I called them, explaining that we'd had one shipper cancel, and wanted someone to look us in the eye (through the phone, however that works) and tell us that they'd do what they commit to. They seemed like they'd do what they said.

And so I waited.

On Tuesday 4/21, I got word from Nasko that the Fit had just been picked up by the shipper.

On Friday 4/24, the shipper called, saying that the car was in Hudson MA, but that was too late to deliver it. It would arrive in Newton in the morning. He said that they'd transfer the car from the big multi-level carrier to a small three-car ramp trailer to easier navigate through Newton's small streets

And so, on Saturday 4/25, almost three weeks after I bought the car, the trailer with the Fit finally arrived. By utter coincidence, the trailer was also carrying a BMW E28 5 Series. I joked with the driver "oh! A present! For me! How did you know I was a BMW guy?" But his English wasn't quite good enough to grok the humor.

A quick walk-around of the car didn't reveal anything amiss. Outside and in, it looks like a new car. I screwed on the plates and drove it straight to the inspection station, where it passed.

I then took the car for a drive a few exits up and down the Mass Pike. It's vahry nice. Most importantly, it tracks straight. And it's much snappier than the non-Sport base Fit I drove. I love the firmer seats. I totally made the right choice by holding out for a Sport (see previous post).

As I examined the new-looking interior, I noticed an EZ Pass on the windshield. I laughed out loud for a moment thinking whether or not the previous owner's EZ Pass account had been charged for every toll up Route 95 when it was on the back of the transporter. I pulled the pass off, found the address for EZ Pass in VA, packaged it up, and sent it off.

So, if you're waiting for the other shoe to drop and me to reveal how I got screwed by an unscrupulous eBay vendor who faked his feedback, hypnotized people at the BBB, and was in cahoots with Carfax to falsify a mileage reading, that doesn't appear to have happened. The car appears to be fine. While I have not yet put it up on a lift to inspect the undercarriage, there are only a handful of things I see. On the front corner of the cladding (the side skirt) on the left side, it's not as flush with the body as it is on the right side. This is exactly the point where, in the salvage pics, the cladding can be seen as slightly pulled away from the body. So it was snapped back in place instead of being replaced. Big whoop. If I'm bored and have nothing to do (HA!), I can try to get it better.

And three of the four tires have a surprising amount of wear on them (the fourth, on the left front wheel, the one that was replaced, looks new). Initially I was concerned about this as not jiving with the 9,360 miles, but looking on Fit forums, I'm seeing comments that folks are reporting their OEM Dunlop SP Sport 7000s as being worn out at 20k to 30k. The front floor mat (the detachable rug) also shows more wear than I'd expect for a sub-10k car, but we're well into the noise at this point.

And, minor point, the owner's manual is AWOL. I downloaded the PDF from the Honda web site and thought I'd print it, but at 285 pages, I doubt I'd get it to fit into the glove box. I ordered a lightly used set of manuals on eBay for $40 just to cross it off the list and not strand Maire Anne with no way to know where the jack is on some dark night.

In terms of the numbers, here's how it stacked up. Because, in the great state of Massachusetts, they assess sales tax not on what you paid but on the book value of the car, and because of the car's low mileage, I took a hit on that. But, in general, as long as there's no catastrophic engine malfunction that makes me pine for the 5 year / 50,000 mile drivetrain warranty I jettisoned in buying a former salvage car, I'm quite pleased.

Purchase $9,500
Shipping  $600
Taxes, title, registration $1,183
Inspection $35
Owner's manuals $40
Total $11,358
Insurance payout $8,300
Out of pocket $3,058

So, would I recommend this process to anyone else?

