My wife and I have been preparing for the last few years to buy a new-to-us minivan this year, and as I have started doing some of the first steps in our Step-by-Step Guide to Buying a Used Car with Cash, it made me think about the last time we did this.
That time was in 2014, right before the birth of our 3rd child, and most definitely before the birth of this blog.
So I wanted to take a moment to hop in the way-back machine and share with you the fun adventure we had buying our first minivan with cash – our 3rd car with cash so far.
Kid Number 3 Leads to Minivan Number 1
I’ll admit, we had never really considered ourselves “minivan people”. Even back in 2014 with only 2 children, the idea of needing a minivan to accommodate our family seemed silly.
But with the pending arrival of our 3rd child, we realized that road trippin’ would be much easier and more comfortable in a more spacious vehicle.
And, honestly, after doing some research and seeing all the awesome features and configuration options, I was actually kind of impressed with the minivan concept. (At this point, I don’t even know how I lived without automatic doors. I mean, did I really have to get out of the vehicle and open the door for the kids like an animal?)
Finding the Right Model
Having never owned a minivan before, we didn’t have a preference, but the reality was, even back in 2014 the only real choice was between the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna as all but one American automobile manufacturer quit making minivans.1
So our first stop was at Carmax to check out the Odyssey and Sienna to see if we had a preference between the two.
Both were extremely comparable in features and driving ability. They were also reasonably modern, even in older model-year versions like we would ultimately be purchasing.
In the end, we liked the interior layout and feel of the Toyota Sienna better, but that was purely personal preference.
With our desired model in mind, it was time to start searching the Internet to see what kind of vehicles were out there and what we could afford.
We had about $9,000 saved up for our vehicle purchase, and we were only looking to spend $8,000 on a vehicle, leaving us a reserve for any maintenance that might be necessary on our new-to-us minivan.
Our initial online searches showed that we would be looking for a 2008 – 2010 model vehicle depending on the quality and mileage.
From there, it was really just a matter of setting up alerts and checking back every couple of days to see if any decent vehicles showed up that met our criteria.
But we weren’t in a hurry. We were buying the minivan in preparation for the birth of our 3rd child, but that child wasn’t due until June 2015, and we were shopping for this vehicle in November of 2014, so we definitely had time on our side, a critical factor when trying to get a great deal on a used car.
We Found It
After only about a week, a new vehicle popped up on Craigslist. It was a 2009 Toyota Sienna with 130k miles on it. It was high mileage in general, but Sienna’s are known for engines and transmissions capable of 250k to 300k miles, so this one still had plenty of life left.
They were asking $8,000 for it, which was the limit of our budget, but I always assume there will be an opportunity for negotiation.
I plugged the VIN number into CarFax.com and saw that the seller was the one and only owner having bought it brand new back in 2009 and with no records of any accidents.
The next step was going to look at it.
Checking It Out IRL
The owner and his wife had 3 small children and it was hard for them to schedule a time during the day to meet up, so I ended up going over to their house one evening to check it out.
This wasn’t ideal since it was going to be around our kid’s bedtime. Val decided she was fine letting me go check it out while she stayed home and got the kids in bed.
The owner was located on the other side of town so it was about a 40-minute drive over to his house.
I made the drive and met the husband and his wife as well as 2 of their 3 young kids. (The baby was already sleeping.)
The owner and I made some small talk as I looked around the vehicle, and I learned he was in the military.
They were selling the van because they were being moved to Alaska, and rather than haul both their cars from Texas to Alaska, they were just going to sell both of them and buy new cars up there.
The van looked good from the outside, but as I opened up the side door, I realized they had made no effort to clean up the inside.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the real-life world of a minivan’s interior, but it’s not that pretty. It’s basically understood that all little kids are hoarders at heart.
But kids are also the worst kinds of hoarders. The forgetful kind.
That means what they were hoarding yesterday has already been long forgotten only to be replaced by their new hoarding obsession today. You let this go on for 2 or 3 days and the inside of a minivan basically becomes a giant metallic toy / food / candy / trash bucket.
In this particular case, though, it was worse.
The hoarding obsession was strong where the two booster seats sat on the back row, but as I got in and looked around, I noticed the kids in the back had plastered the back windows with all kinds of stickers, there were some french fries and other food looking substances mashed into the seat cushions, and I found some miscellaneous trash covering a half-eaten lollipop that was stuck to the carpet under the seat.
It was a special kind of ugly.
I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a van quality issue or just a van cleanliness issue, so I wasn’t ready just yet to hop back in my car and drive away. It took 40 minutes to get there after all.
So I hopped in the driver’s seat, started it up, pushed all the buttons and knobs, and then took it for a spin to see how it drove.
Everything checked out fine, so I was willing to move on to the next step – getting my trusted mechanic to check it out.
Fun at the Mechanic’s Shop
I asked the husband if I could have my mechanic look it over, and he was fine with that.
The next day I made an appointment with my mechanic and called the seller to let him know the day and time.
Now the seller was on the other side of town, so I was prepared to take a good chunk of my day off work and drive over to his house, pick up the van and drive it back over to my mechanic, then drive it back.
But surprisingly, the owner had the day off and he said he would be more than happy to drive the vehicle over and meet me at the mechanic’s shop. That was a nice bonus.
So on the scheduled day, the owner drove the van over to my mechanic’s shop to get it checked out.
