More car woes (just not mine)

Today seemed to be the day that everyone else in my household’s cars decided to chuck spazzies.

I had a message from a friend staying with us to say her recently purchased car (as in purchased Friday three days ago) was playing up again (after already having been to visit the mechanic on day 1).

Then J called me on the way back from LAX to say that Brandon had stopped at an intersection and wouldn’t start and required a tow. She called me for my expert advice on dying cars given that Esmeralda has had two overheating issues and three tows. My advice was to call AAA (the equivalent of RACV or NRMA etc) and join up. With AAA you get four free tows of up to 7 miles each year. It’s an absolute necessity here.

So I guess if you are looking at buying a car in LA (and America) I have the following advice for you:

  • Cars are not as reliable as they are back home. The reputation cars have at home doesn’t necessarily translate to that of cars here.
  • If buying a used car, always buy a certified pre-owned car. This basically means the manufacturer has gone over it with a fine tooth comb and gives it a seal of approval.
  • Get a warranty. If something is going to go wrong, it WILL go wrong in the first month. I have at least three examples of this!
  • Find a good mechanic and check their reviews on Put their contact details in your phone so you can ring them if you experience a problem and so you have their address to give if you need a tow.
  • Have a pool of contingency cash so you aren’t caught short when something does need to be fixed.
  • Don’t skimp on insurance. It is expensive, but absolutely essential.
  • Pony up to put the good gas in your car. Chevron is the most expensive, but is also the best quality. Whilst I am shopping for the cheapest gas for Esmeralda, I am putting in premium to keep her turbo engine happy.

If things go wrong, don’t despair. Everyone has a story of car woe. You arrive in LA and you have car issues. It seems to be de rigour, so don’t let it get you down, soldier on and things will get better.

Esmeralda my new green gem

After being in LA for a month, I have finally bought a car.

Me and Esmeralda: the beginning of a great friendship

I won’t lie and say it’s been easy because being in LA without a car is tough. I was feeling hamstrung and completely dependent on my friends who had to go out of their way to take me places. But when I woke up today, I had a feeling that it would be all okay because I had come to a resolution in my head. If I didn’t get a car, I was going to hire one for a week.

Initially I was quite hesitant about driving on the opposite side of the road, however as the days and weeks passed I became a lot more confident and just wanted to get back behind the wheel again. It’s helpful that there is always traffic in LA and also the yellow lines painted down the road are a godsend for staying on the right side of the road.

I can’t even begin to imagine how much time I spent on Autotraders and websites, trawling through car after car, trying to find a good car in my price range of $5000. Disappointed by the lack of vehicles, I even moved my budget up a thousand dollars, but still it was tricky to find something that I felt comfortable with. In the beginning I was looking for an SUV and had my heart set on a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Then when Gin and J got Brandon, I thought I could probably get away with having a smaller sedan that would a) fit into the second space for a compact car at our apartment b) be easier to park in general and c) would be more fuel efficient. Brandon’s big Jeep interior and roofracks could handle anything big and bulky that we would be transporting, so something smaller in the family would be fine.

I moved on to looking at Volkswagens. Mainly Passats and Jettas. I test drove a dodgy, smokey Jetta that a dealer wanted $6500 for. Then I test drove a private sale Passat which I made an offer on subject to it passing a mechanics inspection to my liking. That car didn’t even make it to the mechanic I had selected before it had an engine problem. So I dodged a bullet there. I also found out during my research that there are a number of engine problems with the Passat, for which a class action had been taken against Volkswagen for an oil sludge problem.

Disheartened, I finally did a search on Autotrader for any kind of car. I was that desperate. It threw up a few Volvos and on closer look and internet research, they looked to be a good car. So I called Good Vibes car dealer in North Hollywood this morning to see if the green 2000 Volvo s40 was still on their lot, as I’ve gone to a car yard before only to find the car I wanted to look at had been sold already, so it’s always good to call ahead.

