The Mercedes S-Class is a beacon of German ingenuity, quality and tradition. It's understated in its presentation but completely captivating in providing you with an experience that whispers gently in your ear: "You've had a hard day, I got it from now on." I wanted one - BAD.
This was a 1% car, I just had to get one for a 99% price - and not only some run-of-the-mill base model either, I had to get one that was fully loaded with all the bells and whistles Mercedes-Benz could possibly fit. Oh, and I didn't want one with any accidents, extensive mechanical problems or high miles. ...and the budget for the whole thing was $4000.
Before I get into the car, let me first introduce you to a concept known as Lifestyle Creep. It's basically what happens when a lifelong one-ply toilet paper user uses quilted thee-ply for the first time. Going back to one-ply is now beneath you (LOL) and the luxury is now a necessity. It's a double edged sword.
Why is this important?
I purchased a B5 Audi A6 2.7T Quattro last year for the whopping sum of $1000. It had the sport package, and had VERY rare Red Leather interior that I loved. It came with front and rear heated seats, HIDs and loads of other amenities that I'd never had, or even knew that I needed.
After a stellar 3 months with that car, I woke up one day to have it missing from my driveway. Apparently someone else was as fond of it as I was, and decided to let themselves have a go at it for a few days before returning it three towns away with the fenders smashed in and the interior torn apart. On a positive note, insurance totalled the car for an amount that was six times more than I paid for the car - so even though I don't ever want to see that car thief around my neighborhood again, I probably owe him lunch.
Part 1: The Purchase (Buyer's Guide)
Flash forward to a little before the present day.
I needed a daily driver, but one that ticked all the boxes the Audi did in luxury and power, but I didn't have much money - $4000 to be specific. What do?
Here's a step by step breakdown of what I did next:
1. I researched what cars depreciated the most. Most, if not all, were the flagship cars of luxury brands, which makes it quite clear in a recession, the first thing to go into the fire is the fur coat.
A quick digression - I absolutely love depreciation. I can't understand why a sane adult human being that dresses themselves in the morning would go out and buy a mass-market car new. I'd make an exception for a limited production supercar like a Pagani Huayra or Koeniggsegg Agera R, but why one would buy a brand spanking new Toyota Yaris when they're going to make 4 million of the damn things is something I must've missed in school. Not only that, but most people FINANCE these temples of the mundane so by the time they've paid it off, the depreciation has eaten 90 percent of the total amount paid. It's a good way to tell who has good business sense - look at who has a car payment and the type of car it's attached to. End rant.
2. I chose a few cars that I liked and were in my price range. A good way to know what cars are worth is ebay. Unlike Kelley Blue Book and NADA, ebay is a market in which real people pay real money for the things they want. Enthusiast car forums can be good for this, but most of the time prices are inflated because the owner takes into account emotional attachment. Ebay lets the people decide what they want to pay. The cars that fit my criteria were the E38 BMW 7-Series and W220 Mercedes S-Class.
3. I searched auto forums for common faults and weaknesses in the cars. Using Bimmerfest and Benzworld, I found the extensive list of things that could possibly go wrong with either car, and began searching for part prices on ebay. I didn't want to end up making a mistake that would have me going over budget. I needed something just as reliable as any econobox on the street.
4. I chose the W220 Mercedes S-Class. It had many, MANY common issues, but none that were hard to diagnose with the proper equipment or difficult to fix if you knew what the problem was. The main issues with the car were electrical in nature - the design of a front water duct, over time, would flood, causing water to come into the cabin and short out a fuse panel. That, and the Airmatic suspension, if not maintained, can become problematic and expensive. Armed with this information and knowing that the forums were very comprehensive and welcoming, I knew that I cold take care of virtually anything the car had problem-wise.
5. I searched Craiglist, ebay and any other car classified site I could within a 200 mile radius of my home to find a car for me. I used SearchTempest, a third party site that searches all CL and ebay posts within a specific radius. I recommend them immensely. I knew I wanted an S500 rather than the S430, because it had about 30 more HP than the S430 variant and there was a greater chance that it had more optional equipment selected.
6. I followed all leads. All the cars that "needed work", I jumped on like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat. I tried to stay away from body work because I wasn't at the point where I could work on the body of a $90,000 car with any confidence. Eventually, I found one that looked promising. It was an ebay classified listing nearby (well, 1.5hrs away, but close enough where I could make a day trip out of it)
It was a 2000 S500 that had electric rear seats, parking sensors and rear A/C controls, from what I could tell from the 3 blurry pictures that were on the ad. The car had trouble starting and running, as stated by the ad, so I figured it was time to find out more information. I was weary that it may have been a flood car, but the owner assured me it wasn't, and recently started having the problems. In fact, it had quite a documented service history by Mercedes-Benz. The owner was asking $4700 or best offer.
Here's what I found out:
The car had 2 owners since new, and had 89,000 miles. Average mileage for a 2000 model year car should be anywhere from 160,000 -190,000 miles. It had zero accidents and had a clean title. The previous owner exported it to Dubai, where it spent half its life. That was great news - it meant that this car wasn't likely a flood car and didn't have rain damage or rust. It was also serviced at a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Dubai. I'm a sucker for a car with a story. The fact that this car was already a world traveler just made it more enticing to me. As far as options, it's easier to write what the car didn't have: Ventilated and massaging seats, Distronic cruise control and a rear refrigerator. Everything else on this long list of things came with the car, which was pretty freaking awesome. I was a little let down that this didn't have the seats I wanted, but that was something I could always put in later, or learn to live without (not likely).
8. I went to see the car. This is perhaps the most important part of the purchasing process. It's where you can actually touch metal and make the distinction between diamond in the rough and a dingleberry. It literally pays to be prepared. Here are things I brought with me:
- A flashlight (to look under the car and illuminate if it got dark)
- An OBDII scanner (Scans the computer for any codes)
- Some dish soap and a rag (to clean up dust and check for major scratches or body damage not easily seen)
- A friend (to be an extra set of eyes and as protection in case of SNAFU)
The car's body looked good, but had problems starting and running. I chatted with the owner, and he told me that Mercedes-Benz already diagnosed the problem as a faulty Electronic Ignition System, which was around $900 to remedy at the dealership, although they made no guarantees. I knew that this was something that I could do, and cheaply.
9. I made a offer and stuck with it. There's a fine art to haggling and negotiating used car prices. If you do your homework and know how much a car is worth, not to mention how much repairs will cost realistically, you will always have the uper hand. I put out a cheeky offer of $3000 because I wanted enough money left over to fix any issues with the car, and I also knew that the owner just wanted to get rid of the car as soon as possible, and I was there with cash willing to take it. A few minutes later, after signing over the title, I had the keys to my first Mercedes S-Class. It needed work, but it was a hell of a lot better than a used Accord. I spent $300 and had it towed to my house.