I feel like I vetted the salvage issues in general, the history of this particular car, the provenance of the low mileage, and the reputation of the seller in a way that made the risk acceptable and let me move forward. Nonetheless, the three week delay between buying the car and getting my hands on it was tough, and created a window in which all I could do was worry if I'd done the right thing. Most of that delay seemed to be a quirk of the car's location on the mid-Atlantic at a bad time of year, but, as Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. While Maire Anne was not without a car -- she was driving my BMW wagon -- for most people who need a car quickly because their old one died or was totaled, this would be a challenging process to go through. While part of me wants to say "if I had to do it again, I would've flown down there, inspected the car, bought it, and driven it back," if that had been possible or practical given a full-time job, I might have figured out a way to do it, so there's nothing to second guess.

I do like the car. And so does Maire Anne. But boy, it would've been much easier had the car been in, say, Albany instead of Charlotte.  And thus, given the Hack Mechanic powers granted to me by The Great Automotive Creator, I hereby decree that, from this moment forth, it shall forever hence be so. From this day forward, all smoking hot deals are within a four hour drive.

You're welcome.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fitting the Risk, Risking the Fit (part 1 -- the purchase)

Our silver 2008 Honda Fit Sport 5-speed got totaled in mid-March. Painful. Everyone's okay. Don't ask.

Both Maire Anne and I loved this car. We didn't buy it new, but it was the newest, lowest mileage car we'd ever owned. It was our first post-minivan. Two of our three kids were out of the house. It took a little convincing of Maire Anne that she no longer needed a minivan's seating for seven, but once she drove the go-cart little 5-speed Fit Sport, she was hooked.

We bought it in 2009. Fuel had shot up to $4.50/gallon. The folks who owned it had a big SUV whose fuel bills were eating them alive. They bought the Fit and parked the SUV. The wife swore she'd drive a stick. She never warmed to it. Then, gas prices fell, they returned to driving their SUV, and sold the Fit to us.

The combination of the Fit's four doors, hatchback, and the car's "magic seats" (a very low flat floor coupled with seats that also folded very flat) made for a remarkably flexible interior configuration. For Maire Anne's Bugworks business, she carries a set of stackable plastic containers perhaps half as high as a file cabinet, and they have to be kept upright. We used to bungie cord them in the rear of my BMW wagon. But, as it turns out, one of the Fit's seating configurations allows you to fold one side of the rear bench seat up, exposing the floor and creating a space just the right size to hold the bug box without needing to strap it in. She instantly loved it. Sometimes you can't research or predict the things you'll find the most useful or engaging.

The Fit was everything you'd expect a Honda product to be. Absolutely nothing went wrong in 60,000 miles. And it was just a blast to drive. I don't like big heavy cars. I like small, light, and snappy. And the Fit Sport 5-speed was all that. We both loved it. Maire Anne would often say that if anything happened to the car, she'd want another one just like it.

And then, without warning, it was gone.

The insurance company gave us what I thought was a fair settlement -- $8300 including sales tax. Following Maire Anne's wishes, I immediately began looking for another. I quickly found what was as close to the same car as possible -- a silver 2008 Fit Sport 5-speed, 48,000 miles, at a local Lexus dealer, asking price $9800. I thought I was done. I showed the ad to Maire Anne. Her eyes welled up. "I can't buy another one the same color," she said. Heard and understood.

Okay, if it's not this Fit, then we enter "The Process." Now, there are basically two ways to buy a car. There's the way I imagine most normal people do it, which is they wait until they need a car, then go into a dealership and come out several hours later with an actual car that they can actually drive home and actually use later that day. At least I assume that's how it's done.

Of course, that's not what I do. I embark on a long and torturous process that involves solving partial differential equations for constrained extrema in my head and reading the entrails of a goat to find the knee in the curve of price, mileage, and distance. That is, local cars are incredibly convenient, you can go look at them and bring something home easily, but if a car is truly a smoking deal or if it's got a particularly rare option package but it's a thousand miles away, you figure out how to make it happen.

eBay, AutoTrader,, and craigslist were all brought into The Process. Initially I looked at buying what the insurance check would roughly pay for, but I allowed a certain amount of mission and price creep and began looking at lower mileage cars for more money. After all, the purchase and ownership of our Fit went perfectly. The idea of another trouble-free five years with one of our cars was damned appealing.

