I would just like to note that the process of trying to buy a car ("destroying the planet") is doing my head in.
I last did this nine years ago. The current car is within spitting distance of being old enough to vote; if I keep it, it is going to cost me a lot of money in expensive repairs in the near future (hint: power steering, suspension). And after I spend a lot of money on it, it will still be a rattly old banger. So I'm finally doing the buy-a-car thing in earnest for the first time in two decades. My current motor came from within my family; before that, I spent a decade without a car, so while I recall having bought cars from days of yore, the memories are sepia-tinted.
My needs are quite simple. I live in a city centre and commute to the office in my bedroom slippers; we shop locally, only venturing to a supermarket that needs a car to get to maybe three times a year. In fact, my normal form of transport for short journeys is shank's mare. On the other hand, I periodically need to drive hundreds of miles with one or more adult passengers and a bunch of luggage, or to haul furniture up and down the motorway. Often at the drop of a hat, sometimes multiple times per month. The car will be co-owned by my wife. We're used to a big-ass Volvo 850 estate (US: station wagon) with a manual transmission; we're looking for a drop-in replacement — the same, only diesel-powered and a lot younger.
(Update: Yes, we have considered renting on occasion. The numbers don't work — our usage pattern isn't compatible with either Zipcar/City Car Club or trad rental. You can stop asking now. FURTHER UPDATE: 15 comments in, getting annoyed: any further comments suggesting I consider renting will be deleted.)
I'm buying used because I see no reason to throw money away on depreciation, and it's less environmentally damaging to amortize the production inputs of a used car over a long period. I'm planning on buying at a point where the vehicle has depreciated by 75%, but running it for twice as long again as its life up to that point. (As for propulsion technology: hybrids, threat or menace? Maybe they'll be cleaner eventually, but right now a diesel makes most sense for a vehicle that will mostly be used on long journeys outside cities where the PM10/PM50 emissions are a problem — and that will exceed a hybrid's battery pack design life, necessitating a very expensive replacement.)
I ran the numbers and phoned my insurance broker. A diesel won't save us a huge amount of money on fuel, but enough to offset the increased insurance fees from going from a 130 horsepower engine to a 180 horsepower one.
I checked the local Volvo dealer last year, and wasn't impressed. So I lately began looking on the usual online sites. Gumtree, eBay, Auto Trader ... they've all got a plethora of tools to make searching easier, restricting by make/model/trim, mileage, geographical radius, and price. I turned up a long list of six or seven vehicles of the right model/spec within range, ruled out two of them (one is too new and expensive; a second is a write-off in need of about £5000 of repairs — doubtless a bargain if you know how to do that). A couple more went when I considered their age: a 2002 vehicle ain't a sound purchase in 2012 if you're looking for another decade of motoring. Eventually I found a couple of cars; a 2005 model for private sale, and a 2006 one with slightly higher mileage at a used car dealer.
Here's the interesting revelation for this Rip Van Winkle, who has effectively been out of the market for 20-25 years: there are no bargains any more. Nor are there any horribly overpriced vehicles, either (unless you want to go to the authorized dealer, in which case you'll pay over the odds but also get some hand holding). Nor are there any secrets about what can go wrong: there are model-specific online bug lists, online vehicle status reports that can tell you if it's been chopped or stolen or is liable for outstanding finance, and getting an estimate of its book value isn't a high hurdle to leap either. The process of evaluating a second hand car has become more transparent, but by the same token, so has the process of selling one: so nobody offers a car for much below the standard asking price.
Personally, I blame the internet. The web disintermediates supply chains, and the used car market is of course a supply chain, just like any other; if you want an automotive bargain you have to be really ready to work at it, and in an age of cars with "no user serviceable parts" labels under the hood, that ain't easy (even if, unlike me, you have a garage/workshop and know what you're doing).
Anyway, I'm now in the process of looking at and test-driving the cars I'm focussing on. Hopefully in the next few days I'll shake on a deal, and thereafter feel poorer for a few months. Then accept delivery — and take the new wheels to my local garage to get the snag list checked before it bites me. (For example, one of the vehicles in question is in great shape, except it's about due for a new timing belt ...) And then there's the paperwork. V5 ownership documents to transfer, insurance to update, RAC membership to update, VOSN (formerly MoT) roadworthiness certificate, road tax — it's all beginning to remind me of the old joke about how the Space Shuttle is cleared for lift-off when the weight of documentation exceeds the payload mass.
Optimistically this may be my last self-driven car; I'd be very happy if, circa 2022, self-driving vehicles are sufficiently mature that I can give up driving for good.
Or pay to install a teleport booth instead.
You can stop the suggestions; I've bought a car and I'll be picking it up on Thursday. (Early 2006 Volvo V70 D5 estate, gunmetal grey, 89,000 miles. Comes with a 6 month warranty and a trade-in on the old boneshaker. I've done the background check, test-driven it, and gone over the service history. End of story.)