Other People’s Lemons….

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There’s a lady I know – a neighbor – who was ready to junk an otherwise sound ’90s-vintage Buick station wagon because one day it began to lose power while she was driving and eventually, it conked out by the side of the road.Lemon lead

It wouldn’t restart and she had to have it towed. This kind of thing freaks out people who are not car people. They often assume the worst – especially if someone tells them the worst.

Like this lady’s husband.

He told her “the engine must be shot.”

He’s also not a mechanic.

As it turned out, the only thing that was “shot” was the car’s fuel pump.

But his wife – feeling desperate – was about to call one of those charities that haul away junk cars for free – and give you a receipt for the tax write-off. Which is worth a few hundred bucks, maybe.

Luckily, she has me for a neighbor.

I took a look at the car for her, did some quick checks and figured out the problem with the pump. About $100 for parts and two hours later, the car was running great again.Lemon 2

And definitely worth more than a couple hundred bucks again.

But what if she had thrown the car away?

Her “lemon” would probably have become someone else’s lemonade.

Out of exasperation, impatience and mechanical ignorance people not infrequently walk away from cars that are not beyond fixing – and worth fixing.

This can be a boon to you – even if you don’t actually do the fixing yourself.

Consider, for example, an older car that’s otherwise sound but needs a new transmission. The owner either doesn’t want to spend the money to fix it or doesn’t have the money to fix it.

Because the car is pretty much worthless with a dead transmission.

Many dealers won’t even take a not-operable vehicle in trade – one that has to be towed to the lot.

If they do take it, they’ll maybe give the owner a few hundred bucks. (Here we go again! This seems to be what cars – no matter the make or model or what they went for when they were new – are worth once they’re of a certain age and not running – or driving –  at the moment.)lemon 3

Meanwhile, the owner is reluctant – understandably – to spend possibly two or even three thousand dollars for a new transmission when the car itself isn’t worth much more than that …. even with the new transmission.

So, not infrequently, they cut bait – and walk away from the car (like my neighbor lady almost did).

That’s bad for them – but  potentially very good for you.

Because you’ve got nothing invested in the car.

It’s a very different thing for you to buy it (hopefully, for just a few hundred bucks) and then pay a mechanic to replace or rebuild the bad transmission. Because you bought the car for basically the cost of the fix – which is probably a lot less than what it would have cost you to buy the car before it needed to be fixed.

Opportunity knocks.

Same thing goes for cars with croaked engines, too.lemon 4

An enterprising cheapster should have no difficulty finding otherwise solid (and often, very nice) late-model cars that are being sold for next-to-nothing because they’ve got major engine problems that can only be fixed by replacing the original engine with a new or rebuilt one.

This involves even more money than replacing a bad transmission – and many owners won’t do it for all the reasons just discussed.

But you could…   

Sometimes, these problems aren’t even so major. For example, people will sometimes near give-away a vehicle because its engine tossed its timing belt – and they haven’t got the $800 or so it will take to do the repair. A leaking head gasket (or main seal) is another one. It’s a big job, but a job worth doing if the price is right… for the car.

Scan the Craigs List used car ads – and keep your ears open – you’ll find prospects in no time. Some people just don’t have the money.

Others just don’t want the bother.

What they do want is cash – and to get rid of the vehicle ASAP.

The cash part especially is key. When you find a prospect – an otherwise sound vehicle in need of something – get the cash before you contact the owner. Then, with cash in hand, go see the owner. He will be very pleased to see cash – even if it’s not much cash. Because, to him, the not-running car is a depressing, aggravating money pit. He wants it gone.

And that can lead to a a sweet deal for you.

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  1. The only caveat with this is that many cars that have these kinds of problems also have OTHER problems that the owner neglected because they were poor at maintaining the cars. Not a problem if you’re a DIYer, but I’m horrible mechanically (not so bad in the electrical department) so it may not be cost effective to me to do that kind of work. Not to mention, I’d have to bring a mechanic to inspect the car since they’re un-driveable since I can’t do it myself.

    Then again, like Eric says, if I have NOTHING invested in the car, whats’ a couple of grand to have transportation? The engine and the tranny combined would be about $5,000 at a shop I believe. That’s what people pay for a used car that won’t go nearly as long for the money. Or am I wrong about this? I’d love to see some math on this.

  2. The leftover 2015 plus the entire 2016 model year production for VW TDI equipped vehicles may fit this category. Except these are brand new, never titled, vehicles with absolutely nothing wrong with them. Thousands upon thousands of them.

  3. This donation BS is largely responsible for the outrageous prices of older used clunkers. Most of these donated cars end up at auctions; espeically salvage auctions, like Copart. A few people bid on them, and even if they only go for a few hundred bucks, by the time the buyer pays the buyer’s percent and gate fee and everything, gets it ‘home’, pays to get it titled, fixes a few little issues, etc. suddenly that car that the owner would have been thrilled to get $500 for, is up for $3K, and the guy who got it at the auction is lucky if he makes a few hundred bucks off of it.

    I just bought an ’01 Grand Cherokee from a friend who got it at a Copart auction in MA. Paid a few hundred bucks for it, but after fees and all, it was almost $1,000. Then he had to schlepp it back to NY.; put an exhaust on it; a battery in it; get keys made; and then title it out of state in his name before he could sell it (long story…) which alone cost him almost $400 (and would not have been necessary had he been dealing directly with the Jeep’s owner instead of Copart). I was hoping to get it for $1500 (He gives me great deals, usually sells to me for what he has into ’em) but he had more than $1500 into it! Still a great deal at $2K that I paid for it (Barely 100K miles, probably worth >$3K where I live), but had the owner been selling it, instead of “donating” it (It wouldn’t pass MA. inspection, since ABS and airbag lights are on) it probably would have been a %00-$1000 vehicle -espeically if every other car owner were in the same boat, and thus there’d be a lot of people selling.

