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September 17th, 2012

Ten years ago, God provided a reliable van for our family in a wonderful way.

Through prayer and counsel we determined back then that a minivan was the most fitting vehicle for our growing family.
We researched the reliability and resale values of various models and listed exactly the features we were looking for.
And through a combination of savings and donations we determined that we could spend $13,000 on a van.

After some weeks of searching, Jackie told the Lord one morning how tired she was of shopping for a car and asked if He would just lead us to the right van that day. Within the hour, one of the dealers we had contacted asked us to come see a vehicle he thought we might be interested in. We went down to see it, but it didn’t appear to us to be the van God had for us.

Then across the street, we noticed a two year old Nissan Quest with 40,000 miles on Jeep dealer’s lot. We took the Quest for a test drive and it had everything we were looking for. But it was listed at $18,000 and the dealer wasn’t about to knock $5,000 off the price. And we didn’t feel led to go into debt for a car.

However as we tried repeatedly to excuse ourselves, the dealer kept coming down on his price until he finally let us have the van for what we had felt led to spend!

With regular maintenance and normal repairs, this van served us well through a number of cross-country trips as we added 180,000 miles to it over the past ten years. Then two weeks ago the transmission went out (as described below), launching us on a new round of prayer, research and seeking counsel.

Through this round of car searching we have already received four great blessings:

  • Contact with the leader of a local church-base ministry to help people with their car needs.
  • Rediscovery of MATS – Missionary Automotive & Transportation Service.
  • A donated 1994 Volvo station wagon suitable for Joelle’s new transportation needs.
  • And an unexpected large gift toward what we are hoping to be able to spend on a van!

God has certainly proven faithful as we have put our faith in Him and followed His leading!
We expect Him to provide just as faithfully now, whether through a similar deal or something totally unexpected.

At present, it appears to us that the best value for our needs will be a 2010 or 2011 Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey with about 40,000 miles on it.

We invite you to pray about helping us with this purchase in these ways:

  1. Pray for God’s guidance and provision for us as we acquire our next family vehicle.
  2. If you know someone preparing to buy new who might like to sell us their used van for cash rather than trade it in, put us in touch with them.
  3. And ask God if He would have you give a tax-deductible monetary gift toward our purchase, using any of the avenues listed at the right.

Thank you!


September 5th, 2012

Monday morning our van’s transmission failed at the end of three movies at the Whidbey Island drive-in.

It was a long night.

Even though the maintenance is all up to date, at 220,000 miles we question the wisdom of investing another $2,500 to $3,000 in a van we no longer have confidence in for interstate travel.

Do you know of anyone near Mount Vernon, WA with good use for the old van as is?

We have been on the lookout for a newer van for more than a year, but now with Joelle on the verge of driving to college every day, we need a second car in the family sooner rather than later.

The funds we had been setting aside for a replacement van largely went to self-funding our ministry this summer. So we spent Tuesday looking at vans we can’t yet afford, and praying for God’s guidance and provision.

As an interim measure we are now considering a low cost older sedan which our girls could eventually take over.
We would want something inexpensive and reliable for local travel.
This could carry us until we can afford a van suitable for longer road trips.

So here are the range of options we have thought of within our means:

  •    $500 to check whether a simple outer part has failed.
  • $1,000 to fix just an outer part if that might get it going.
  • $2,500 to $3,000 for a full transmission rebuild with a 24,000 mile warranty.
  • $2–3,000 for a used sedan which could be shared with our daughters as they are starting to drive.
  • $5,000 for a 2002 Toyota Prius with 84,000 miles.

All of these only provide temporary patches against our longer-term need for something suitable for long, cross-country drives.

Tuesday and Wednesday we also looked at a variety of other options, all outside our immediate resources:

  • $14,000 at a Honda dealership for a nicely kept, higher end 2005 Toyota Sienna with 107,000 miles.
  • $25,000 for a new low-end Dodge Caravan.
  • $30,000 through Costco for a new low-end Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna.

We welcome your prayers, advice and leads.