I found what seemed to be The Car -- a 2012 Gen2 Fit (they were redesigned in 2009, and again in 2014), right here in Newton. A red base model Fit (not a sport) 5-speed with 27k for an asking price of $11,900. I felt certain I'd buy it on the spot. I checked it out. The seller said he'd take $11,500 for it. But when I drove it... meh. It didn't have the snap that ours had.

I went home and did a ton of reading. The Gen2s are about 4" longer than the Gen1 Fits, so you do lose a little of the short wheelbase snappiness, but in general, people weren't complaining about it. In fact, most reviews seemed to feel the Gen1 cars (2007 and 2008) were a bit buzzy, and the Gen2 cars (2009 through 2014) were quieter and slightly more refined without losing any of the fun. I wondered if the difference I felt wasn't Gen2 versus Gen1 but instead was Sport versus Base. I spent a delightfully anal retentive hour online looking at Honda parts catalogs and figured out that, in terms of suspension, the base and Sport Fits shared the front springs and sway bar, but that was all. The Sport had different rear springs, different shocks and struts, and a rear sway bar where the base had none. And larger wheels and tires. Plus, other non-handling things like much better seats, a much better sound system, and rugs instead of rubber floor mats. And the front and rear spoilers and the side cladding. I resolved to get us another Fit Sport.

When you do these nationwide searches, you find that many of the cars, particularly the ones on Autotrader and, are at dealerships. You can look at dealer reviews online and check out BBB ratings and factor that into your calculus. I'm a pretty understanding guy. When I see reviews like "we bought this beautiful BMW with 80,000 miles and six weeks later it was leaking coolant everywhere and they wouldn't stand behind it these guys are just awful," I think what the hell did you THINK would happen with a BMW with 80k on it - a used car dealer isn't responsible for that unless you bought an extended warranty through them. And awful dealer reviews don't necessarily cross a car off my list, particularly if the car is out of warranty and has a rare option package I desire. But when you read ten reviews that say "we drove for six hours to pick up a car we had a deposit on but when we got there they'd sold it and tried to sell us something different," that's a pretty clear big flashing red light if the car you're interested in is 500 miles away.

And then there's the whole Carfax / salvage title thing. On sites like Autotrader and, many but not all dealerships post the Carfax so you can see the title is clean. But then you'll see a car priced 20% less than others with comparable mileage, and there's no Carfax. So you order it (I have someone I found online to whom I pay $5 a whack for Carfaxes) and find out that, of course, the car had been totaled and now has a rebuilt title. Now, this in and of itself isn't necessarily a reason to reject a car (much more on this below). But the fact that it wasn't disclosed and you had to hunt for it is, in my book, an automatic fail. If the dealer wasn't candid enough to admit the car has a rebuilt title, you're very unlikely to find out what the reason was for the salvage title in the first place. Hail or theft damage, maybe not a big deal. Flood damage, you're assuming a boatload (heh) of risk.

But I kept looking. I made a spreadsheet of cars, their VINs, the mileage, price, color, how far away they were, and the reputation of the dealership so I could keep it all straight.

And then, on Thursday April 2nd, I stumbled into a blue 2013 Honda Fit Sport 5-speed on eBay with 9,317 miles for an asking price of $10,999. That was a very appealing set of parameters. But a) it was in Charlotte NC, not easy to run and look at, and b) it had a rebuilt salvage title. However, the seller freely admitted it had a salvage title, and the original damage seemed minor. You can still see the auction here:

The seller had a business rebuilding salvage cars. He said that the car had been hit in the left front wheel and suffered no body damage.

The mileage and cost were incredibly appealing, so I began to look more into the whole salvage thing. It seems to work like this. 

