• Adventures in car buying

    Familia wagon

    The same model, courtesy of a Google search

    You know what they say…the best laid plans of mice and men…

    But circumstances forced our hand. Our old  car had its registration paid up till March, which I was loath to give up, but  was a lot less than what it would have cost to get it up to warrantable standard – and we didn’t want to go through the expense and hassle of getting the damn thing fixed, especially since we were planning for a possible replacement so soon. This really was the tipping point – know when to cut your losses. Urgency arrived in the form of a cop who pulled T over on his way to work one morning for not having any rear lights, and warned him that the next time he wouldn’t get away with it.

    We’d had a few cars on our watchlist but in the end we only ended up seeing and test driving one. Result? We basically have the same car – a Familia – but in a five door wagon not a three door hatch, and nearly a decade younger. Guys, we’re talking 1998 – at only 12 years old it is by far the newest car we’ve ever owned! It’s also the most solid – that’s something you can definitely feel about it.

    You know what else this means (especially in a wagon)? Yay road trips! (This solves the question of whether we’ll drive or rent a campervan when we do the South Island). And I’ll be able to help ease the driving load. (Ironically, I’d finally come around to the idea of getting a manual  – better odds of gearbox not crapping out, and finally learning to drive manual in a decent car – but it wasn’t to be.)

    Actually, I’m not so sure about those long trips; BF has already filled up the boot with a sound system (sigh) which means even groceries go in the backseat. Careful shopping plus his work discount meant we got a lot of bang for our buck; still, it was difficult for me to bite my tongue. $600 on car audio???!!! But it’s his money and if that’s what he gets pleasure out of, fine.

    And the main thing is, we came in under the $5000 budget, sounds excluded, even after buying and getting an alarm and immobiliser installed.

    The one spanner in the works: insurance. Apparently this model/year is a high theft risk. And that sets the stage for the next post: the insurance dilemma…

  • Car hunting: Things to look out for

    So, the car search is tentatively on.

    Here’s what we want. It will be a four-door, at least 1500cc and we’re looking to spend up to about $5k. Maybe a little more. Preferably a Toyota (Corolla, Corona). Toyotas, well, go forever.

    I suppose we might be willing to entertain the thought of another Mazda (or equivalent Ford), possibly a Nissan. We’re staying away from Hondas, Hyundais, and anything European. (I know you Yanks all seem to have a thing for Hondas, but the Dog and Lemon guide disagrees. As do I; I have observed a sharp decline in the number of old Hondas I’ve seen on the roads in the last couple of years, and that’s probably for a good – or bad, rather – reason).

    Reliability is key. Safety, not to much. In fact, Dog and Lemon deemed our current car reliable but an accident risk, simply because it was “small and light” nor did it have airbags. Which is sweet with me; the odds of being in a serious accident concern me far less than the likelihood of a breakdown.

    When it comes to narrowing the field, we’ll be looking at:

    Mileage. Obviously, the fewer the better; around 100,000km would probably be about right. Even less would be ideal. This also means we have to be hyper careful and ensure the cambelt has been changed.

    Age. The newer the better. In this price range, mid to late 90s would be realistic, bordering on hopeful. Seeing as Toyotas and Mazdas are such longlifers, they’re valued accordingly.

    Engine capacity. We don’t want anything below a 1.5l, and if we end up getting a wagon, 2l would be better. No 1.3l Corsas for us!

    Consider ease of procuring replacement parts. Ideally, a fairly common model so we can continue to visit Pickapart when things break.

    This probably goes without saying, but it needs to be a petrol car. No diesel versions for us; road taxes suck, as do emissions, and repairs should things go south.

    We’ll probably go for a private sale again, but this time we might consider dealers or auctions.

    What factors do you consider when car shopping?

  • Planning for a new car

    Gear shift stick of my Mazda Protege SE 1999.

    Image via Wikipedia

    As we’ve established, living without a car in Auckland kind of sucks. Luckily, I think I’ve got the best of both worlds – bus to work, joint car and built in chauffeur for everything else.

    Funnily for someone who doesn’t even drive, though, financially speaking, our car history is our biggest shame.

    First car: Bought on a whim shortly after T and I moved in together and he got a job. Early 90s red Mazda MS6 sedan. 180,000k on the clock. Lasted…six months before the gearbox crapped out? (No doubt you’d like to know what we did with it. While I’m all for learning from – and sharing – mistakes, that crosses the line into sheer sadism.)