J drove me in Brandon to the dealer and we had a good look at the green Volvo before going to see Steve the salesman. Steve was lovely and let us have a play in the car, checking how things worked, opening and shutting the sunroof, pulling down the split fold rear seats to see how flat they lay, getting in the front and then the back to check comfort levels, and wowing over the seatbelt for groceries in the boot. We then asked to go for a drive and after a Castle moment, the cars being detailed in the yard were moved to get the little green Volvo on the road.

The car was very comfortable to sit in. It felt really solid and safe on the road and it just felt good in general. Feeling rather excited, I decided that I wanted to buy it. We checked all the electrics again and found that the right brake and indicator bulbs had gone, so they were replaced for me without any hassle. I then let J go home while I spent a couple of hours filling in paperwork and organising insurance, chatting to Steve about how he loves the film Muriel’s Wedding, getting the skinny on all the paperwork and learning some new road rules.

Finally, after handing over a big wad of cash (predominantly $20 notes) and swiping my debit card for the remainder of the cost (which came in right on original budget), I got the keys to my new little Volvo. I sat in the driver’s seat and inhaled deeply a few times, holding the steering wheel and wearing a big smile. I adjusted the seat and mirrors, opened the sunroof a little and moved out onto the road. I was underway in my very own car, which is one that I would never have bought in Australia.

Getting home after a good run on the Hollywood Freeway, I even managed to ace a reverse park on the hill out in front of our place to cap off an exciting day. 

My new Volvo has been named Esmeralda. It means emerald in Spanish and my little green gem and I are going to be inseparable in LA.

Essential skills for buying a car…

…are Spanish language skills.

Gin, J and I went on a tyre-kicking tour of LA which took us to Florence-Graham, a predominantly Hispanic part of LA. They were checking out a red 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee listed by Jose on behalf of his mum. I always thought good mechanical minds, or excellent negotiation skills were important in buying used cars, but it seems that so is speaking someone’s language.

After a little test drive, they said they needed to think about it, so we went for a little cruise around the block and found a grotty old car yard called Almazen Kar Sales. We pulled into the lot and got out to have a look around. An old man came up to Gin and said “Hablas espanol” so I came to her rescue and started having a conversation with him about finding a car. He was a little difficult to understand because he was missing quite a few teeth.

When I told him of Gin and J’s limited budget, he got a lady from the office, who could speak a little bit of English but you could tell she felt far more comfortable in Spanish, to show us some cars on the other side of the fence. This woman was wearing tight jeans, a jewel coloured knit jumper and had hair and make up that looked like they’d come straight out of a Mexican boutique like the one called ‘Fancy’ that I went to in Merida, Mexico, last year.

The cars there were really rough, and not as good as Jose’s mum’s car, and a lot more expensive. So we continued our tyre-kick after the lady whispered that we might find something more suitable in one of the car dealers on Alameda Avenue.

So we followed her advice and went to a yard on Alameda where the older gent was very proud to tell me they had three businesses, a chicken shop, a mechanic and a car dealership. They were really helpful in saying that for Gin and J’s limited budget, they would be better off going for a private sale and looking on Craigslist.

Gin and J about to buy a car from Jorge

So it was back to Jose’s to check that the seats folded flat and another little ride around the block. Following this, Gin and J negotiated a bargain with Jose interpreting for his dad Jorge. All this while, I remained in the hire car with Karen the GPS lamenting my own lack of luck in finding wheels. When the girls got back in with uncontrollable smiles at purchasing new wheels, all grinchy-ness left me and I was over the moon for them.

We drove off to Bank of America in order to get cash for the transaction and then it was back to the house of Jose, Jorge and Maria. This time I got out and joined in the fun, which also turned into my interpreting skills coming in handy as Jorge explained what to do if the alarm goes off. Maria (Jose’s mum) came out to write out the pink slip and was relieved when she looked up to ask a question and I said I spoke some Spanish. Because Maria couldn’t write the amount in words in English, I had to do it. I also found out that Maria’s daughter LOVES Guy Sebastian and has his posters and CD, so we laughed about that. Jorge was also quite impressed at my language skills, but that was when he thought we spoke French in Australia and that I knew three languages.

I never would have thought I’d be dusting off my Spanish today to help buy a car for Gin and J, but it was such a great feeling and I look forward to more Spanish conversations.