The great van odyssey

We’re not just a two-car family now.  We’re a nerdy two-car family now.

Our little Toyota Tercel has been awfully good to us these past four years.  We were able to buy it with cash shortly after Jonathan was born in 2004, and because the previous owner had rubbed it against a guard rail while cruising in Zions National Park a few months earlier, we were able to get it for a little less than half its appraised value.  Four years, thirty-seven thousand miles, two children, and one cross-country trip later, it was time for an upgrade.  Not only were the kids’ legs rubbing up against the backs of the front seats, but we also had to make room for a third car seat within a few months – and Cassia wasn’t too keen on the idea of strapping one of the children to the roof or tossing them into the trunk.  So it was time to move up to a minivan.

Why a minivan?  For one, it’s extremely practical, and in this time of outrageous gas prices a little practicality is a good thing to have.  (For example, a standard SUV would give us five slightly wider seats than what the Tercel offered, but there’d be no room to “grow” and plenty of extra vehicular weight to haul around – a terrible price to pay for the benefit of a so-called “sporty” design.)  A well-equipped used minivan was also much more financially feasible than a comparably equipped used SUV.  Besides, Cassia and I have nothing against looking like nerdy family folks hauling around our little brood in a big box on wheels.

We began looking in earnest around the first week in June. We paid $25 for 90 days of unlimited Experian AutoCheck privileges, so we could enter VIN numbers from vans we were interested in to see if there were potential problems like flood damage, duplicate titles, failed emissions tests, etc.  We must have checked upwards of 50 vehicles this way, so it was definitely worth the investment.

On Saturday, June 7, Cassia and I spent the day driving around Atlanta and test driving three minivans we were most interested in.  We’d narrowed down our range of models to the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, both because of their extreme longevity and stellar safety records.  (They remain the two top-rated minivans today.)  We were leaning toward the Odyssey because of its deep trunk cavity and flat-folding back seat, but were also aware of the massive transmission problems that afflicted the 1999-2004 models.  The Siennas had the benefit of the Toyota name, and didn’t have the specter of an expensive transmission replacement looming over them.

We drove an ‘02 Odyssey, ‘02 Sienna, and ‘03 Sienna EX with leather.  All three vehicles were pretty good for the price, but we didn’t feel entirely comfortable with any of them.  Cassia in particular decided at the end of our day’s journey that the presence of leather seats was a deal-breaker for her, despite the comparative ease of cleaning them compared to cloth seats.  In these hot and humid Southern summers, just the thought of pressing her back and thighs against uncomfortably warm and sticky leather was enough to outweigh any potential benefit.  I was OK with that.  Leather is pretty tough to maintain anyway.

We tested a few more cars on Wednesday, June 11.  One of them, a tan ‘01 Odyssey in excellent condition and fewer than 100,000 miles, was being offered for sale by a woman we’ll call Donna.  We fell in love with the car immediately, and Cassia made arrangements to have it checked out by our local mechanic for any potential problems (and to aid us in whittling the selling price down further).  We paid $100 for this pre-purchase inspection, which was more than what we paid to have the Tercel inspected in Provo but more in line with Consumer Reports’ recommendations.  The mechanic presented both Cassia and Donna with a small list of minor issues: the battery needed to be replaced, along with the cabin filter, and could do with a transmission fluid flush in the near future.  Donna told Cassia she’d discuss the issues with her husband, but that the selling price was firm.  This was an immediate yellow flag in our estimation, but the fact that the price was still very good and Donna appeared willing to resolve these issues herself encouraged us to move forward.

We had secured financing through USAA, which would overnight us a check to cover most of the purchase price of the van after we faxed them a copy of the car title.  This is what we pressed to do Thursday morning.  Cassia called Donna, who told her that she and her husband has replaced both the battery and the cabin filter, but would not flush the transmission fluid for us as this was a “normal maintenance thing.”  Reasonably satisfied with her response, we decided to move ahead with the purchase.

However, around mid-morning Donna’s demeanor seemed to change completely and inexplicably.  When Cassia contacted her to arrange to get a copy of the title, she put her off repeatedly, making excuses about being very busy at work and needing to wait until later to give us the certificate.  Then Donna accused us of dragging our feet on the purchase and trying to take advantage of them, saying “we bent over backwards to accommodate you” and informing Cassia that someone else was coming to look at the van that evening, and that “they can pay with cash,” as if we were lower than dirt for needing a loan to pay for the car.  She faulted us for not even giving them a deposit on the van, but when Cassia said, “Alright, we’ll give you a deposit, let’s just work this out,” she suddenly responded that she was busy and had to get back to work.  That was the last we ever heard from her; she stopped answering her phone entirely.  Cassia became both more persistent and more panicked.

I was oblivious to all of these events because I was in an afternoon-long seminar downtown.  When Cassia picked me up from the bus stop that evening she was barely in control of her emotions.  I started to get mad too.

Shortly after dinner the phone rang.  It was Donna’s husband.  They had sold the van to someone else.  They’d effectively stolen the $100 we’d put down in good faith to have the van inspected, and had likely used the mechanic’s report as a selling point to the buyer.  (“Look, we just had the van inspected yesterday!  It’s practically problem-free!”)

We put the kids to bed and spent a long time crying and stomping and wanting to break things.  I was especially upset that my wife had been used and abused like this, and for a time seriously considered calling those people back and giving them a piece of my mind, maybe even threatening to take them to small claims court to reclaim the money they’d stolen from us.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can lessen the pain.  And so we decided to let it go, asking God to bless them for whatever good may be in their hearts.  And then we sat down and went back to searching the online classifieds.

We narrowed our choices down to three – two Odysseys and a Sienna – and knew we’d found the car for us when we test drove the second one on our list, a white 2000 Odyssey with black trim in truly remarkable condition.  Honestly, it was in better shape than all of the newer cars we’d seen, and the owner had kept a record of every item of maintenance performed on it, including a replacement of the transmission at 101,000 miles.  She and her family were wonderfully pleasant people to work with, and on the morning of Saturday, June 14, we took possession of our new car – just in time to take the whole family down to the airport to receive Cassia’s sister Annalyse from Salt Lake.  Whew!

The whole process of buying a new car was quite a harrowing experience for us.  We didn’t come away from it unscathed, but we made what we felt to be the best decision for our family.  Now we don’t have to worry about lashing one of the car seats to the roof . . . for a while. :)

We even managed to fit both cars, our food storage, three additional shelving units, a dozen tool hooks, and three 32-gallon recycling bins in our garage – with just enough room for an upright freezer someday.  A triumph for garage organization!  (Tercel not pictured.)


2 Responses to “The great van odyssey”

  1. Wow, I didn’t know that! That’s good that you chose to pray and everything!!

  2. Thanks (maybe?) for showing me my future. Maybe Paul and I don’t want to buy a car. Maybe we could strap a U-haul trailer to our bikes and ride to Tempe. :)

Leave a Reply