    Second car: Late 80s/early 90s Corolla two-door hatch. Don’t remember anything else about it except the manual transmission. Given to T in exchange for paying off someone else’s debt. Again – don’t even ask. I don’t remember dates, but it was before the Mazda died; they overlapped and for a brief period we had two cars. Imagine! Again, only lasted a few months before the engine (big end bearing, or something like that?) died. All because we didn’t know anything about maintenance. A little oil and regular fluid checks would have prevented it.

    Third car: T’s infamous 1989 Levin coupe. 200,000k. Paid too much for it. Again, kept paying for it AFTER it died. Don’t recall too many issues with it except for the driver’s window not working; but T was hit in an accident (hence why I’ll never buy a house on a main road) which cost a bit to fix. Not to mention a stressful court case. Eventually this died too; the transmission failed, as far as I recall, but I could be wrong.

    Fourth car: Our little Mazda Familia hatch. 112,000k, manual. Paid $1600 for it early last year; it’s still going, but bodywork – rust – is an ongoing issue. Unlike the previous three, it appears the mechanicals are going to outlive the body. The driver’s seat is worn to the metal on one side and needs replacing, the front bumper is a mess (it’ll happen when it gets kicked; I’d rather he have kicked the kerb instead. Wouldn’t have damaged the car, and might have taught him a painful lesson.) The driver’s window is touchy, but that’s not a biggie for us.

    So that’s four cars in three years. I think our Familia has actually lasted us the longest so far.

    Each time, we always were caught offguard by the cars dying, and thus were forced to shop quickly for a replacement. Recipe for disaster, right?

    Well, this time we’re going to have money beforehand, and probably starting in the new year, will be poised to pick up a bargain should we come across one.

    The plan of action is simple:

    1. Make shortlist of potential cars – makes and models –  against the Dog and Lemon guideessential for anyone looking to purchase a car. It’s comprehensive and accurate; we might not have bought that first car if we’d known about the issues mentioned in the book. It covers all variations of makes, all years (depending on the edition) and you should be able to pick up a second hand copy for less than a movie ticket.

    2. Cruise TradeMe listings in spare time / Talk to T’s friend who is the unofficial car-finder of the group.

    3. Schedule viewings in spare time.

    4. Arrange mechanical check – we’ve never done one on any of our cars and were fairly lucky – but this would be our biggest car buy ever. Also purchase Carjam report to make sure there’s no money owing on it.

    When it comes to cars (and houses) you need cash. Lots of it. Don’t wait for your one car to die before looking for a new one. We didn’t have a choice before – but now hopefully we will.

  • Committing to the carless life

    Auckland is a city of cars. I am one of a rare breed who does not personally own a car. In fact, I don’t drive. I reluctantly sat my restricted licence (and eventually passed) only because upon acceptance into the journalism major, I received a letter informing me that I would require a valid licence.  (Lies! I made it through the whole year without being required to get behind the wheel in the course of my, uh, course).

    But seriously, this makes me some kind of freak. My pocket of friends were also late drivers. Many of us were poor and just walked everywhere. Others had parents who were happy to play chauffeur. Things are changing now, slowly. And to be honest, being able to drive properly would greatly enhance my employability. Particularly if I could drive a manual. I seem to recall last year vowing to learn to do by the end of summer. Ha! In all honesty, I’ve probably done so twice since then, and only because T had had a few too many.

    I get by fine without a car, but the fact remains that I do have access to our shared car, and someone to drive me around. (Good for my stress levels, other motorists, and probably our insurance.) Essentially, I now have the best of both worlds. But just what does living the carless life for real look like?


    I have to admit, I don’t know what commuting to work by car would look like. Parking in town would run me at least $100 per month, to say nothing of all the other costs of driving and car ownership. Personally, I like to let bus drivers deal with the headache of traffic.

    Public transport here kind of works like the solar system. Er. The CBD is the centre of everything, and buses/trains radiate outwards in various directions. So as long as you work in town – or even somewhere along the route into town – you’re set. Of course, the timetables may not work well with your schedule, and in certain areas, you might be lucky to get one bus an hour. Sigh.

