After a couple weeks of unsuccessfully searching for a van on Craigslist, I found a local broker who promised me everything I wanted — a 2010, 2011, or 2013 Transit Connect with rear door windows, minimal rust, and less than 50,000 miles, all for under $10K. The broker said I was having a hard time finding a van on Craigslist because buying a van is different than buying a sedan. Most cargo vans are business vehicles, and many businesses sell through auction sites, which only certified brokers have access to. I paid the broker $400. He said he’d find a van within a couple weeks.
Two months later, the broker found a van. It had more miles than he’d promised, 88,000, and was $9,200. My partner, Mike, and I drove over to see it. But before the broker showed us the van, he hurriedly handed me a bill of sale to sign and said that a personal check would be fine. I put down my pen. Mike and I went out to look at the van. Its undercarriage was flaky. Rust, rust, rust, everywhere.
A dealership in Denver was offering a Connect for just $8,000. Its rear bumper was damaged, but the more important part, the frame, appeared straight. After getting the van inspected by a mechanic, I was ready to buy it for $7,500, but the dealer wouldn’t haggle. $8,000 plus tax, ma’am. His price wasn’t bad, at least $2,000 cheaper than every other Connect in fair condition in Denver at the time. But his refusal to budge even a little made me feel like a chump, especially as he invited me into his posh office that looked and smelled like a GQ magazine cologne insert. Still, I would have gone for his van had I not just watched Chris Fix’s five-part How to Inspect and Buy a Used Car series, which I highly recommend. Were Chris Fix in my situation, he’d walk away. He’d remind himself not to get emotional. There would be other cheap Connects out there, even if it didn’t seem that way right now. Leave, and wait for the dealer to call you back.
As I walked out, the dealer next door tried to get my business. This dealer’s office was so tiny, he had to scoot his desk out an inch just to sit down, and then shift it back over his stomach. His windows didn’t have blinds. In order to use his west-facing computer screen, he had to squint into the late-afternoon sun. Whenever he wasn’t typing, he stuck his left pointer finger in his ear for reasons unknown. This dealer was more my kind of guy. But he couldn’t find any Connects and suggested a VW instead. The other dealer never begged me to come back, and in two days his van sold.
I decided I needed to be more open-minded. I expanded my search beyond Transit Connects and found an old diesel van for $3,000. The ad said the van had a new engine with only 32,000 miles. Or maybe it said the van had 32,000 miles when the new engine was put in. It was hard to say; the seller apparently didn’t believe in punctuation. Other things the seller did not include in her ad: uppercase letters, photos, a model name, a make. I liked how bad the ad was. Maybe that was why the van hadn’t sold in 19 days, and maybe that meant I could get a deal.
Mike and I drove an hour into the Colorado prairie. The seller lived in a valley where the summer heat pooled. I was so hot, I kept pinching my wrists so I wouldn’t faint. As it turned out, the van’s current engine did have low miles, but its previous engine had racked up more than 300,00, which our bumpy, squeaky test drive made evident. The van also didn’t look great. It began to look even worse when Mike tried to open the cargo door. The door’s rusty hinges snapped, and the door fell outward, nearly pancaking Mike. We learned that the van hadn’t been touched in years, ever since the husband unexpectedly died. I wanted to ask, “Was it the door?” but did not.
I was all about the Transit Connect again. If I couldn’t find a reasonably priced Connect in Colorado, I’d look elsewhere. Like New Jersey, only an hour away from where my family lives. There, a guy was selling his Connect for $10,500. An upgraded 2013 model with minimal rust. Only 50,000 miles. If I decided to buy it, the transaction would be tricky because the van had a lien, and also I would not be present for the purchase. Fortunately, a car-savvy family friend agreed to inspect the van for me. On the phone, the seller said he’d used the van for his side business—putting up his neighbors’ string lights during the holiday season. He loved decorating. He was a single dad. His Boston accent reminded me of the brothers of Car Talk, which I used to listen to some Saturday mornings, before I learned that all their shows were reruns because one of the brothers was dead, and I suddenly felt simultaneously duped and guilty, as if I’d just been caught trespassing through a private graveyard that I’d been told was a national park.
When inspection day came, the family friend couldn’t make it. He was sick. I was somewhat relieved. What I hadn’t told the family friend was that, the night before, I’d googled the seller’s name and learned that he’d been convicted of grand larceny while working in the NYC financial industry four years ago. Naturally, my immediate reaction was to call the inspection off. But then, over coffee the following morning, I began to question that reaction. It didn’t seem like the guy was trying to dupe me. He’d been forthcoming with his full name and place of residence. Sure, he was a grand larcener, but at least he wasn’t the one who’d come up with the scheme—that had been his boss, who’d served three years in prison for it. My guy just got probation. Wasn’t it possible that my guy had gone along with his boss’s plan because he couldn’t afford to lose his job? Didn’t he say he was a single dad? Even if he was as bad as the court documents made him seem, who was I to say that he was still the same person he’d been four years ago? Even if it’s true that people don’t really change, isn’t it also true that even a grand larcener sometimes just needs to sell his used car on Craigslist, and not necessarily in a malicious way? Couldn’t it be that he’s had trouble selling this van because all other potential buyers were put off by his criminal record? If I’m really, super careful, could this finally be my shot at a great deal?! And one more thing! Don’t I live in the United States of America, where we’ve entrusted a crook with the presidency, and isn’t buying a used car off another, much more low-key crook, way less risky? I never did find out.
Then came Cindy from Nebraska, who never gave her full name. Vans in southwestern Nebraska are just as expensive as in Colorado, but head eastward, out to Omaha, and the situation quickly changes. On the phone, Cindy sounded really proud of her van. “Of course my van doesn’t have any rust,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who would own a van like that.” I looked forward to meeting Cindy. I imagined her living room lined in carpet so plush and thick, I’d sink my whole platform sandal into it, while she’d proudly watch and say, “That’s right.”
The van had close to 100,000 miles, but I decided that didn’t bother me. It was only $6,000. I planned to fly out to Omaha as soon as possible, buy the van, and drive back. But first I had a wedding to attend. On the way to the wedding, Cindy informed me that someone was looking at the van right then. While changing into a skirt in a Starbucks bathroom, trying hard to avoid the wet toilet paper on the ground, I texted Cindy to please hold up! I would fly out to her the very next day! I would pay the full $6,000! As much as it pained me, I would definitely not barter! A couple hours later, after the brides had kissed and danced and wept, and while I was deciding which cake was better, the vanilla cream one or the jam one, I learned that, remarkably, there was a third cake, and it was chocolate. Then I heard my phone buzz. Cindy had sold her van. She wished me good luck.