Friday, August 24, 2012

Buying a used car in USA

After recently moving to USA, I decided to buy a used car (on a student budget!). Initially, it seemed to be a very simple task. Go through online listings, filter out according to price and other preferences, test drive and make a decision! Last time I bought a car in USA, was 10 years ago. Apparently, a lot has changed since then.

There were several websites I was recommended to check out. Some of the top ones being CarSoup, and of course, Craigslist! As it turns out, CarSoup and have a charge to post a listing. This causes most private sellers to avoid it. Most of the listings on those websites were from dealers. Since I was looking for an old car, there was no warranty on the car from the dealer, and their lowest prices were higher than similar models being sold on Craigslist by private sellers.

Craigslist turned out to be the best resource. I narrowed the cars listed according to the price filters and that they have to be Japanese made. Since I was looking for an old car, I could only trust a Japanese car to last me a couple of years without additional expenses. This narrowed it down to Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

There were quite a few listings for me to choose from. The question was, how to go to different sellers in different parts of the city without a car. So, I needed a car to buy a car! Fortunately, my fraternity brother, Cory, was generous enough to let me borrow his extra car until I could find one of my own!

I started calling up sellers on Craigslist and setting up times to go check out the cars. When I actually drove to each one of those places, I realized that driving 30-40 minutes was the norm. To look at each car, driving such distances was exhausting. Could only check out 2-3 cars a day.

It felt good to have so many options to choose from. Then I went ahead and got a CarFax membership for unlimited reports for $55. When I went to check out those cars, I realized there weren't as many options as they seemed. Most of the nice cars that I liked either had been salvaged, or had been in a major accident!

Finally, I came across a Toyota Camry which had a smooth drive and no problems in its CarFax report either. Only problem was it had a 'Check Engine' light coming on. I decided to get it checked by the Toyota dealership nearby. They charged $135 just to have a diagnostic check! This car buying was turning out to be an expensive proposition, and I hadn't even bought it yet.

When I got the report, turns out the car requires a new catalytic converter and some other things. The repairs would have costed almost $1,000. Since I liked the car so much, I was willing to buy it for $500 less than the price agreed upon. But the seller was not interested. Back I went into looking at Craigslist listings.

Then I got a call from my friend whose mechanic had a couple of cars he wanted to sell and suggested I have a look at them. This mechanic came highly recommended. A few of my friends had been going to him for more than five years and trusted him a lot. I figured if I buy a car from him, at least he will take some responsibility for any problems that arise later.

He showed me a Ford, which I immediately rejected. Then he showed me a Honda Accord which had a minor accident and he agreed to fix it before selling it to me. The demanding price was also well within my budget. It had a clean CarFax report, except for the minor accident which he was working on. We negotiated on the price and I agreed to pay him the money and pick up the car after two days. When the time came around, he asked to raise the price by $200 because we had so strongly negotiated the price that he couldn't afford to replace the bumper with a new one.

Since we knew that even with the extra $200, it was within my budget and below market value, we agreed on it. After another couple of days, the car was ready and I was finally the new owner of a Honda Accord!

As it turned out, despite going through all the online research and different websites, I ended up buying the car from a friend's mechanic. In hindsight, the online research and checking of different cars was necessary. Otherwise I would have never known if the price he was asking was reasonable or not.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

American Airlines: Avoid at all costs!

Last week, we finally travelled halfway across the globe from Karachi to Minneapolis. According to my travel agent, American Airlines only allows one checked bag per person. Extra checked bag is charged $50 per bag. On the American Airlines website, there was a clause which stated that any customers travelling to or from Asia are allowed two checked bags.
I contacted American Airlines on their Facebook page to clarify their terms. According to them, we were allowed two checked bags per person. Between the two of us, that meant four checked bags and two carry-ons. Since we were going for a long-term stay, we needed the most luggage space we could get. I asked them what to do if we were denied two checked bags at the airport. They said, just show a printout of our conversation and it should be good.
We showed up at 4 am for our flight at 5.45 am. With six bags in tow, when we approached the check-in counter, we were told there was only one checked bag per person allowed on American Airlines. I told them about my conversation with them but they wouldn't listen. They just printed out their own rules and showed me that it stated we were allowed one bag. After much haggling, I told them I would pay the $100 extra charge ($50 per bag) as I was told by my travel agent. Apparently, even that wasn't allowed. If we wanted to pay extra, we would have to pay roughly $160 per bag! This would amount to $320, for old clothes and underweight bags! I would rather buy new clothes for that much money. Finally, the only option left was to ditch the two bags!
I called my dad at 5 am to come back to airport to pick up the two extra bags. He's the only one I could count on who would get out of bed at 5 am and drive back to the airport after dropping me off an hour ago! In the meantime, we opened all six bags and repacked them so as to ditch unnecessary stuff and keep what we needed. We had to put on snow jackets on the plane to avoid taking up space in the bags! It was an ordeal I would never want to go through again!
With snow jackets on, two heavy carry-on bags, we ran through security, immigration and customs just to make it in time for boarding. Then going through stopovers at Dubai, London and Chicago with all of this was our own Olympic race!
The planes we travelled on were also of very poor quality. The first leg of the flight was via Emirates. From our previous travels, we have noticed that Emirates usually reserves its worst planes for the Karachi - Dubai flight. That didn't surprise us. Since it was a short flight, we were glad it went by quickly. The next flight to London was operated by British Airways. Theirs was the best plane we came across. Comfortable seating, plenty of inflight entertainment and good food. I got to sleep for the most part of this eight hour journey. We thought the next two flights would be similar. We were so wrong!
American Airlines flight from London to Chicago was eight hours long in a broken seat! There was no inseat console for entertainment and really bad food. Longest flight we had to encounter. Chicago to Minneapolis was even worse, but since it was only an hour's flight, we couldn't complain much. In both the American Airlines flights, they could not even fit our carry-on luggage and had to check it in.
Lesson learned from this journey: avoid American Airlines as much as possible. If I had known it would be this bad, I would have asked my travel agent for some other option!