    For me, living in the central suburbs is non-negotiable. Better amenities, a shorter, cheaper and more convenient commute. A ten-minute walk to the nearest stop is preferable; in winter, walking in the cold and wet is best avoided for health and mental sanity.


    I’m going to specifically talk grocery runs, because lugging around bags of milk, potatoes and heavy canned food in no way compares to toting around a couple of shoe boxes and some clothes. Trust me when I say grocery shopping is the single worst thing about living the carless life. Been there, done that.

    Yes, I was only shopping for one person, and it was only a 10 (maybe 15 minute walk) but things like milk and potatoes were a killer. Two of my first flatmates were a couple, and they often got a taxi from the mall back home. Other tenants in our street were also known to wheel trolleys all the way home.

    Proximity to work is not the only consideration for a carless househunter. Try to find somewhere close to a supermarket. If there are butchers, grocers, dairies and more in the vicinity – even better. You may find that shopping more frequently – multiple times a week, even – will save you a lot of back and shoulder pain.


    Buses and even trains are fine…if you’re shuttling between town and back. Which I do for work. For anything else, it’s a pain in the butt.

    Let’s say I go to Kingsland (pink marker) after work (blue marker) for a catchup drink with a uni buddy. I bus from the city (black route). But although Kingsland to Mt Eden/Epsom – aka home – is a pretty straightforward drive through two main arterial roads (that godawful cyan coloured route), the easiest PT route is to walk or bus back to the city fringe (blue route), then catch another bus (red route). Time consuming and uneconomical.

    Or out to BHB area where most my of my friends still live. It’s the same story, except the bus trip takes close to an hour.

    It pays to have mates who: live within walking distance; are generous with their rides; come to you; or just don’t like you very much.


    When you choose to buck the trend and live the carless life, you will be forced to live your life by timetables. This is where an accurate watch comes in. And planning, planning, planning!

    It also pays to choose your home wisely. I once lived in a very nice, newly built house, which also happened to be a very long walk away, from, well, anything. I was constantly missing buses and running around from one place to another. Not fun.

    Of course, if I was single, I’d probably have moved into the city and (reluctantly) adapted to apartment life. I’d walk to work and should I ever need to venture out of town, well, public transport would get me almost anywhere from the CBD. If I needed to get anywhere after midnight – a rare occurence these days, I’ll admit – I’d have to rely on friends or call a taxi.

    In short: Life is INFINITELY easier with some kind of access to a car. I mean, relying on other means is by far cheaper, but you lose out majorly in time and convenience. And things like spontaneous trips to the beach? Just not gonna happen.

    How does your city rate on public transport? Do you or could you live the carless life?

  • Children may be expensive, but so are cars

    (This is far nicer than our real car)

    In my experience, there is no bigger budget buster than the car.

    Our little Mazda Familia, bought  for under $2000, is nearly as old as me. It’s 20 years old, and although mechanically, seems to be going okay *touch wood*, physically it’s starting to show its age.

    There’s the dampness problem – apparently the passenger door has a little leak. The driver’s window is stubborn. Both doors sometimes stick. The boot no longer holds itself up.  And recently, it has, on occasion, been reluctant to start up.

    But it’s paid for. That alone is pretty awesome.

    So although we have a reeeeeeally big expense coming up, I’m okay with that. There’s something wrong with one of the wheels, which is also causing it to chew gas like you wouldn’t believe. So although this isn’t essential RIGHT THIS SECOND, it’s certainly going to be cheaper to act sooner rather than later.

    Our options: Replace the two front wheels, or all four. Obviously, it’d be preferable to do all of them so we don’t end up with a crazy Frankenstein vehicle. We may be able to get all four for under $100 on TradeMe; the big cost is replacing the actual tyres, sadly. The tyres on this thing are some really wacky type which are hard to find, and not all that cheap. We have never bought brand new tyres, EVER, but even secondhand ones are going to set us back a few hundy.

    When I set up our budget, I decided on an arbitrary amount of around $500 a year on maintenance and repairs (not including the close to $280 in registration – that’s extra). I had no idea what was realistic, and it looks like this is going to blow that number right out of the water. Grrr.

    How much do you spend on car expenses?


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  • Rear-ended

    Ugh. I think the title says it all.

    The car is still drivable but is sporting a mighty dent and the boot isn’t opening and closing quite as it should.

