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  • Writer's pictureMr. FI Musician

We Bought a Used Car!

Let's talk about cars.

Back in 2012, I was driving my parents' 2000 Rav4, who I named Rocky (Rocky is actually short for Racquelle). I learned how to drive in that car, and my parents graciously allowed me to take Rocky to school for the second half of my undergrad. From there, she unofficially became my car. Rocky was the first model of a Rav4, much different from today's models. She was cramped and wasn't great with gas mileage, but I loved her.

For many years Rocky was reliable. She got me to where I needed to go safely. I didn't worry too much about dents or scratches. My sisters had also learned to drive in Rocky and over the years she had acquired quite a few scars.

One of our crazy adventures together.

In the summer of 2012, I was leaving a camp where I had a job as a teacher and was on my way to travel 2,300 miles across the country to start a job as a college teacher at a small music school, with a pitstop at my parents' house. About two miles into my journey, Rocky began to shake badly. She already had 200,000 miles on her so I didn't want to take any chances. I found a local mechanic who told me one of Rocky's four cylinders had stopped firing. He said I should be able to get back to my parents' house safely, but it would be a bumpy ride.

Boy was he right. I endured 750 miles of what felt like being inside a bobble head. Halfway through the journey, a semi truck kicked up a rock. It hit my windshield and created a three foot crack.

The moment the windshield cracked I knew Rocky was on her final drive.

I managed to get to my parents' house and we talked about options. I was only in town for 48 hours and needed to get another car before continuing my journey across the country.

My mom was always a worrier. As such, she didn't want me to drive a used car.

"It might be unreliable."

"You don't know it's history."

"What if it breaks down in the middle of nowhere?"

I didn't question her logic. As long as I had been around, my parents had always bought new cars. I have never been through the process of buying a car and I assumed they knew best. Plus, I'd have a new car.

My family had been driving Toyota's for decades. All of them lasted over 200,000 miles so we knew they were reliable. It was important for me to have a lot of cargo space for transporting percussion instruments. Because of this, we decided to get another Rav4. My parents took me to a Toyota dealership and we discussed options. I was about to start a new job, but buying a new car was still beyond what I could handle in terms of monthly payments.

"Ah, well if you need to lower your monthly payments, you could lease the car," said the sly salesman.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. I remember thinking how smart I was:

"It's a new car but I'm paying less for it!"

"I won't have to worry about reliability!"

"In three years I can trade it in and get another new car. I'll never have a junker!"

What I should have been thinking:

"If I'm only going to have this for three years, I don't need to worry about long term reliability. Maybe I could find a cheaper SUV."

But of course I wasn't thinking that. I was still in my early twenties and wanted a brand new Rav4. So I leased Rocky II. Then three years later I leased Rocky III. Then Rocky IV.

The evolution of Rocky.

It was May of 2018 when I leased Rocky IV. Seven months later I was introduced to FI and realized that leasing a car was not a savvy move. I read blogs and listened to podcasts that proved my mother's fears about used cars inaccurate. If you do your homework, you can find a great used car for the fraction of the price of a new car.

My wife and I decided we were done leasing cars. We made it a goal in 2021 to buy a used car in cash. Over the past summer we started to set money aside. While our lease is finished in May, we wanted to give ourselves 3-5 months to search for a used car, so the pressure of needing a car wouldn't impact our purchase.

Finding a Used Car

The first thing we did was decide what kind of car we wanted. Here was our criteria:

Toyota or Honda

From talking with friends and reading reviews, we found that Hondas and Toyotas are the most reliable cars. Because we're in it for the long haul, we wanted something that will last as long as possible.

Hatchback or SUV

While I'm not playing nearly as many gigs, we did want to make sure that we could fit my five octave marimba in the car in a single trip. So we didn't need as much space, but we wanted a car that had back seats that folded flat.

Engine Type: Hybrid

While hybrid cars can be more expensive up front, you'll save money in the long term. Because we're planning to keep this car for as long as possible, it made sense to get a hybrid. Plus they're better for the environment.

Miles: Under 125,000

Price: Under $10,000

While we wanted to pay under $10,000, I searched for cars at $12,000 and under. Because negotiating is a major factor with purchasing a car, I didn't want to rule out cars that were above our buying price, knowing it might be possible to negotiate the price down.

Once we had our checklist, I spent 15-20 minutes each day searching on Facebook, Craigslist, and CarFax. After just a day or two, it became clear based on our list of requirements that a Toyota Prius V was our best option. SUV's were too expensive, especially hybrids.

Oh where oh where are you future car?

Over the course of six weeks I came across approximately ten cars that fit our criteria. If a car looked promising, I did more research on it. I asked the seller to provide a VIN. If they refused, I moved on. I assumed if they wouldn't provide the VIN they were trying to hide something from me.

