(Note: This is a re-posting of an entry I made on February 9, 2007, on a Yahoo! GeoCities blog.)
Today marks the eighth anniversary of the time when I had to back out of a deal to buy a car because the owners didn't have a clear title. I have written about it a few times in a personal journal I've kept since 1999, but I thought I'd share it with you, so here goes:
On February 7, 1999, I had struck a deal to buy a 1993 Geo Prizm LSi sedan from a husband and wife in Bloomfield Hills. (The picture above is just to give you some idea of what the car looked like. Looks pretty nice, huh?) It had 101,000 miles on it, but they were highway miles. Considering how the Prizm is mechanically the same car as the Toyota Corolla, how well Toyotas hold their value, and it had a moonroof and a Delco stereo that could play both CDs and tapes, the $3,600 price we agreed on seemed like a fair deal.
Two days later, the deal fell through.
How could something go right go so wrong?
Here's how it happened:
I was talking to the wife on the afternoon of the 9th about where to meet to finalize the deal, and at some point, I realized I wanted to make absolutely sure they had the title. I simply asked, "You do have the title, right?"
She said, "Yes."
"Don't I get that with the car?"
Matter-of-factly, she said, "No, you don't."
When I asked why not, she explained that that they still owed $2,600 on the car. In short, the title was not clear. The husband's plan had been, I pay them the money and they give me the car, and they would mail me the title after they cleared it (but, for all I knew, they could have called the cops and reported the car as stolen).
A car with no title is no good, just as a title without a car is no good. No car deal is good unless three things change hands at the exact same time: The buyer's money, the seller's car and the seller's clear title.
I asked them why they couldn't clear up that title with their own money. The husband said their money was tied up in bank accounts they had set up in Colorado (where they moving to). Real frigging smart. Towards the end of a somewhat heated discussion, I could swear I told him, "Here's a nickel's worth of free advice--next time you sell a car, get the title cleared first."
I was pissed off because I wasted a few days that I could have spent looking at other cars. Instead, I missed those potential opportunities due to my incorrect assumption that the Geo's title was clear (after all, the car was six years old and had 101,000 miles on it--who would have imagined that all that time and all those miles, the title would not be clear??!).
The Geo Prizm Incident became a textbook example of why you have to be so careful when buying used cars from private parties (and thus why so many people buy from dealers nowadays). In any case, I certainly learned one important lesson: never assume that the title is clear on any car I look at.
One more bit of advice: Never fall in love with a car--not at least until after the deal is done. That way, if the deal should fall through, you won't be too pissed off and/or heartbroken.