21 Responses to “Seeking Car Buying Leads and Advice”

  1. vicky sigworth says:

    driving a van daily is expensive. getting a prius saves more than enuf on gas daily to be able to rent a van for long trips. w/in 5 years you won’t be making too many family trips very often….think about how close your eldest kids are to college….( I know it’s hard….)

  2. Charles "Chaz" Dugaw says:

    I am the leader of the “Automotive Community” at Burlington CTK; the purpose of which is to provide guidance and assistance in many (not all) things automotive.

    The Automotive Community consists of a few of us that get together to tinker, wiggle wires, kick tires and offer the best advice a person can get for free. So please allow me a donation of my 2c.

    I have been a service writer for an automotive shop long enough to see first hand how people can make bad decisions and spend good money after bad when it comes to their automobile repairs. I have also been a “tinkerer” for about 25 years. I am also a voracious reader when it comes to just about ANYTHING automotive; usually trying to figure out someone’s problem by hitting the interwebs.

    A mini-van that has dumped the transmission at 225,000 miles sounds suspiciously like a Dodge Caravan or similar Chrysler product. I’m not knocking them, but those “in the know” tend to know these things.

    IF I am correct in my assumption, you have either a 3.0 or a 3.3 v-6 engine in that vehicle. Both of these engines have “non-service-able” cam-bearings internally. Cam bearings are susceptible to low oil pressure. Low oil pressure is common on these engines. MOST of these engines will need cam-bearing replacement at or around 275,000. The ONLY way to service the cam bearings in these engines is to REPLACE THE ENTIRE ENGINE! If you put money into a Dodge Caravan (or similar Chrysler product) as described, there is a VERY good chance you will be replacing the engine in the very near future. Consider this before determining to spend one more dime on your Caravan – if that is indeed what you have.

    No matter what van you have, the following applies in some form or another.

    You stated an option of “$500 to check if a simple outer part has failed.” The “outer part” I am assuming is either a “controller” (the computer) or the “valve body.”

    The controller should be able to be diagnosed without removing the transmission. If it is the “valve body” there is a TREMENDOUS chance that what caused the valve body to fail is metal in the fluid. Metal in the fluid is caused by parts wearing out. Where are those worn out parts? Deeper in the transmission.

    The “$500” offer to “see what’s up” is a slippery slope that MAY have you spending “good money after bad.” It seems a “liiiittle” steep in my opinion. It is probably NOT an outer part at that price, but moreso requiring the transmission to be removed from the vehicle. In my experience of auto repair, if you remove an automatic transmission you might as well re-build or replace it. $500 (to me) is a steep price to pay for a diagnosis. I would recommend a second opinion, at best.

    An option you have not considered, but is somewhat valid, is to replace your transmission with one having fewer miles which may be obtained at a salvage yard. The caution is that you may get what you already have, and there is NO warranty on parts or labor. The upside is you may find one that was recently rebuilt immediately before the engine blew a gasket or the vehicle was wrecked. A used transmission would be less than $1000 and removal and reinstallation would be about $600 I would guess. That would get you back into your van for about $1500 to $1800. Not the BEST option, but AN option.

    My REAL “opinion” – remember my opinion is worth every penny you have paid for it – is that you should consider alternative means of transportation. There are a few things that would sway my opinion in the other direction and I am happy to discuss them if you wish.

    In your quest for a “reliable” automobile in the $2500 – $3000 price range, I have nothing but words of caution.

    Since “cash for clunkers” a few years ago took a TON of vehicles off the road, there is very slim pickings in this price range. What this means it that a vehicle that SHOULD be a $1500 vehicle may command a higher price due to lack of availability. That $1500 vehicle is now sold for $2000. When that happens, guess what happens to a $2000 vehicle? The seller says “THAT pile of junk sold for FIFTEEN? I’m asking TWENTY FIVE for MINE!” Yeah. It gets ugly.

    I would advise you to take a trusted mechanic to look at cars in the $1500 – $2000 price range and THEN keep in mind it may need $1000 or so of “deferred maintenance” to be the “reliable” car you wish it to be. This is because, in this price range, the previous owner has most likely “deferred” the maintenance. Brakes, cooling, tune-ups and all those “pesky” things that only “cost” money. LOL.

