I recently took a trip to St. Anthony, Iowa (town motto “Iowa’s Butthole”) to buy my dream car. For those of you unfamiliar with St. Anthony (that would be everyone but the 102 people that resided there at the time of the 2010 census), it was originally named after Anthony, the Patron Saint of Upside-Down Cars in Your Front Yard. It is Iowa’s #1 destination for buying cars off of Craigslist and also potentially getting murdered by people rejected from the casting call for a bad horror film for looking “too stereotypically redneck”. This is that story. Not the horror movie story, the car-buying story.
If you read my last post, you’d know the focus of my daily/hourly/minutely Craigslist searches had been narrowed down to the Mazda RX-8, the Mercedes C-class wagon, and the BMW E36 wagon.
And as a seasoned online car buyer with an impressive lengthy résumé of one car purchased online (whose engine blew up a month later), I know all of the rules to weeding out bad ads, dealing with scammy sellers, and getting the best deal possible. And one day, after weeding through literally figuratively millions of other Craigslist ads, I found the perfect car. It was a 1997 BMW M3 Sedan. Not quite the sleeper I was hoping for, but the “street cred” of the M3 badge could make up for some of that.
And those that know me best know that most of my life has been spent worrying about how much “street cred” I have.
It was a sedan, so that meets my practicality goal. The factory five-speed meant that I wouldn’t have to fool around with adding a clutch pedal, and the existence of a pro-engine swap online community certainly didn’t hurt things. Even better, potential engine issues meant that the price was right.
Every part of the ad, communication with the seller, and purchase experience lived up to my rigorous list of rules, so I was guaranteed to end up with a perfect car.
Rule #1: The ad should be vague and have as few pictures as possible
What do I think of someone that spends a significant amount of time typing up a detailed description of the vehicle and then compliments it with a multitude of photos providing a thorough and accurate presentation of the vehicle and its current condition? Overachiever. It’s like in grade school when you had to do a book report presentation so you glue-sticked a couple magazine cutouts to a slab of cardboard and then stumbled your way through describing the part of Where the Red Fern Grows with the intestines.
And then the presenter after you spent approximately the GDP of a third world country on craft supplies and enough to time and effort putting it together to have actually achieved peace in that third world country. The display is coupled with a glowing, well-rehearsed summary of the book and at the end there’s a bright flash of light and a plume of smoke and the book’s author appears at the front of the class to hand out full size candy bars. Cool it, nerd, you’re making us all look bad. Craigslist charges by the word so saying “too much to list” is definitely valid and not super freaking lazy.
The text of this ad:
Price is firm. Some valve noise.
The pictures were all taken from a distance and one of them already showed the car sitting in a mechanic’s shop. Perfect. I’ll take it.
Rule #2: There is no subtext
Once you start communicating with the seller via the acceptable Craigslist communication protocols of phone, email, text, telegraph, smoke signals, or pure Emojis, it’s important to realize that you shouldn’t read into anything that’s said. People are always trustworthy and everything should be taken at face value. If the seller texts, “Iv personally had the car maxed out and it handled like a champ” or “Suspension is stock could use replacing but doesn’t affect driving” or “Iv talked to a few people and they recommend trailering it if u going back to des moines just cause no one can say for sure if u might hurt something else or it it will run just fine they way it is”, the only takeaways should be that the seller is enthusiastic about the car’s performance, realistic about its handling, and concerned for my emotional well-being. I certainly wouldn’t believe he’s abusive, neglectful, or downright delusional. And if those examples seem oddly specific it’s because they’re literally things the seller literally said to me in literal texts.
Rule #3: Go alone
I need to admit right off the bat that I broke this rule. I racked my brain trying to think of a way that I could travel 70 miles, pick up the car, and return home on my own but my options were just too limited - I took a friend with me so that he could drive my car back home while I basked in the wonder and the majesty that was my new car. If you have to take a friend with, have that friend drop you off and immediately leave. Or better yet, take a one-way form of transportation like a Greyhound bus or parachute to meet the seller. This lets the seller know that you’re serious about buying the car and could not possibly have an adverse affect on your bargaining position or ability to continue living.
Rule #4: Make sure the seller has the car already running when you arrive
Nothing says “I have nothing to hide about this car’s starting system or ability to run cold” like the seller having the car warmed up and running when you arrive. Remember rule #2: take it at face value. The seller is primarily focused on your convenience. Nevermind that even though the car was warmed up when we arrived, and the “some valve noise” mentioned in the ad ended up sounding like if a diesel pickup was running without any oil and also someone was operating a jackhammer on top of the engine and also small atomic devices were being detonated in sync with the engine’s current RPM.
Hyperbole aside, there was literally a diesel pickup next to the car and we literally couldn’t hear the pickup running over the sound of the M3's idle.
Rule #5: A cursory walkaround is a suitable substitute for an actual pre-purchase inspection
Here’s how my walkaround went: “Yep, that’s a car.” “Yep, the tires hold air.” I then took it for a test drive that consisted of going around the block and not exceeding 12.6 mph. “I’ll take it. At the full asking price. Here’s an envelope of cash.” I can’t imagine ever doing anything differently.
SO - I followed these important rules as closely as I could. Imagine my surprise when after driving approximately 9 of the 60 miles home, the car shot a plume of smoke out the exhaust, died, and would no longer turn over? I was SHOCKED to say the least.
The irony of where the car died wasn’t lost on me.
Just in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation, the 63 mile tow home cost $183. and we were pretty lucky to find someone local and available late on a Saturday afternoon.
“Oh, you’re big into BMWs?” asked the tow truck driver. “No,” I replied as I hung my head in shame.
Once home, I started digging deeper into the car and continued to be SHOCKED at what I found, though there were also a few PLEASANT SURPRISES. But more on that next time.
Catch my build thread here on Oppo with a new installment each Monday, or if you like spoilers check out MikaelVroom.com for the latest updates. Instagram me @MikaelVroom, I promise that less than half of my pictures will be of my dog, though all will be heavily filtered.