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Sunday, September 22, 2013

How to Buy a Car While Living Overseas

Did I ever tell you the story where Brandon and I bought a car this summer?  I didn't think so.

Up until two months ago in our entire lives Brandon and I, combined, have owned two cars.  When I was a sophomore in college, my parents helped me buy a silver 1996 Honda Civic.  The original plan was to buy a Prelude, but we couldn't find any over the summer, and so I grudgingly bought the Civic instead.  My parents insisted I would be happier in the long run since I'd probably put carseats in the back eventually and I knew they were right.  But that's why I didn't want a responsible car - I knew the next car I owned would be a minivan.

Which was almost true - it was an SUV - but only because we were moving to Baku and didn't think a minivan could make it here.  The Civic lasted eight years - from 2001 until we moved to Cairo in 2009.  Then we were without a car for two years until I bought our Honda Pilot, sight unseen with a check, the day before driving up to DC to set up temporary living during the Great NEA Evacuation of 2011, or the Arab Spring.

So that's it.  Eight and a half years of marriage.  Thirty-three years combined driving experience.  Two cars.  I guess we're boring, cheap, or very utilitarian.  It probably helps that we both come from families that drive cars into the ground before buying another used car to drive into the ground (or crash).


Brandon's in the Foreign Service, and he's a political officer (who favors posts to strange countries that speak obscure languages) and that means that we're pretty much guaranteed to spend at least nine months in between each posting in language training.  With training that long, we could choose to permanently relocate to DC and have our car and things shipped back to DC, but that means we'd have to pay for housing.  And I'm cheap.  So instead we're TDY (temporary duty) for nine months which means we get 900 pounds of stuff.  Period.  But in exchange, our housing is paid for.  And in the DC area, that's nothing to sniff at.  So we deal.

However, the housing doesn't include a car and so we have to figure something out.  We considered ZipCars (they don't generally come with six seats), renting a car (have you ever tried to rent a minivan for nine months?), going without (grocery shopping would get kind of tricky, and church isn't a walkable distance), renting a car just on the weekend (but no weekday library trips! and have you ever been to the Pentagon City Costco on a Saturday?), and just buying a car and selling it nine months later.

Obviously we decided to buy a car.  We all have our luxuries that we can't live without - a particular American product, some personal service, or a favorite TV show - and mine is mobility.  I don't like being trapped in a three-bedroom apartment (yes! three! for nine months!) with four children and no way to go and see all of the zoos and museums and parks and libraries and Target and Costco and friends and family that I can cram into a nine-month period.  So yes, not the cheapest option, but in the end, the one that works best with my personal sanity.  We all pay for that in some way or another.

This spring when I started looking into flight schedules and car rentals, I was shocked by the prices I found.  We're big enough that we have to rent a minivan, and our flight schedules involved flying into one small airport and out of a big one or the other way around and it all ended up looking very expensive - about $1500.  So I started thinking.  What if we just bought the car we were going to buy in January six months early?  We could pick it up in North Carolina, drive it to Missouri and see various family members and then leave it at Brandon's parents' house until we needed it for home leave.  Six months of car insurance and gas for driving was going to be cheaper than the rental - and then we could have a car for home leave.

I talked to Brandon and he agreed that it sounded like a reasonable plan so I emailed my car guy, Jef.  When I suddenly found myself in the US and in need of a car to take to DC, he came through with our Pilot that has been great.  My sister had used his service to buy her car, and so I knew that when he said the car was in good condition, it would be.  He did all of the taxes, tags, and registration and mailed my permanent plate to our Oakwood apartment.  All I had to do was hand him a check.  I didn't even test drive the car first.

I emailed him in April.  We wanted an Odyssey or Sienna, within a certain price range, with leather seats.  We were coming into Raleigh on August 2.  Could he do that?  Of course!  Within a month he had a car that looked like a good deal, so we sent him a check.  The week we left on R&R I sent him our flight information.

My parents are in Peru for three years and so when we landed in the Raleigh airport after almost 24 hours of traveling, we had no welcome crew.  Instead we staggered down to the baggage claim, corralled our two suitcases, one duffel, and two carseats and looked around for Jef.  He wasn't at the baggage claim, so Brandon went outside to look for him, presumably in a Sienna.  As Brandon headed for the doors he turned to shout back "What color is it?"

"What color is what?" I shouted back, too tired to care if half the baggage claim could hear me.

"The car!!" Brandon gestured wildly.

I thought for a minute and guiltily shrugged with a smile.  "Um, I forgot to ask!"

I could see his shoulders hunch in a sigh as he continued out the door.  Who would forget to ask the color of their new, check-has-cashed, car?

I nervously waited with the children, hoping that my plan that connected the dots starting with transportation picking us up out our house at 1:30 AM Baku time to getting to the airport, making our connections through Frankfurt and DC, and finally being picked up by Jef, who had never confirmed getting our flight plans, to be driven to the Days' Inn to finally crash-land, would work out.  There really were a lot of dots to connect.

Five minutes later Brandon returned without his back-pack, and I let the knot in my stomach go as the last dot got connected.

"It's gold," he told me as he hefted a suitcase-duffel-carseat combination in one hand and Joseph in the other, "your new car is gold."

I've never liked gold too much.  Oh well.  It won't be ours very long.

We loaded the bags in the car, strapped in carseats, strapped children in carseats, and followed Jef to the Days' Inn a few miles down the road.  We pulled in and Jef pulled out a stack of papers to sign.  Brandon signed while I kept Joseph from picking cigarette butts out of the trash and Sophia from crawling under bushes.  Brandon finished signing.  Jef explained some things.  He handed over the keys.  And then we had another car.

So, for the first time in our marriage, Brandon and I are a two-car family.  I suppose it's not a normal arrangement - each car on a different continent.  But hey, who said we were ever normal?


PaulaJean said...

You forgot to mention that your brother Mike's car was bought from Jef. Which sounds simple until one knows that Mike was in London, the paying party (parents) were in Bogotá, and the car had to be delivered to Utah. All was fine. And that car didn't get a test driver, either.

UnkaDave said...

Test drive, schmest drive.