    (The mechanic’s mantra: Pay me now or pay me later.)

    If you are looking for “value” – and by “value” I mean “miles per dollar” – you absolutely want to stay away from a Ford Taurus or Mercury Sable with 100,000 to 140,000 miles on it UNLESS you have a RECEIPT from the previous owner that the transmission has been rebuilt or replaced. The same goes for a Ford Windstar van. If you can find a Taurus, Sable or Windstar with a 3.0 V-6 (NOT THE 3.8 V-6 ~ they blow up!) and with a rebuilt transmission, it is worth every penny of $2000 provided the rest of the vehicle checks out with your mechanic.

    Here is an option you may not be aware of. Going a little larger, such as a Mercury Crown Victoria or Buick Park Avenue puts you into a “full-size” car. People dislike them because they think they’re huge old gas-hogs. However, these cars get BETTER freeway mileage and provide MORE leg room than a Taurus or a Sable could ever dream of getting.

    A Crown Vic or Park Avenue in the 125,000 mile range should run you about $1800 – $2200 in “fair”condition and still gets 28 mpg freeway – and that’s 7 mpg better than a Taurus.

    An anecdotal story that may or may not be able to be duplicated: A friend of mine purchased a 2004 Lincoln Continental (not the Town Car) which is exactly the same as the Ford Crown Victoria. He paid $1200. It needed about $1000 worth of front-end work and a complete tune up. He was into it for $2200 and a Saturday afternoon of heavy cleaning. He sold it for $3800 about 2 months later. My point? Look for “cheap” but fixable and build up from there. If you spend ALL your money aquiring the automobile, you will have nothing to work with when it invariably breaks.

    The following is a simple Value Calculation I have used when considering a used vehicle. Divide the purchase price (plus immediate repairs/maintenance) by the miles you expect to get out of the vehicle. Toyota Sienna’s will go 200,000 with regular mainenance. The “value” of the used vs. the brand new one is almost identical. Here is why.

    $14,000 / 93,000 miles = $0.1505 per mile.
    $30,000 / 200,000 miles = $0.15 per mile.

    This is virtually the same “cost” if you have ALL the capital up front, and I’ll bet the $14,000 Sienna has A/C and power windows. There are other factors to include and I recommend a Ben Franklin Decision Tree.

    Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side write down NEW SIENNA. On the right side write down USED SIENNA. Then, under each one, list out the plusses and minusses of each. Keep in mind that each plus and each minus needs to be weighted by you. There may be more minusses under the USED SIENNA, but they may STILL have less of a negative impact on the final decision. Does that make sense? If not, contact me and I’ll see if I can explain it better.

    Some examples are such as the brand new one has a warranty. That’s a plus. You will have a car payment. That’s a minus. It will require “comprehensive insurance”. That’s a minus. The older one will have no car payment. That’s a plus. It will have no warranty. That’s a minus. You will invariably have a few repairs. That’s a minus. Are any of those HUGE plusses or HUGE minusses? That’s your judgement call that can only be made once you write it all down on the Ben Franklin Decision Tree.

    When I look at the two, I think the USED 2005 Sienna is a better value in your “van” list. Miles per dollar, you will be best off with a vehicle like this provided it has been maintained and all the regular preventative maintenance has been done.

    The critical component between you and 97,000 miles of highway bliss is the timing belt. This is an integral part of MANY vehicles and is usually required to be replaced anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000 miles. Many people stupidly “defer” this piece of maintenance as it can set you back $1200 for a Toyota mechanic to do (but I know someone cheaper – LOL!). You want to make sure that it has been done or that you can afford it very soon after purchase. This can be a great negotiation point when purchasing your pre-owned automobile.

    Another option you pointed out was the Toyota Prius.

    The Prius sounds good on paper, but lets face a bit of reality. Can you REALLY get 5 people into it? Comfortably? Really? To Seattle or Portland? Is 40 mpg that great if you have to drive 2x to get everyone where you’re going? I sincerely think that with a family of five you would have buyer’s remorse within a month of a decision to buy it.

