Racking Up the Miles

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For the first time since I began this blog, I’m actually writing this post on the day it’s intended to go up. That wasn’t deliberate. It’s just been a truly frenetic weekend.

On Thursday and Friday, C and I went to look at trucks. The one from last week that he’d found interesting needed to be brought to the mechanic, so I picked him up early Thursday and we hurried north for 70-ish miles to collect the truck.

a 2-lane highway in perspective, heading across a dry landscape toward distant mountains.

I’m an anxious mother, so I was a little concerned about C driving a vehicle he didn’t know alone to the mechanic, which was necessary because I needed to drive our own car so we’d have something to get back in. But he wanted to get a feel for the truck he hoped to buy, so I took Aurelia (our Hyundai sedan, named for Julius Caesar’s mother) and left the truck to him. It went fine, and I needn’t really have worried since it was all on quiet back roads. C’s driving experience is relatively limited but not that limited. But I did notice, through the rear-view mirror, that his right turn signal wasn’t going on.

When we got out at the mechanic’s shop, C confirmed that he’d definitely been using both turn signals, so if the right one wasn’t showing, it was a problem with the truck. We told the mechanic about it and asked if we could get a guess on what might be causing it. They confirmed, and we returned south to Seattle. About 150 miles round trip.

Later that afternoon, the report came in. It wasn’t terrible… but it wasn’t good. Nobody had been doing regular maintenance on that truck in a long time, and all its fluids were low or discolored. The mechanic explained that while the fluids themselves could be changed easily and inexpensively, they didn’t like to see a vehicle which hadn’t been maintained, because often the lack of care had already done damage that wouldn’t yet appear on the buyer’s inspection. In addition, there was that turn signal — which could be something as simple as a bulb, but could also be a wiring problem, especially as C had noticed that the turn-signal noise clicked twice as fast as usual from the inside. Finally, there was a note about a suspiciously new radiator, which we didn’t understand… wasn’t a newer part a good thing? We’d learn more about that the next day. They estimated about $3,000-5,000 to fix the items they could identify on this basic inspection, with no idea what additional damage lay behind the lack of maintenance.

Regretfully, we considered what to do. I had found a couple more trucks which met C’s requirements at a different shop, here in Seattle. C decided that he’d like to look at those before making any decisions about truck #1, so we decided to do that Friday morning before heading back north to return the truck to its owners.

So, early the next morning, we went to look at more trucks. The shop seemed a bit more professional than the lot up north, and we really liked a couple of their trucks. Unlike the one we’d had examined from the northern lot, there were no interiors that had to be held together with duct tape here! C picked out an ’08 Ford F-150 that had a lot of high end bells and whistles and looked in good condition on the interior. We asked about putting a deposit on it to get it inspected.

This was the point at which things began to get hairy. At first, the Seattle shop was happy to let us put a refundable deposit on the truck just as we’d done on the first one. But we were now into Friday. Apparently, according to the guy who’d promised us the chance to leave a refundable inspection deposit, he’d jumped the gun on that promise: they couldn’t take deposits on the weekend. Also apparently, they regarded Friday as part of their weekend.

Their reasons, it seemed, had something to do with protecting the income of their weekday staff, who were losing too many sales to the weekend staff whose schedules put them on the spot at the times when customers wanted to buy. In order to limit the advantage given to the weekend sales staff, they made it harder to buy a truck from them for three days out of seven.

I was, I admit, both startled and annoyed. I’m sure that I’ve encountered stores which set major policy in ways that made it harder to buy from them for the benefit of their staff, but they usually weren’t so blatant that I found out about it! But I didn’t have time to be irritated; we had to figure out what to do about this truck! The shop claimed to be pretty busy on weekends and that seemed correct from the number of potential buyers we saw passing through.

We could, of course, just take it to the mechanic on the spot, for which no deposit appeared to be required. They were able to get us an immediate appointment with a nearby mechanic, so that part was no problem. But we were expected very shortly, 70+ miles north, to return the first truck to the lot which was selling it. We decided to try asking politely for a hand first, and called the northern lot to ask whether they might possibly be able to go four miles to collect their own truck in order to spare us a 150-mile round trip.

Not hardly! As soon as it became clear that we were not definitely planning to buy the first truck on the spot, not only wouldn’t they consider doing us a favor and fetching it themselves, but the “don’t worry if it’s 4:30 or whatever, just so it’s here by the time we close,” turned into “have it here by 4pm sharp, or forfeit your $500.”

After a hurried consultation, we decided to reach for opportunity, even if it meant more work. We confirmed with the Seattle lot that they were open until 7pm and the mechanic they recommended to us was open until 10pm. Then we breathed in deeply and told them that yes, we would like to take truck #2 to the mechanic and would do so right away.