From there, I ran multiple VIN checks at free websites such as,, and I was looking for the following information:

How many owners?

One owner is ideal. Two owners is okay, if they both had it for 2+ years. Anything over two and I assume something is wrong with the car.

Total Loss Record/Rebuild Title/Accident Reports

We did not want a car with a total loss record or rebuild title. We were also looking to make sure it had no major accidents that could compromise the functionality of the car. Minor scratches or dents were okay.

Information matches the seller's description

I was shocked at how often the information did not match. Mileage was most often the culprit. If anything did not match, I reached out to the seller for clarification. On two occasions the sellers never responded. I assume I was asking too many questions for their liking.

If the free VIN searches checked out, I paid CarFax a $20 fee to do another VIN check. This was the final step before setting up a time to meet with the seller. I did this twice and the CarFax report was worth the $20. In both cases, new information came up that made me decide not to move forward.

Buying a Used Car

Earlier this month I found a 2014 Prius V that matched our criteria. It had been purchased by a used car dealership back in October with 105,000 miles and one previous owner. Originally marked at $11,995, the dealership had recently brought the price down to $10,995, I assume because it had been on the lot for several months. The dealership had provided the CarFax report for free, allowing me to skip some of the steps mentioned above.

I emailed the dealership letting them know I was interested and we set up a time for us to test drive the car.

Before we go any further, I think it's important to point out that I am a terrible negotiator. I hate haggling. In all of my previous car dealership encounters, I brought my dad with me to help negotiate. He's much better at it.

While my dad wasn't around this time, I called him prior to heading to the dealership for a pep talk. He gave me some good advice:

  • Make sure you get a 30-day warranty

  • Ask them for the mileage on the tires

  • Don't be afraid to walk away

We arrived at the dealership and I felt this crazy energy inside of me. I asked for the salesman with whom I had been emailing, and a man who looked several years younger than me showed up.

He retrieved the car for us and we did a ten minute test drive. The car felt great. It handled just as well as our 2018 Rav4. We inspected the inside and outside of the car and were satisfied with it.

We came back inside and told the salesman we would buy the car in cash right now if he can get the price under $10,000.

I could see his eyes light up. Being as young as he was, I assume he hadn't had many sales. He looked eager. He asked me to sign a slip affirming that I would follow through on my words. I was happy to sign it.

He ran off to his manager to get the numbers approved, but came back with a figure of $10,700. At this point we said thank you and got up to leave. He asked us to sit back down and went to get his manager.

Yep, that's what I thought.

The manager was obviously a much more experienced salesman. He said he could get the price down to $10,400. We told him once again that we needed it to be below $10,000. He gave us a very convincing speech and said he wouldn't budge. what?

My wife and I took a sidebar. While we didn't want to go over budget, we considered other factors:

  • The car had brand new tires installed by the dealership. None of the other cars we had been looking at had new tires. That's a $200-$300 expense that we were expecting to pay on top of the used car that was now included in the price of the car.

  • I had already spent 8-10 hours researching cars and speaking with sellers. My wife asked me if trying to save $400 was worth potentially sacrificing another 8-10 (or quite possibly more) hours searching for additional cars.

Mrs. FIM is so logical. When she said that to me, it was a no-brainer. The car matched everything else we wanted. Yes, I could spend hours and hours searching for a better deal, but my time is valuable. More valuable than the $400 I might save.

So we bought the car.

As we were leaving the dealership, I told Mrs. FIM about the energy I had felt when we arrived. I realized it was a feeling of control. In my previous car buying experiences, I needed a car. The dealers knew I needed a car. They could see my desperation. They used this as an advantage to sell me the most expensive car I could afford.

This time, there was no desperation. We knew what we wanted and we knew what we were willing to pay. There was no talk of upgrading to get fancy features. We had already told him what car we wanted before even arriving at the dealership. There was no need to negotiate financing terms because we paid with cash. It was simple. The entire event took no more than 30 minutes.

Finance Side

We're so excited to not have a car payment anymore. Our 2018 lease cost us $15,160.64 over a three year period. It's crazy to think that we just bought a car for two-thirds of that price. Sure, it's four years older and yes, it has more than twice the miles that Rocky IV has, but as long as the car lasts longer than 2.5 years we will have saved compared to what we paid for our third lease. But my hope is this car will get us to 2030.

This was such an eye-opening experience for us. We'll see how the car does, but for now, we're convinced that we'll be buying used cars moving forward.

Oh, and if you're asking if we named this car Rocky V, we did not. Rocky is only reserved for Rav4's. We were trying to think of names for the car as I connected my phone to the bluetooth system. It turns out, the car already had a name:

Meet our new car, Pablo: In the Flesh.

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