    So, there you have it. My opinion on the options you have. Keep in mind, my opinion may change with more information on what your van did when it died or further discussion of other possibilities.

    When hunting, http://www.Craigslist.org can be your best friend and it can be the worst drudgery when it comes to automobile shopping. I would encourage you to look in all three Skagit, Bellingham / Whatcom as well as Snohomish County. Some of the better “values” are a little further away.

    Oh, and word of mouth networking can’t hurt. It just means you might receive a 3-page e’mail to your blog from some dude you have never bet before.

    I am more than happy to spend the time it takes to facilitate you on this decision. If that is a phone call or even checking out a potential vehicle for you, I am happy to do that.

  3. Keith Carey says:

    How badly do you need a van? They are much more expensive than sedans. I must admit, I was reluctant to buy a very good car since Daniel is about at the learning to drive age, and kids tend to bang up one car before they get the hang of driving.
    I wish I could be there to help you with negotiations. I found that I can do some good “brinksmanship” with car dealers when we bought our Corolla.
    Rules of thumb to get a lower price: Buy a car that’s been on the market for more than a week or two. Also, get something that they want to sell. We bought a Toyota from a Honda dealer who wanted to get rid of other car makes. And above all, be ready to walk. They will always tell you that they can’t make a profit at such a low price–pure nonsense.

  4. Charles "Chaz" Dugaw says:

    In addition to my previous post and our marathon phone call, do the math on Prius vs Other car.

    15,000 miles ÷ 40 mpg = 375 gallons. At $4 / gallon that is $1500.

    15,000 miles ÷ 28 mpg = 535.7 gallons. At $4 / gallon that is $2142.80.

    Is a savings of $642.80 worth it for a car you may not want because it doesn’t fit right?

    It would take you 10 years to start seeing any return on that investment.

    Life is too short *UNLESS* you WANT a Prius.

    My 2¢

  5. Heidi says:

    Try MATS – Missionary Automotive & Transportation Service.
    We have no personal experience with them, but it might be a helpful resource.

  6. Robby Butler says:

    Randy sent this good advise:
    If it were me, at 220K, spending that kind of $$ on a trans is money wasted. Sell the van for what you can get out of it and put what you’d have spent to the fix toward another good, used car.

    Stay away from domestics (vans), esp. Chrysler/dodge/plymouth as their mini vans have a history of trans problems. Toyota Sienna vans, even old and high miles, are a good investment. Toyotas are pricey to get into and they hold their value well as they are a reliable car. I have a ’95 Corolla with 185K miles and nothing ever goes wrong with it. I just do the maintenance stuff. Corollas are a great car, even high miles, if they have been well taken care of. Between all the Hondas I’ve owned and the one Toyota, I think the Toyota is just a hair better.

    Also, check out the Consumer’s Reports buyers guides for cars at the local library. They have actual input from owners who own all makes and models of cars and what their strong and weak points are year by year. It’s a very reliable guide.

    Civics are good, too, but are very popular with kids and hard to find used that are in good shape.

    Beware of outrageously low prices for a really good looking car. They could have been salvaged titles from another state, refurbs from a flood in another state, been in a wreck and the unibody not fixed correctly (it’ll eat tires), the prices should be for a reasonably mileaged car according to NADA or Kelly book prices, even if you buy from an individual (unless they are clueless and are giving it away, it happens).

  7. Robby Butler says:

    Lucy wrote:
    At first glance without prayer, it would seem that it would wise to get another car since it already has so much mileage.

  8. Robby Butler says:

    Bill wrote:
    Just this morning I heard a presentation on fleet management, where, among other things, the presenter argued against the conventional wisdom of owning a vehicle until it completely falls apart. By this logic, you would be wise to get a newer vehicle. Even if you repair the transmission, what system will fail next on such a worn-out vehicle?