If a car has an insurance claim against it for more than 3/4 of its value, the insurance company will declare it a total loss. This is the origin of the phrase "totaling a car." But, these days, it's damned easy for a car to reach that threshold, particularly if it's an inexpensive car. Folks tell me that any front end impact that bends sheet metal, messes up the suspension, and blows the airbags is generally enough to do it. But cars are also totaled due to theft, vandalism, hail, water damage, and other reasons. The point is, the scarlet "S" is issued on the basis of some insurance adjuster's judgment of the ratio of the cost of the repairing the damage to the value of the car, not on the basis of whether the car is "repairable" in any absolute sense. The car is then sold by the insurance company. When it is sold, it is issued a salvage title. Salvage cars are advertised on web sites like which typically list a gross classification of the reason the car is there ("front collision," "burn," "recovered theft," "flood," etc) and walk-around photographs of the car. Businesses and individuals may then bid on and buy the salvage car and repair the damage. 

Once a salvaged car is repaired, it is inspected (and the mechanism for inspection varies state-to-state; in some states, the inspection is reportedly only to verify that no stolen parts were used in the reconstruction) and given a "rebuilt" or "reconstructed" title. This in and of itself appears to be the source of much confusion. It's reported online that you can't register and insure a car with a salvage title. That's probably true. When it has a salvage title, it's typically a wrecked undrivable unroadworthy piece of crap. But the point is that when people say salvage car or salvage title, they usually mean former salvage car and former salvage title. You can register and insure a car with a rebuilt title. 

I called my insurance company to be certain. They said that there was no problem insuring a car with a rebuilt title for collision and comp. The only caveat is that they require an insurance inspection. I asked my agent "so there is risk in this, right? What happens if I buy the car, have it shipped up here, and it fails this inspection? She said "this isn't an inspection you can fail." As she explained it, I realized it was the same insurance inspection I used to need to go through whenever I bought and insured any car for collision and comp -- it's so the insurance company can make sure there are no dented body panels, bashed bumpers, cracked glass, etc, before issuing the policy.

Then, I called PenFed (Pentagon Federal Credit Union, from whom I've had bank loans for cars before) and asked them if they'd issue a loan on a car with a rebuilt title. They said yes, but there was a cap -- they'd loan up to 50% of the book value. They looked up the book on a 2013 Fit Sport with 9317 miles. It was about $17k, so they'd loan up to $8500. I wasn't certain I wanted a loan, but I now knew it was possible.

So, neither insurance nor a loan were showstoppers. I began to look very carefully at 2013 Fit Sport. Well, as carefully as one can look when one isn't there.

I like to think that my web kung fu is quite good, and sometimes it is. The things you can find out simply by searching for a car's VIN (or for a seller's phone number, for that matter) are often astounding. Of course, sometimes you simply get lucky. In my case, when I searched for Fit's VIN, up immediately popped web sites that showed the car when it was being sold as a salvage car (in other words, showing the expired auction). The luck was that the car had very recently been a salvage car. For you web geeks, google still hit on them, and you could still see the original postings through the cache. In any case, this allowed me to see the damage before the car was repaired. And it looked really minor; the only outward damage was the left front wheel and the body sideskirt just behind it. It looked like the car had perhaps slid into a curb. I wondered why it had been totaled. Here's the good profile of the car.

And here's the bad. You can see the damage to the left front wheel.

Here's a slightly zoomed in pic of the left front wheel. If you look carefully you can also see that the left side cladding is slightly pulled away from the body. Again, incredibly minor.

On the salvage web site, I also saw this description below , referring to damage to the undercarriage and front end. I noted, positively, that it didn't list anything about flood damage.

I asked the eBay seller about the additional damage, and I liked his answer. 

Sorry, i should be more specific. Wheel, tire and knee (lower control arm, strut and knuckle) assembly were replaced on this car. Knee was replaced to make sure there are no compromised/damaged parts left over. Alignment was performed as well and car is in great running condition and goes perfectly straight now. As you've seen the pictures most likely you know how little the damage was. There was nothing damaged on the bottom, car did run and drive fine even with the damaged parts. Don't know time difference in your area so please call me when you get a chance. My cell is XXX-XXX-XXXX and my name is Atanas Dinev at Chalev's rebuildables, but you can call me Nasko.