Now, remember, Valarie hasn’t seen the vehicle yet, although I did describe it pretty well when I got home from checking it out that night by myself.
According to my description, I think she envisioned the image from above, and she was ready to run away as fast as possible, but I convinced her to just stop by the mechanic’s shop while it was near our house and take a look for herself.
So she loaded up the kids and did just that.
After seeing it in person, she was even more ready to abandon it.
I believed that the interior could be solved with a healthy cleaning, and if everything checked out well with the mechanic, I could probably get a good deal on it.
Val was less concerned with getting a good deal on a disgusting van, so her deal with me is that if I chose to buy it and a healthy cleaning did not solve the interior issues, then I had to promise to resell the vehicle immediately and make all our money back.
I was feeling confident, so I agreed.
Getting a Deal on a Minivan With Cash
As the mechanic continued with the inspection, Valarie took the kids and headed back home.
Eventually, the mechanic came back with the report with only a few issues that were typical for a 5-year-old van with 130k miles. No major issues or repairs on the horizon.
I did some mental math and figured the van was probably worth the $8,000 the seller was asking, but I needed some money for a healthy cleaning.
I didn’t know exactly how much a healthy cleaning would cost, so I guessed around $500, so that put my highest price at $7,500.
I shared the mechanic’s report with the owner and told him it looked good, but shared my wife’s concerns about the inside and that she thought we should continue looking for another vehicle.
I told him I was willing to pay $7,000 for the van.
He thought about it, and came back and asked for $7,200.
I held my game face, but inside I was happy. At $7,200, and $500 for the cleaning, I could get a van in great working condition for $7,700 which was $300 below our budget.
I agreed that $7,200 was a fair price for the van and we shook on it.
Obviously, he needed to take the van home and get all their stuff out of it, plus get the title for it as well.
So we agreed that I would come by later that evening with the cash and we would sign all the paperwork.
A Healthy Cleaning
Even before picking up the vehicle, I had started doing some research to find a good car detailing shop and trying to figure out how much a healthy cleaning was going to cost.
I found a local detailing shop with great reviews so I called and told them my special circumstance. They said I should bring the van by so they could look at it and they would give me an estimate.
The day after picking it up, I brought my 5-year-old minivan to the auto detailing shop and parked it between what looked like a new Mercedes and a new Porsche sitting in the queue to be worked on.
The owner of the shop and one of the detail crew came out and spent a good 10 minutes going through the entirety of the interior looking at everything.
After talking it over, they quoted me a price of $350 and a guarantee that they would have it looking brand new.
I was shocked at the high price but equally shocked that they guaranteed that they could have it looking brand new. I was skeptical that anyone could get the van looking that good.
Luckily, I had $800 to play with, so I agreed on the price and left the van there.
They started on it immediately and worked on it for 2 straight days.
I checked on it towards the end of day one and they had removed all the seats and were giving them a special cleaning while also shampooing all the carpet inside the van.
Having just gotten the vehicle, I was in awe as I saw them uncover little cubbies and pockets and storage nooks that I didn’t even know existed. They cleaned all of it with the same precision they were using on the Corvette and the Audi RS next to it in the shop.
(I wish I had taken pictures because my “fancy” minivan definitely stood out against all the luxury and sports cars surrounding it.)
When I came back to pick it up at the end of day 2, after 16 hours of work, I was truly amazed at how clean it was inside.
They showed me around and there was no hint that any sticker had ever been on the windows, no mystery food smells, and the upholstery looked fantastic.
It was truly an incredible transformation.
After tax, the price came in at just under $450, meaning we got the minivan we wanted at almost exactly the price we wanted.
Best of all, when I finally drove it home for Valarie to see it, she loved it. She was even more surprised than I was at how clean it was.
It was now, officially, our Fam Van.
What I hope you learn from this story is that it is possible to get a great deal on a quality used car. It might take some creativity. It might take figuring out what a “healthy cleaning” consists of, and how much that costs. But it’s worth it.
We bought the van back in December of 2014, and since then, the Fam Van has provided us with 5 years of fantastic service and is still going strong.
And now, with 4 kids, the Fam Van gets tons of daily use and family fun road-trip time.
Now, as we look to replace my aging 2002 Toyota Highlander with a newer model minivan for Valarie, the original Fam Van will become my daily driver, likely for another 5 years – or longer.
Read Also: We Bought Another Used Car With Cash
Our choice to pay cash for used vehicles has saved us over $100,000 even including the maintenance costs, and we think that’s pretty incredible.
Read Also: How We Saved Over $100,000 Driving Used Cars
Great cars don’t only come from a new car dealership. Every car was a fancy new car at a dealership at one point.
Remember, some of the best cars available have already been paid for once by the original owner and they’ve still got a lot of life left in them.
Now it’s your turn to use my Step-by-Step Guide to Buying a Used Car to get a great deal on your next vehicle.
Do you have any fun car-buying stories? Have you ever had to get creative with a purchase? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
- Chevrolet quit making minivans in 2008, the Uplander being their last entry in the market. Ford’s final attempt was in 2006 with their last model of the Windstar, although they kind of pretend that their Ford Transit Connect Passenger Wagon (I’m totally not making that name up) is still a thing that families can buy today…if they want? Chrysler is the only American maker still producing minivans with their Pacifica and Voyager models which seem to have benefited from the other US manufacturers throwing in the towel.