We drove over — C in the truck to test-drive it and me in Aurelia as usual — and left truck #2 at the shop. The mechanic seemed very nice, but we didn’t have time to stay and talk. C got into Aurelia with me and we headed up north to collect and return truck #1, on deadline.

Halfway through the drive, we stopped at a drive-through for lunch. That was when C realized that he’d left his shoulder bag in truck #2. Cue panic, frustration, and a great deal of swearing.

We decided that C should phone the mechanic who was examining truck #2, to confirm that the bag was actually there and request that they hold it for us to collect on our return. Which he did. Fortunately, it was indeed there and they could easily secure it for us to pick up when we came back for the vehicle.

Unfortunately, his first words were, “This is NOT a good truck.”

We listened. Apparently, he hadn’t even finished the inspection yet, but he could already see far more serious damage than would allow him to recommend buying the vehicle. There were a handful of leaks from various fluids; but more importantly, the undercarriage was severely rusted, which was a problem there was no realistic way to repair at any price.

We agreed, with great disappointment, that this could not possibly be our truck, and we got back on the road. At least we had ensured the safety of C’s bag. But we had now been driving around like maniacs for the better part of two days, and had to show for it one truck we couldn’t possibly buy, and another that we were deeply concerned about buying. We were both feeling pretty depressed.

We spent the rest of the drive discussing truck #1. Okay, it was not C’s dream truck, with all its necessary repairs… but could it be made to be C’s dream truck? It was already about $2,000 less than truck #2, and unlike truck #2, its known problems could be fixed. We decided to ask more about it when we got to the mechanic’s.

On arrival, we were pointed at a very nice lady named Tanya. Tanya hadn’t done the inspection herself, but she knew all about truck #1 from the mechanic who did, and she was great at explaining things to us. This was when she told us about why the low or discolored fluids were such a problem — that they weren’t difficult to fix in themselves (just change the fluids) but they signaled a lack of overall maintenance which could have done other harm. It was also when I got to ask about the radiator.

Tanya explained that they get used to looking for signs of trouble that might be there, not just the troubles they could see for sure were there. They couldn’t do a real mechanical check-up, because we didn’t own the truck; but they could look for the indicators that would make them suspicious. A new radiator in a truck that wouldn’t normally need one yet might be a sign that the engine had overheated at one point… and if that was true, the odds of that truck needing a whole new engine very shortly were high.

C and I looked at each other. It was becoming very clear that we could not possibly risk buying truck #1 either.

We asked Tanya point blank whether, ignoring the question of cost and assuming that everything on their actual inspection report was fixed (the ones they knew about, not the ones that might be), she would personally feel comfortable taking this truck on a thousand-mile road trip. Regretfully, she said no, because of the chance that the engine would melt down due to previous overheating. We thanked her for her explanations and her judgment, and brought truck #1 back to the shop.

There was some fuss about getting C’s deposit refunded, even though we were there well on time. It wasn’t that the shop was unwilling; they simply didn’t know how to refund it onto a different card from the one he’d paid on. And that card was — you guessed it! — inside the bag that had been left in truck #2.

By this point, I might have considered simply going outside and banging my head against a wall. But I didn’t have time. We talked them through what appeared to be the process for refunding to my card, and it looked as if it had worked. We still don’t know as of today whether it did or not, because we were warned that it would take a few days for the money to show up. If it doesn’t turn up by Friday, we will have to call them and bother them about refunding it a different way (though at least C has his card now, to put it on).

We drove back south, in a state of increasing exhaustion and headache. We collected truck #2, and looked for something special Tanya had told us about. When we told her about the truck with the rusted-out undercarriage, she wasn’t surprised — she said that a lot of trucks were being brought down from Canada these days. Canada has, for the most part, long snowy winters, and they salt their roads to melt that snow. Tanya told us that most Canadian trucks rusted early and badly, and that at least a few of the most common makes let you know that the truck was built for the Canadian market by putting a maple leaf symbol on the VIN sticker inside the driver’s door. When we collected the truck to return to the Seattle lot, sure enough, there was the maple leaf. Couldn’t miss it.

So now we have a better general idea of what to look out for in a middle-aged truck, especially one which began its life in Canada. What we don’t have is any more truck prospects in Seattle, so we’re working on a plan to go to Portland in a week or so and look there. Even if we still can’t find something in our original price range that doesn’t need too many repairs, the lack of state sales tax will help us raise the price we can afford by a little bit, and we’ll see what we can find.

But it’ll be a three-day trip, and I’ve already done 300 miles for the sake of this truck purchase in the last couple of days. I don’t mind driving — you know me; I don’t mind going anywhere, for any reason — but I hope we can get on the road soon in our own truck, going someplace we want to drive to, instead of running back and forth among used-car lots to try and find one that’s not as bad as the rest!! Things are definitely going sideways more than usual this time, but we will manage as we always do.

What’s been going sideways in your life lately, either in the good sense or the bad? Let us know in the comments.

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