How To Buy an Adventure Car for $900

Back in 2013 I purchased some ol' Swedish wheels -- a 2001 Volvo wagon for $5,400. Then 8 months, a Baja trip (that ended with a tuna can lid duct taped over a hole in the engine), and $6,500 in unforeseen maintenance costs later I sold the piece of junk for a measly $1,900. 

In 8 months I lost $8,000 on that car. That's almost as bad as purchasing a new car on a loan, one of the seven deadly sins of obtaining freedom. The memory still gives me the shivers.

I then went into car-diac arrest for 5 months. It was heaven. I used my bike profusely before, but then I had to use it for everything. The inability to quickly go places forced me to slow down. I began to find a deeper solace in reading, writing, and relaxing with myself and others nearby. I've found that adding a boundary to parts of my life often makes me happier.

But in time I needed a little extra boost. My family lives about 20 minutes South. And I had rarely seen them over those lovely car-free months. So at that time I decided to buy Luna -- an epic 2009 Yamaha Vino 125cc scoot for $2800. Yes... more than what I sold that hell-hole Volvo for. 


I got a second helmet and leveled up my mobility game with the ability to quickly get home to see my family, boost through traffic on the San Francisco streets, and slip into front row parking everywhere. The $2.50 tank fill up and 60 miles to the gallon efficiency was amazing. Scooters are epic. Perfect call for selling the car, keeping the mobility, and upping your stash ratio.

As time goes things change. And about 9 months after that, June 2015, I found I was really missing the ability to hop down to Santa Cruz for a weekend surf with a mentor or Big Sur and Santa Barbara for a surf or hang with The Boys. The limits of just the scooter was wonderful for a time, but when it was time to make a switch circumstance made it apparent. I needed a car. And since I was stashing, I was easily able to take action to address it.

As with all my purchasing, I went into a library-and-sweatpants, final's week like study mode. I found this wonderful article and off I went! The first question I asked was "What will I use the car for?" If I had the car I would use it for weekend surf trips or adventures to the Sierras. That's pretty much it.

The next question I asked was "What do I need in a car like that?" I needed a car with cargo space. I'm throwin' wetsuits, backpacks, surfboards in that sucker. I needed a car/company with quality DNA -- raving reviews, life-long working motors (with a timing chain, not a timing belt!), great safety ratings, ability to take on mountains and snow a few times per year, and killer re-sale values (Toyotas & Hondas). And I wanted some real 21st century gas mileage. Not some piss poor 12 MPG titanic. Ford's Model T got 15 MPG in 1909. That's over 100 years ago!

I then talked with everyone I knew about how they liked their cars. I read this epic article on The Top 10 Cars for Smart People. And from there I narrowed it down to three: Toyota Matrix, Toyota Prius, and Scion Xa. (Scions are built by Toyota.)

I then needed to figure out "How many miles could be on the car?" Here I thought: I'll probably do a few trips to Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Tahoe, maybe a long road trip, and a number of quick trips home to see my parents. That's really all I would use it for. So that's about 6,000 miles/yr (max). A solid base line for owning a car is 10 years. But I estimated I'd only need it for 7 years. 7 years that's 42,000 miles. So I can get a mechanic approved car with 158,000 miles on it.

My next step was to take a look on Craigslist. There I found it was going to be between $4,000 - $7,000 depending on the car. I moved to reading online reviews on each car on Kelly Blue BookReddIt, and through a Google search. The only issue I found was the possibility of the Prius battery dying. There were tons of mixed reviews, but I had a previous bad experience so I decided to simply move away from the Prius. And as badass as the Matrix is my mom has one. So yeah, I just couldn't pull the trigger on it either. So the Scion Xa turned out the winner! It passed all the research tests with A+ grades.

Then I began a 2 month slow search on Craigslist to get a feel for the market. What's a good deal? What's a rip off? I set up a trigger on IFTTT to just send me an email every time a new Scion hit the market.

With a car, I no longer had the need for the scooter. So toward the end of that 2 months I sold Luna to a friend at work. I used Luna as cash (liquidated it) to purchase the car. I was asking $2,700 on Craigslist, but gave it to him for $2,350. Only a $450 loss after about 1 year of use (awesome).

Then a "2005 Scion Xa 2nd owner with a clean title" hit my inbox priced at $4,000. I called immediately and set up a test drive that night. We met. I test drove it. I looked all over for leaks. I looked over past maintenance records. Gassed it as hard as possible numerous times to feel how it shifted while accelerating. Checked all the fluid levels and their cleanliness. And I decided this was the one.

I looked up the price on Kelly Blue Book before meeting the previous owner to help with negotiating the price. I told him Kelly Blue Book has the car at $3,500 as a fair price. He said, "Nope. I can do $3,800." He was a stingy one. 

At that point I stepped away from the negotiating for a moment. From my research I knew I could leverage the bill of sale to get the price I wanted and keep the price the seller wanted. You see, we all pay taxes on car purchases. In California it's about 10%. At the DMV you pay this tax on the bill of sale amount. The trick is if the seller writes the bill of sale lower than the actual price paid, then the seller doesn't lose any money and you save money on taxes when registering. 

After coming back to the table I said, "I'll do $3,700 cash, but only if you write the bill of sale at $500." He said, "Yes." We made the transaction, the car became mine, and soon after I named it "Pirate." With this I gave the seller his price and I saved $320 in taxes at the DMV 2 days later. The registration had also been paid that month. So 12 months free of registration fees was another big win.


For the purchase I used $2,350 from the scooter sale, $850 from my savings, and $500 from my checking. The registration was $50. Since the $500 was in my checking as spending money and the $2,350 came from the scooter, my true-stash only depleted by $900 with the purchase! That felt great.

If I would have bought a $25,000 new car on a loan, I could say I've saved $64,000 in 10 years. 

This all worked because I took it slow and lived well within my means along the way. I started with a bike for months. Then I made the move to a scooter. And finally, over a year later, I got Pirate. 

I didn't just bust out of my huge Volvo loss right into another car. I went back to the basics. All of which were super fun. How epic is riding bikes with friends to cook hot dogs in the park? How sick is touring the city on a scooter? During all that time I was working and stashing fat. So these opportunities quickly became possible.

By the books, I made two mistakes in this purchase. #1 The car came with 164,000 miles about 20,000 more than I would have realistically liked. And #2 I didn't have a mechanic check the engine before purchasing.

#2 was really stupid. I ached about this for hours before I decided to purchase. But I did read hundreds of consumer reviews and never found anything about break downs. And I even studied How to Check a Car Before a Purchase before I saw the car. But! I still should have had a mechanic look at it first. That's life. Only time will tell how I did!

*1.5 year update: I've had zero issues and every mechanic friend who's looked at the car has said it'll likely go for another 100k miles as long as I do an oil change every 3-5k miles. So epic.

Free Mini-Course — Do What You Love Finance

Keep Reading. You Won't Regret It.