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.
|Taxes, title, registration||$1,183|
|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.