I asked him about the minimal amount of damage totaling the car.

yes, i'm amazed myself sometimes as well how come they totaled those cars with such small damages but i guess it's all up to the insurance companies. Not sure if you've seen correct pictures but i'll attach exact pics of the damage  the way i got the car - again, run and drive, no blown air bags, no mechanical issues, etc... few dents/scratches around but nothing out of ordinary. 


Two year old Fit Sport 5-speed. 9317 miles. $11,000. If it were local, I'd go look at it and drive it, and if I didn't see anything wrong, I'd probably buy it on the spot. But it's 850 miles away. 

So how do you do this? Do you go look at it and drive it? There are non-stop flights from Boston to Charlotte as low as $299 round trip, but those low prices usually require a ten day lead time. It was Thursday. Booking a round-trip flight for the weekend to look at the car, maybe even buy it and drive it home and eat the round-trip leg of the ticket would've been nearly $700. Or do you take the risk and buy it sight unseen?

I posted the car on Facebook for advice, and got generally very positive responses. "I buy former salvaged cars all the time," one friend said. "If the repairer is candid, it's often a more transparent transaction than buying a wholesaled car where any history is intentionally thrown away." "Badly damaged cars are fixed all the time, and lightly damaged cars are declared as salvage cars all the time," said another. "There are very few firm lines that would make it not safely fixable, especially considering how light the damage looks." "As long as it wasn't a flood car." And, maybe my favorite, "people talk about taking a big hit in resale value because the salvage history stays with the title forever. That's true, but you only take a hit if a) you pay too much for it when you buy it and b) you sell it too soon. If you buy a salvage car cheaply and drive them into the ground, there's no hit."

I began to think "I'm going to to this."

And then I learned something that almost scotched the whole thing. Nearly every manufacturer states, right on their web site, that if a car has been declared a salvage vehicle at any point in its life, the manufacturer's warranty is null and void. They're still on the hook for recalls and federally-mandated warranties like the 80,000 mile / 8 year coverage of the catalytic converter, ECU (computer) and other elements of the emissions control system, but there's no taking it into the dealer for free because the check engine light comes on. Or, far worse, if it lunches an engine. 

It seemed like a showstopper.

And then, when I thought about it very carefully, the answer was surprising..

What is the warranty on a 2013 Honda Fit? 3 year / 36,000 miles basic warranty, plus 5 year / 60,000 miles on the power train.

How much of this warranty is left on other Fits I'm looking at? Basically, none. For completeness, here's a table of the cars I was looking at. 

Manhasset NYFit200736164white$8,995
PhiladelphiaFit Sport200839000black$12,000
Canton Fit Sport200937491peaberry$10,971
LaconiaFit Sport201028000silver$12,995
CharlotteFit Sport20139390blue$10,999

In the price range I'm looking, most of the cars are older than 2012. For any of those, the 3 year warranty is gone. For a 2012 car... the warranty starts when a car is "put in service," which usually means "sold" but can also mean "began being used as a dealer demonstrator." If a car was put in service anytime before April, the three year warranty would be gone. Best case, if it was put in service in December, the warranty would run through December 2015, so there would be no more than nine months left. By similar calculations, if I looked at another 2013 car, there could be between eight months and a year and nine months of the warranty left. But every other 2013 car was out of my price range.

So, if I ruled out the rebuilt 2013 Fit Sport simply because the warranty was void, it didn't make sense, because I'd likely buy a different Fit, for more money, with tens of thousands more miles, that had little or none of the basic warranty left on it anyway.

Okay, Well, how about the 5 year / 60,000 mile power train warranty? What's that worth? Well, how much went wrong with our last Honda Fit Sport? Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. Not a bloody thing in 60,000 miles. Is anything likely to go wrong with the VTEC engine and the 5-speed gearbox? No. And there's a similar issue regarding how much of the warranty would still be in existence anyway. Looking at the table above, we see that, of these, only the 2012 Fit in Newton had anything left of either the basic or the power train warranty left. (Okay, the 2010 car might have had half a year of the power train warranty.)

