It's inevitable. Anything that can happen in the Sutton household, will happen.
We were going to have to replace it thanks to the ridiculously low assessment value deemed by the insurance company and the subsequent total loss. And the last thing we wanted was to blow our already tight household budget on a new car payment. So I knew I had some work to do.
Step 1: Find a Fleet Car
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I'd heard since I was a teenager that whenever I was ready to buy my first car, I should contact the local mission office. The church currently operates 405 mission offices around the world, each serving as the central location for missionary operations within a designated region. And each and every one of the approximately 88,000 missionaries have to get around somehow. But transportation for that many people in that many places can be expensive. That's why the church maintains a fleet of mission cars that are purchased new from wholesale retailers, impeccably maintained with mileage limits, regular inspections, and strict rules, and then resold at their depreciated value when they reach around 50,000 miles.
So, as soon as I knew we were going to need a new car, I called our local mission office two hours away in Tulsa, Ok. I was greeted by an elderly missionary who was able to explain to me, in limited detail, that they had one 2012 Chevrolet Malibu currently on their hands with 46,000 miles and a sticker price of $9400.
Silly me, of course, still didn't want to drive four hours round trip to Tulsa. So I, being the stubborn gal that I am, thought I could find something around the same price range with the same mileage locally. HA! I say to that. I was able to find one other vehicle that got the kind of gas mileage the Malibu had, with around the same miles and the same price tag. I contacted the seller and found out it had been sold two days earlier. So much for that.
What I did find, however, was a local 2012 Malibu that we could, at the very least, test drive. I made an appointment with the used dealership to give the car a spin before we agreed to make the 118 mile trip to Tulsa to buy one of a similar make and model. Don't get me wrong, we weren't picky. As long as the thing got decent gas mileage, was in our price range, and could fit our family of four we had very few preferences. But I figured if we were going to drive that far we should at least know in advance we didn't hate the car. (I was also secretly hoping that I could talk the dealership down from the $14,888 price tag. Turns out, not so much. As soon as we told him we could get the same exact car for $9400 he told us that we'd be crazy not to drive down to Tulsa to pick it up that next morning.)
So that's exactly what we did. But before we could load the kids into the back of the rental car and take off down the highway, we had to...
Step II: Secure Financing
Here's where the real kicker came in. A low price tag doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't get good-term financing to go with it. Luckily my resourceful better-half had heard that credit unions had notoriously lower interest rates than banks. That's because a credit union is a non-profit organization designed to cater to its members. It's there to meet its members' needs, not pad it's bottom line. So we applied for auto loans at two different financial institutions, Western Federal Credit Union and our local bank. The bank where we had been doing business for the last ten years offered us an interest rate that was twice what Western Federal wanted. You can guess which one we went with.
The whole approval process with Western Federal took all of two hours, five minutes of which involved the online application and the rest was waiting for the phone call. After that time the Western Federal loan officer explained that, because it was a private party sale, there would be some paperwork required ranging from obtaining the transferred title to a signed affidavit proving the elder selling us the car was really authorized to do so. Luckily there was a relatively stress-free work around. Instead of starting off with an auto loan, Western Federal would issue us what they called a "holiday" loan instead. We'd sign the loan papers, which involved a higher interest rate, and they'd issue us a cashier's check that day. They'd push the first payment out 45 days during which time we could get the title in our name and come back in with it to do a cash-out refinance auto loan with the same low rate we'd discussed. The most it would cost us was $42 in interest for that first 45 days. A small price to pay for being able to spend ten minutes signing paper work, being issued a check that same day, and picking up our new car the next morning.
All in all we ended up with the nicest car we've ever owned for the cheapest price tag we've ever paid. The entire ordeal cost us all of 6 hours (4 of which was driving) and $150 a month for the next four years (thanks to the low interest rate and the $2,000 down payment from the insurance settlement).
Not a member of the church? No problem. Just go to the church's website and contact the missionaries assigned to your area. They'll give you the information you need to get in contact with the local mission office, who'll still be happy to sell you the car. Not comfortable with that? Most dealerships maintain a fleet department with vehicles significantly cheaper than their counterparts. Just contact some of the local dealerships and follow these steps in finding you next new car. Not a member of a credit union? We weren't either. Joining the credit union required no more than opening up a free savings account with a $5 minimum. Most credit unions have stipulations for being eligible to join, but Western Federal required little more than living or working in the local area. So if you find yourself in a predicament like we did, keep these simple steps in mind before being sucked into a car payment that breaks the bank. As long as you have few preferences in make and model, you can walk away with little effort and a car payment you can be comfortable with.