    The bad news is it’s only worth a couple thousand so we’re only protected if we hit someone else. So it’s up to us to chase her and her insurance company to get some money out of them for repairs. Our insurance won’t give a damn, and certainly won’t help with the claim.

    The good news is she’s a realtor in the $2m club, and got on to her insurance on the same day. So once we get quotes, it should be a quick job and our car will be back to normal.

    The funny thing is, I almost feel bad for her. Yeah, I know it was her fault. But it’s not major damage, and I almost feel guilty for what it’s going to cost her. If it had just been a surface scrape, it wouldn’t have been worth getting fixed.

    If the situation had been reversed, though, I’m sure she wouldn’t be hesitating to chase us for it. So that’s what I’m focusing on. That, and the fact that the back of our car (we replaced the entire hatchback door a while ago) was basically immaculate before the accident. And I intend to keep it that way if we can!

  • Car updates

    – Flatmate finally bought a junker of his own so he no longer borrows ours; he also no longer fills ours up (he was always generous with that and would put enough gas in to pretty much cover our running around).

    – We need to replace two tyres. A guy T saw said he could do them cheaply, but when T went back to the shop he reckoned he’d sold them already.

    – Instead, that money went towards a new tailgate. There was some rust around the boot – the main concern we had when we bought it, and we knew it would need to be addressed for a warrant – so when T found a mint tailgate at Pick a Part for $66 he called me and we decided to scoop it up. Voila – new boot, plus $120 for labour, priming and god knows what else was done. I left all that to him to worry about; it’s part of my maintaining sanity plan. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

    – We also need to budget for the registration (due this month) and take it for a warrant (October, I think). We’ll need to come up with money for new tyres, although I’m not sure if they’re needed to pass the warrant or what.

    – The Levin is STILL sitting in our driveway. Two separate people were meant to come and take the whole thing as a parts car. Neither showed. We’ve had quite a few enquiries about various parts, but most of them fell through. I think the reason must be that prices have fallen drastically. If we got an entire tailgate for $66 from a wrecker, suddenly $150 for a bumper from a private seller isn’t all that much of a deal. I think it’s time to start telling people to make offers, and then we can gauge whether they’re reasonable or not.

  • Duh!

    We may soon be paying more ACC levies on older cars. It’s all about safety, apparently. Never mind it’s penalising people who a) choose to drive older cars, and put the rest of their money to use elsewhere and b) simply cannot afford anything newer.

    “If there’s a greater risk associated with it then that’s just what goes with it. People are making choices every day as to the risks they choose to take and if they choose to be in an older, less safe car, then is it fair that the rest of the community meets the cost of that risk?”

    Uh, no. Some of us make choices to buy cars that we can AFFORD.

    We choose cars that we don’t have to go into debt to finance. That may mean being in an older or less safe car. It means driving carefully and safely, as everyone should be anyway. Again, this is penalising the less well off, who can’t afford to purchase near new cars.

    Dog and Lemon Guide editor (great resource – a must have book if you’re car-hunting):

    “It’s not going to change the behaviour of the people most likely to cause accidents and it’s simply rewarding rich people and punishing poor people.

    “The simplest way to ensure that poor people drive safer cars is to ensure that government departments buy the safest cars in their class.

    Thank god. Someone with a brain.

  • Icing over

    It’s cold enough that in the mornings, if your car is parked outside, you’ll find it frosted over. Ice on the windscreen, windows, maybe even the body.

    Apparently spraying a 50/50 water-vinegar mix over the windows in the evening can prevent ice forming overnight, and also breaks it down in the morning. Definitely going to try that!

  • Car hunt is over!

    We are no longer carless, but the proud owners of a 1990 (limited edition) Familia. It’s a dinky little hatch, but it’s extremely roomy (like, far more spacious than the Levin) both in front, back and the boot. BF was pleased, because it’s a manual, and it’s a 1.6L so has enough power to haul our asses around.

    No, it’s not our dream car, but like I told BF, that’s not what we’re looking for. What we’re after is something solid and reliable – not pretty, not fast, just functional.