So, like with the basic warranty, the lack of a power train warranty wasn't the make-or-break issue I thought it would be.

And, yes, the fact that it's a Honda product factored into this big time, at least with me. I did look up frequency of repair information on Gen2 Fits on Consumer Reports, RepairPal, CarComplaints and Fit enthusiast forums just to see if there were any gotchas. The only thing that showed up of any concern to me was the short life of the car's tiny battery. Many people reported leaving the radio or dome light on for 1/2 an hour and coming back to a dead battery. We'd actually had this happen with our Gen1 Fit as well. The easy solution is fitting a slightly larger battery.

The more I thought about it, the salvage issue was less a warranty issue or a value-of-the-car issue than it was an overall risk issue. Unless I flew down to look at it, I had no way to know how the car ran and drove. I had no way to know how "correctly" it was repaired. And let's be honest -- while I can put a car up on my lift and look underneath it for gross deficiencies, to know really how well repaired it was, I'd really need to take it to an expert with a frame jig and laser alignment tools.

I thought about the several BMW 2002tiis I'd lost out on during the past year because I was trying to get additional documentation to reduce risk and other people moved quicker than I did and grabbed them. In fact, it was now Monday April 6th. I'd already dithered away four days researching all this and thinking it through. Many people were watching the auction but no one had pounced. 

It was time to make a move.

And, quickly, it all came into focus. I needed to assign a value to the risk so I could think about it as risk versus reward. Somehow the number I came up with was $2500. In my mind, this was the cost of risk of the rebuilt car as compared to the "safe" red base Fit in Newton, the one with 27k miles for $11,500. In other words, if I'd pay $11.5k for the red base Fit in Newton, then I'd want to pay $2500 less than that, or $9000, for the rebuilt Fit Sport in Charlotte. This also, in my mind, factored in the cost of shipping the car up from Charlotte to Boston, which was estimated on eBay's UShip calculator as low as $538 (much more on this later).

So that was the answer. Offer the guy nine grand.

So, I sent him a lengthy email, explaining what I laid out above, and using specific examples of other nearby cars, including the red one, so the seller could see I had options.

Those who know me know that this thought process -- decide on what a car is worth to you, be as dispassionate about it as possible, add in some wiggle room because you don't want to lose a car you really want over the last $500, make the offer, if the seller says yes, great, but if the seller says no, also great, because you've thought it through -- is almost a patented Rob Siegel technique. I've done very well dealing with cars (and other things in my life this way), because it lets me go back and look at the decision and how it was made, and say "nah, I wouldn't have paid that." But, as I said, the deliberative nature of the process has made me lose out on cars to people who move faster.

In this case, I did something additional that was crucial. The eBay auction for the Fit had a "make an offer" button. In addition to sending the guy the e-mail offering him nine grand and explaining why, I officially submitted an offer of nine grand through the eBay auction. This showed that I was serious, that it was a real offer (if he accepted it through eBay, I was legally bound to follow through with it) and I was not just throwing out low numbers. 

Within five minutes, Nasko (the seller) replied:

Rob, without going into any details how much it cost me, comparisons, that i wanted to get around $10-10.5k etc... let's make it $9500 and it's yours... i believe this is fair deal and will make us both happy. let me know if you want it and i'll lower down BuyItNow for you to $9500 to proceed with purchase or you can just come and get it or whatever is best for you. let me know.

I called Maire Anne, we talked it through, and concurred. I messaged Nasko "yes," then sat at my computer and hit the refresh button until the auction showed a $9500 BIN (don't want someone else to grab it at that price), and punched it.

So, on April 6th, we bought a 2013 Honda Fit Sport 5-speed with 9317 miles for $9500. Note that this is only a thousand dollars more than what PenFed Credit Union said was half the book value of the car.

I then needed to pay for and retrieve the car. We'll cover that in the next installment.