    So MA. Uncle screws the original owner, and Federal Uncle screws the taxpayers, and they both screw us all by making old jalopies more expensive than they’d be if we had a free market. Meanwhile, Copart and the Uncles make more off the vehicle than the original owner or the intermediate owner (my friend).

    EVERY FREAKING thing we do is for Uncle’s benefit, from our own labor to buying a car! -The true definition of slavery.

  4. I bought a 1985 Chevy C10 pickup that was a charity vehicle that had the transmission (700R4) replaced as it was spotless which is highly unlikely for a 1980 vehicle , I love the truck , base model no frills , I should say I bought it from the people who bought it from the charity for a $1000 .

  5. I bought a 1985 Chevy C10 Custom Deluxe long bed that was a charity vehicle , I was under it looking it over and the transmission is clean enough to eat off of so I assume the transmission (700R4) was not working and it was given to a charity who then replaced transmission then sold to the people I bought it from for a $1000 , I love the truck .

  6. I’ve been doing this for decades, pick up a basically sound vehicle for that needs some TLC for little cash because the current owner doesn’t want to bother with it. It helps if you do your own work. Repairs that would entail an enormous bill at a shop for the average person can frequently be done cheaply if you DIY.

    One of the favorites years ago was the lowly Chevrolet Vega. These had an oil pressure switch that disabled the ignition if pressure dropped below a pre-set level, and the switch would frequently fail and disable the car. Since few people aside from dealers knew about this it used to be you could pick up a “dead” Vega for peanuts, throw a switch in for a few bucks, and away you go. (Sure they were crap cars, but if you can get it for next to nothing and drive it until it stops or rusts apart, what the heck.)

  7. My brother gave me his low mileage but ancient Nissan truck. Bare bone basic truck, not even power steering or a radio! Only one option, air conditioning. It wouldn’t pass emissions and he didn’t want to fool with it. The truck had a ton of mechanical and electrical problems, some obvious but most were hidden or gremlins creating periodic havoc. Total cost was about $1500 to get the thing starting, stopping, and running properly; not including labor. The defective parts were tires (still had the original ones from the factory), entire hydraulic brake system plus rotors and drums, battery, fuseable links, AC idler, R134a conversion, belts, hoses, radiator, thermostat, ignition system, instrument cluster, windshield, muffler and tailpipe, lower ball joints, and most of the light bulbs. Other than tires, ball joints, windshield, and Freon conversion, the time and labor was mine. It would cost far more than the value of the truck to pay a mechanic to troubleshoot and repair it. Luckily, rust was not one of the problems.

    We’ve had three years of trouble free driving. Air conditioning is a really nice feature for any one option vehicle.

  8. I picked up a Jeep a few months ago for way, waaay less than comparable vehicles are going for. It was stalling every 27 feet, and the owner was amazed that on my test drive, it would stall, I’d slap it into neutral and give it a quick twist, drop it into drive, and keep going.

    A $43 throttle position sensor later, it hasn’t stalled since.

  9. Fixing people’s discarded cars… That it would be a perfectly fine way to make a living out of one’s garage. Fix a car a week, turn an average of $1500 profit a week and that’s a pretty good income with just a small investment in tools. But the problem is government. If you sell more than some small number of cars (like 4 or 5) in a year you have to get the repair license, the dealer license, and of course a commercial address. And title pass through is illegal too…. unless it’s dealer to dealer (at least in Illinois)

    Now some might say, cash business how they going to find out or bother? This is exactly the sort of thing the police exist for. To enforce the economic order.

    • “This is exactly the sort of thing the police exist for. To enforce the economic order.”
      Sad but true.

      • Dear Phil,

        As Eric’s earlier article, and that other article I stumbled across later illustrated, modern police are plain and simple the hired goons of the corporatists who own the government.

        “To Protect and Serve” is not a lie — if one understands whom they are protecting and serving.

        With a nod to George Carlin, “It’s not us”.

        • I never cared for Carlin as a kid, my parents derided him as a hippy, as I aged and began to listen to him, I now understand the genius that he was. I think my parents even appreciate him a little bit now.

          • Your parents might have always appreciated the truth of what he said. His jokes weren’t always funny they were so close to home so to speak. Many people didn’t laugh because they were thinking how right he was. He walked a fine line between political commentary and humor depending on his audience. HBO events were much more cynical and denigrating to the govt. than some prime-time bs show.

  10. The corollary to this is that you can get good mechanical (and other) parts from cars that are wrecked or rusted out.

    During the 80s, my dad bought a Dodge Ram from Tuscon with a cherry body, but a bad engine. He transplanted the very healthy engine from another Dodge Ram that was t-boned into the truck from Tuscon. All told, it cost him about $2000 for what amounted to a new truck. He did the same thing a few years later when that truck succumbed to a bad case of body cancer.

  11. Many times people figure a mechanical problem is a good excuse to get rid of a car that they don’t particularly like anymore. In the case of your neighbor, she had the added excuse of getting a tax deduction, and possibly had to take a minimum distribution out of a retirement account.

    Once again, Uncle puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and muddies the waters when it comes to economic decisions.


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