    But to be honest, it ticks almost all the boxes! Electric windows, good cupholder..and working seatbelts were also a plus. And although a four door would have been nice, it’s not a must-have at this stage of our lives, especially given that this car isn’t uncomfortably cramped inside. It only has 115,000 km on the clock, and prior to this guy (apparently a private dealer, only owned it since April, according to the report we ordered from carjam.co.nz) a woman owned it for 11 years and kept a folder with all receipts and meticulous records. She had lots of little things done, the kind of maintenance you’d expect, and I’m going to continue doing that with the car. She has brand new tyres from her warrant, which was done in April, and a brand new rego through until September.

    The not so good

    The seller was pretty honest on the listing. The things he didn’t mention were the passenger window only opened/closed from the master control on the driver’s side, and the extent of the rust. He said there was a little bit of rust along one side of the driver’s door. There was also a little bit more along the boot edge and under the lid. However, he and BF agreed it wasn’t structural. It shouldn’t be an issue for warrants for some time; BF and our panelbeater friend can work on it themselves; and at worst, we would just replace the entire tailgate in the future. It shouldn’t be hard to find a Mazda tailgate, or an equivalent Ford one. The slight clicking he mentioned and which we heard on the test drive is either the CV boots (not the joints) or steering rack, which we will get done fairly soon – as BF says, to get the car “immaculate”. He’s really wanting to look after it; I’m glad he understands how important it is for us to keep this car as long as possible and to baby it as much as we can.

    Show me the money

    The asking price was (oddly enough) $1733. Like I said earlier, my budget was up to $1500 for the right car, MAX. So we went with $1500 cash in hand.

    But he said he had already received an offer for $1500, and turned it down.

    In the end, we took it for $1600. I was a little bit reluctant. The rust scared me quite a bit. But mechanically the car was fine; it drove beautifully, felt solid underneath (I don’t know how to describe it, but BF’s Levin didn’t feel solid like that), had low k’s and had obviously been quite well cared for over the last decade. There was nothing else comparable in our price range, and spending an extra $100 I think was worth it. We could have spent $1000 and bought something with 200,000km on it, or something 25 years old. No thanks.

    We then spent $109 on oil and new air/fuel/oil filters. BF did all the work himself. Then I duly noted down in the folder: serviced with all filters changed and new oil 😛

    Plus $12 for the Carjam report (more on that below) and $9.20 for the change of ownership. Youch!

    The process

    Just for anyone who’s interested!

    • Found a fresh listing on TradeMe which looked interesting; showed BF when he came into the room
      BF got excited, gave me a little speech about what a find this was and how disappointed he’d be if we missed out on cars like this due to my reluctance to act
    • Got in touch with the guy to discuss seeing the car
    • After a lot of back and forth texting, arranged to view it the following morning (handily enough, he lived three roads away)
    • Ordered a Carjam report for $12, which told us about the ownership history, whether it had ever been reported stolen, damaged or had money owing on it, when it had gone for warrant inspections, whether the speedo was reliable, and when it was first registered.
    • Went for a test drive. We looked over the car like hawks. BF did a really thorough check (so proud of him! He knows so much more now) checking the body for rust, dents and faults in the paint/bodywork; the exhaust for smoke or black soot; and all the bits under the hood. Asked a SHITLOAD of questions.
    • Completed the change of ownership form ($9.20), paid for the car and drove away!

    I’m definitely glad BF was able to service the car himself and change out all the filters, despite them being really fiddle and difficult to remove. It was a little nervy when he changed the fuel filter; he also adjusted the revs in accord with the recommended settings for the new filter. But we later found that they just didn’t gel with the car… it was revving too high and would over-rev after every gear change. Not nice. I told him it would just have to wait until the weekend, because he had work lined up for the rest of the week. But he insisted on doing it immediately…no way was he going to let the car stay that way! So when we got home at about 8,  he popped the bonnet, turned on the outside lights (dim as they are) and fiddled with the revs til they balanced out.

    Overall, I’m feeling a little tentative. I’m nervous to see how this will pan out. With luck, it will last us a good few years, but then again, luck has never been on our side with cars. On the plus side, our car knowledge has increased tenfold in the last couple of years, and we’re both dedicated to taking care of it and extending its life. According to the Dog and Lemon Guide, this is a good, reliable car that should last for many years, and being a Mazda, parts should be easy to get for it.

    And now, I get to start saving supermarket fuel vouchers again, and watching gas prices fluctuate with a hawkeye!