In life, the curmudgeons and pessimists who think of themselves as realists will regurgitate the tired trope of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” While it is true that cheap steak may include some gristle, it could potentially be the best steak you’ve ever had. But you could also choke on it.
I’m an advocate for never, under any circumstances, buying a new mass-produced car. It’s a huge resource drain, a heavy financial liability at the sharp summit of its depreciation curve. Most people, in my strictly unscientific and biased understanding, purchase new cars because they feel they either deserve the newest things without actually being able to afford them outright, or they think that cars that have been driven by someone else are simply too unreliable to have on the road. For those people, I say go for it. Your fear of delving a millimeter out of your comfort zone is precisely why I and many others routinely find great deals on other people’s so-called headaches.
However, the advice I dole out on a regular basis can also be taken a bit too lackadaisically, in that some people may get it into their heads that a cheap luxury or sports car is exactly like a new luxury or sports car, save for a few hardened boogers under the unwilling fart receptacle that is the driver’s seat. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that.
Our pals over at The Truth About Cars recently published an article called Money Isn’t Everything: What An $8,500 Porsche 996 Really Costs, in which Yoav Gilad, an experienced owner of sports cars, bought a dirt cheap Porsche 996 Carrera for the aforementioned four-figure amount and chronicled his first and only 26 days of ownership, as he ended up asking for his money back from the original seller, who was his personal friend.
Respectfully, I disagree with how this purchase went. To serve as a cautionary tale and a morsel of hope for those want to own their own dirt cheap Porsche fixer-upper, I’ll be going through the article and pointing out what the author got right, and what I think he got less right.
He signed the title and I signed a check. $8,500 for a Porsche 911. Boom. What’s a Toyota Corolla? I just bought Zuffenhausen’s finest.
Buying a Porsche 911, even if it is the controversial 996, at $8,500 for a running, clean-titled example, not to mention with a manual transmission, is absolutely a steal. For those of you wondering how far a good running model will set you back, you can check out what they’re selling for and report back, since the Porsche market has fluctuated quite wildly recently and it’s hard to keep up.
In any case, Yoav did an awesome job of picking out a desirable model for a fair margin under fair market value, so kudos to him. Yes, some people still say that word.
I walked outside under a bright, blue Los Angeles sky and almost dropped my cereal. The VIN on the title and on the car didn’t match. On closer inspection the title also had the wrong license plate number.
Including any cereal-related injuries, this ordeal could’ve been completely avoided had he just matched the VIN on the title to the car before signing a check. Your affiliation with the seller doesn’t matter - if pertinent information is available to you and is easily checked, it makes zero sense not to check it. He could’ve either passed on the purchase of the car or known that this was an issue beforehand, giving him leverage over the price.
Another likely example of the same principle would be for the seller to say that the car had major services done and receipts were included with the sale, giving the buyer an idea of what was replaced and when. Why wouldn’t you check those receipts before the point of sale to know what exactly the issues were?
I jumped in the car, fired it up and lowered the windows. Except the driver-side window didn’t drop smoothly. Then, when attempting to roll it back up, it jammed and stopped — crooked, half-way up. I opened the door and tried guiding it.
This is a cheap fix and quite common on older 996s. By googling for a hard five seconds, I found not only the part required to repair the issue, but a step-by-step instructional video on how to do it. It doesn’t require any special tools and is quite a simple task, even for a complete mechanical novice.
Later in the article, he reported the findings of faults back to the original seller, with the addition of having a shop take a look and give an assessment of what it needed, coming up with a laundry list of faults:
“There’s an issue with the airbag wiring harness and also, ummm, the car needs a new window regulator.”
“OK… how much will that cost?”
“Well, we also put it on the rack and there are a few other issues… the clutch will need to be replaced within the next 5000 miles and the water pump is leaking pretty badly. Also, the tie-rods are damaged and there are a few cosmetic issues inside the cabin. Oh and…”
First things first - when you’re not mechanically inclined and require the resources of a shop to look over your used sports coupe, do it before you buy the car so you can cross-check the issues the car has with the model’s known faults. This way you’ll have a wealth of knowledge on how to remedy the problem and what other possible trouble spots, if any, to look out for.
You’ll also be more financially prepared for the repair and have more time to compare parts and labor prices so you don’t get hit by sticker shock. The airbag harness is likely the seat belt buckle switch, another common malady with the 996 and one that can be solved with around $200 in parts and a few hours on a nice day with hand tools.
Second - tie rods, water pump, and clutch are all wear items, meaning that they will deteriorate during the life of the car, whether it’s through use or simply with age. If the shop had taken a look and said “the car’s unibody is cracked”, then it wouldn’t have been a problem that the author of the article could’ve realistically anticipated, but complaining that a used Porsche will need a clutch at some point in the future is exactly like being surprised that you need to fill it up with gas.
Moreover, if you’re buying a relatively high mileage used sports car way below fair market value, assume everything needs to replaced unless otherwise noted. Don’t simply assume things will work because that’s a great way to get caught unawares, and in the world of used exotics, it can be costly mistake. Even so, the issues that the car had would be around $3000-$4000 to repair if he employed a decent independent shop to do the work.
If the author was to take a weekend and replace the clutch or water pump as a DIY job (with a friend or three), he’d be out the price of the part and a bit of time, gaining not only a more reliable car, but an experience that he could then write about. The very worst scenario would have him spend $12,500 on a Porsche 911 6-speed with nothing wrong with it. What an utter travesty that would be.
Yoav then goes on to illustrate how he ended up selling the car back to his friend for his original purchase price less than a month after he took it as his own because it simply had too many issues to be a viable solution.
How much time did I squander between trying to register the Porsche, buying and selling it back, and taking it to the shop? Please don’t tell me. I’m fine spending some money on cars because you can always earn more, sell something, etc… But my time? That is a limited, decreasing asset and, as a car guy, I’d rather spend mine driving.
Believe it or not, even though I advocate buying depreciated sports cars, I value my time as well, and here I feel like our friend Yoav is mistaken in trying to illustrate his experience as enlightening to prospective buyers and window shoppers alike.
Where this train goes off the rails is in the lack of research into his particular car. If one has no issue spending money, then why not have the car checked out by a competent mechanic if you’re not up for the task? Apart from regular wear and tear items that any used car would need at some point, the only items he mentioned that needed actual repair were the window regulator and airbag light - both of which are common issues and both of which aren’t cause for a sell-it-before-it-explodes full blown panic.
To draw from personal anecdote, I don’t spend my weekends wrenching - I do it sparingly either when it’s necessary, or I’m trying to improve an aspect of the car. I also farm out work to a local trusty shop when I don’t have the time, skill, or will power to do something more mechanically intense. It turns out, if you devote a few hours of research to a car purchase and accurately assess the car before it comes time to sign the check, you’ll be infinitely more prepared for issues down the line and won’t have to resort to selling your no-longer-prized car back because you didn’t bother to do your homework and now sport a surprised look because your test came back with a big fat F.
For those of you not afraid to tackle a project that’ll require a bit of research, you can start here and show me what you find.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.