  9. Robby Butler says:

    Lorena sent this prayer:
    Dear Lord, please calm Robby and Jackie’s hearts and show them you provision in a vehicle. I pray someone somewhere gives them a car or a fabulous deal on a better running one. Please, speak to their partners or others and lay this need on their hearts to help the Buttler family.  In Jesus Name Amen

  10. Robby Butler says:

    Bob wrote:
    Our 2000 Malibu (Chevy) has done real well. We were given it used and all we had to do was one air conditioning repair, a seal that was broken. Uses very little oil.

  11. Robby Butler says:

    Steve wrote:

    We just got a Toyota van and learned in the process that the best vehicles (all around) are Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. Kia is now under Hyundai so they are probably reliable, too. I could not find a Kia van locally to even test drive, however.

    Nissan is NOT that good, I learned, from my trusted mechanic who used to be a certified Toyota mechanic. Things start to break down after about 70,000 miles.

    The Santa Fe by Hyundai can hold a lot and is much cheaper than a Toyota van.

  12. Robby Butler says:

    Clarke wrote:

    Very quick advice. My van also has 213,000 miles and a few months ago the transmission was slipping, and I was also told to expect 2-3 thousand to fix it. I took it to a transmission shop (I always suggest you go to a specialist for most things, or you risk getting things messed up more or not fixed properly costing double what it would if done right in the first place).

    By taking it to a transmission shop, they knew what to look for first, and they found the transmission fluid was low. I didn’t think it was because I checked the level with the car turned off, but you can only get an accurate level reading when the car is running, which the standard garages didn’t know or didn’t tell me. So, once they found it was low, they filled it, and looked for leaks, and found that the metal cover over the transmission under the car was rusting through, and that’s why the level was low. Once they replaced the cover for $80 and refilled with fluid, the transmission worked great, and it’s been working like new ever since.

    So you might want to get someone to make sure the problem is what you suspect it is.

  13. Robby Butler says:

    Larry wrote:

    Faced same thing when my Camry tranny died pulling into my driveway last fall. We elected not to put $2000+ into a car worth about $2000 and sold carcass for $400 after pulling radio and other accessories out.

  14. Robby Butler says:

    Al wrote:

    The first thing that comes to mind is to check with the local Sheriff or Police about possible impound or auction sales. I know that some times they sell off cars & vans or send them out for auction.

  15. Robby Butler says:

    Cody wrote:

    We are not far behind you. Our Camry was totalled while I was in India and our van has 166,000. May the Lord who owns the cattle on a 1000
    hills show you His favor.

  16. Robby Butler says:

    Chris wrote:

    Last week after I dropped my son off at the car pool, I was driving back home to get the other kids ready for school. My truck suddenly warned me that the oil pressure was low, and the alarm would not turn off. I saw the pressure gauge at zero, so as soon as I could, I pulled off to the side of the road, within a minute or two, a half mile or so, of the warning. There was oil dripping off the bumper, and the dipstick was dry. I think it was you who told me about your mom continuing to drive a car when the oil pressure light was on. I don’t remember anyone else, not my parents, telling me to stop even though the engine seems to be running fine still. In the end, the repair was only $140 for a broken hose, not $7000 for a new engine. And the city took care of the 6 quarts of oil on the road….

    (It’s still dripping some, but I think that just from spraying all around the engine compartment. I need to take it to a good car wash.)

  17. Robby Butler says:

    Vic wrote:

    I prayed for the Lord’s answer to your needs. Ten plus years ago, we bought a new 2002 Toyota Camry, and have had no problems worth mentioning with it in all that time!

    So for the kind of car, I can certainly recommend the Camry.

  18. Robby Butler says:

    Philip wrote:

    I do believe Honda has been running some significant discounts on their 2012’s which might be bringing more used ones into the market. Since you know what you want, another good source might be a used auto broker who shops the wholesale auctions and can watch for what you want (as well as watch the dealer inventories).

  19. Robby Butler says:

    Justin wrote:
    Check with Lloyd Ott, Wichita, KS (316 542-0444). I flew to Wichita to buy our car from him and drove it back. He helps missionaries by rebuilding cars to tip top condition and selling at very low prices.

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