Used Cars

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Nicaragua Diary, Day 86

Our car has spent a lot of time in the shop recently.  I mean a lot.  We had it in for six weeks (cracked head), drove it for four days, then sent it back again (starter went out).  Now the clutch seems to be going.  Consequently, I’m thinking about used cars today.  

Q:  Is it cheaper to buy a used car in Nicaragua, the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, or in the United States, a vastly wealthy country?

A:  In the U.S.  By far.

I don’t know a lot about cars.  People who know me well might see this title and think, “Really?  You know nothing about cars.”  That is not literally true.  For being 49 and having driven for 33 years now, it is true I’m impressively immune to automotive knowledge, as if I’m teflon and that stuff just does not stick to me.  But I’ve had to learn more living in Nicaragua, including a smattering of spanish vocab for car parts–frenos, llantas, bujias, and clootch (I may not have spelled that one right).  And I’m not writing about fine points of maintaining cars, but the experience of buying and owning used cars here.  

When I started coming to Nicaragua on short-term trips, I had the brilliant idea that we could raise money and instead of renting a car or a bus, we could buy an old, used car and give it to a pastor here who works out in the campo.  I knew a motorcycle ministry whose members drove bikes from Oregon to Nicaragua and donated those bikes, then flew back.  This seemed similar.  I figured a thousand dollars or so could get us a decent car.

The missionaries here laughed at me.  I mean, kindly, but it was definitely “Ha.  That’s not remotely close to enough.”

I’ve driven some less-than-pristine cars in the States.  I am probably above average in the category of “cars received as gifts or purchased for $5.”  In the U.S., you can buy something ugly but drivable for $1000-1500.  It may have issues, but it will keep you on the road for a year or two, sometimes five or more.  If you are immune to ugliness and know a bit about tinkering, you can likely pull that off for $500. That’s always been my experience and I don’t think it’s changed.  Tell me if you think I’m wrong.

In Nicaragua, this part of the used car market seems not to exist.  You can pay $3K-4K for a non-running car that will require several thousand more–or mechanic abilities and an inside connection on parts–to become a running car again.  I am still  astonished at what cars can be kept running here.  There are regulations for road-worthiness and emission levels, but everyone here knows that paying the right person will get you those stickers to put on your windshield and que sorpresa, you passed your emissions test, regardless of the black cloud billowing out behind your vehicle.

A functioning, higher-mileage car starts at $5000.  For a truck or SUV, more like $6000 to $7000.  That’s entry-level price.  Paying that much does not guarantee you have a reliable vehicle.  Two different close friends recently bought cars that within the first two months needed major repairs.  It’s very difficult to know in what condition you are purchasing any given vehicle.  Carfax? Ha.  In Nicaragua, you’re doing well if you can get the title of the car you just bought in your own name…because the person selling it to you may not have it in their name.


Some variables for buying used cars in Nicaragua:

Roads beat the crud out of cars here.  The infrastructure is improving and one clear sign we see are nicer main roads.  Nonetheless, if you drive anywhere other than those main roads, your car gets hammered.  Unless you live in a very poor area of the US or go four-wheeling and seek this for sport, you probably remember that one time you hit a pothole so hard it jarred your teeth and hurt your car.  It stands out because it happened once or twice.  That happened here yesterday and will happen again tomorrow or next week, even though we’re trying to be cautious.  And we know we’re trying to be cautious, which we cannot guarantee for the owners of that car you may buy next.

 If you have limited funds to fix your car, you get it done any way you can.  Many mechanics here understand that position and immediately assume that you want things done as cheaply as possible.  You might even think you want that–until you realize how cheap “possible” can be.  Therefore, when buying a used car, you can assume that if repairs happened, they happened with used (or even questionable) parts, cut corners, and “Okay, that’s good enough.”  Likewise, did the vehicle receive routine maintenance?  Anyone’s guess.  

Accidents happen and cars get pasted back together to get back on the road.  We bought our minivan in great shape at a great price and with low kilometers.  We thought we’d gotten an amazing deal.  But later we realized it had almost certainly endured a severe wreck before we got it.  Our first clue?  When we had troubles with door locks and windows, a mechanic took the door apart and discovered that it had been repaired…with drywall screws.  Now that’s my level of knowing there’s a problem.

Of course, after that many other tell-tale signs appeared.  But eventually I got hit and now it’s impossible to know from which accident any given problem started.  

A few thoughts on all this:

Being poor isn’t cheap.  You imagine it is, because people in poverty have so little money that they must be spending the least possible on everything.  But often it does not work that way.  I described this with buying food.  If you are poor and could somehow afford a car in the first place–and most can’t–you will constantly be spending money to keep it on the road.  We aren’t poor but have limited funds and lately seem to spend most of our “disposable” income on fixing our car.  My friend Juan Ramon explained to me long ago that our car is “mi familia segunda” (my second family).  Many missionaries begin by buying a used car, have a terrible experience, and decide to buy a much nicer, newer (or brand new) vehicle to avoid those headaches.  

I think the US has so many more cars in its market, with so many people upgrading or buying new, that the used car market becomes plentiful.  That never happens here.  The demand for decent, or tolerable, or seemingly acceptable cars stays higher than the supply.   As long as demands stays this high, prices will never go down.  Oh, and there is a 100% tax on privately imported cars.

Of course, all this is playing in my head right now because our minivan lately reminds me of a bucket with holes in it and we keep pouring more in…  The threshold for “it’s not worth fixing” is higher because we’d do well to get a replacement for $10K, and once you’ve already sunk money into fixing it…this song sounds the same in any country.  

On the opposite end, most repairs here cost a small fraction of what they would cost in the U.S.  Unless you drive an unusual or exotic car here–a Honda Odyssey or Accord, a Subaru Legacy or Outback–parts are cheaper and labor charges compare with most other work here, i.e. paid so low most in the U.S. would laugh at the suggestion.  I feel very fortunate and blessed that we have found trustworthy and competent mechanics, including some great friends.  I think this process might drive me insane if I were also constantly wondering whether or not we were getting ripped off.  

I was going to add this as post-script, but today I think I need to conclude with it:  our clutch needed only an adjustment, for which they charged us nothing.  

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