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The Poly Auto

Autos and the poly family. This subject gets me a little twitchy. Why? Well, cars are just plain expensive, no matter how you slice it.

Do you want a car that will fit the whole family? I can say that we did not have a car that fit six people and we did not like it at all. We had to take two cars whenever the family wanted to go somewhere and it was a pain in the neck. The first major purchase for Our Little Quad was a minivan. Just what we always wanted was to look like some kind of confounded yuppie.

DO NOT LEASE A CAR!!!!!! 'Nuff said. It ain't cheaper, even if you want to accept a car payment for every car you drive as a way of life -- a practice I happen to find moronic. (There are those in the house who disagree with me and hate old cars. Me, I can't see carrying three car payments -- or even two -- at a time).

If you can manage it, buy a car nearly new and drive it until it is dead. If you're trying to save money, don't bother with a brand new car. You lose 10% if the vehicle's value the second you drive it off the lot.

When you decide you must purchase a new car, sit down with your family and makesure you get an idea of the qualities you absolutely must have in that vehicle. For Our Little Quad, it was comfortable seating for at least six and reliability -- as we intended to use the car for family trips of over 500 miles. Decide on an absolute top figure, then no matter how it hurts, cut it by about 15%. Decide on how much of a down payment you will apply to the car. The bigger the better. Remember that interest payments do add up over time. ($12,500 at 9.25% for 60 months runs somewhere around $3,200 in interest payments). If you are a member of a financial institution such as a credit union, you can often get far better interest rates on a car loan. Decide on a payment range. Make it absolutely certain that you can afford the payments as well as the insurance payments. Take a look at your auto budget and make sure that the new payments would fit in.

As with any large purchase, do your research and don't fall in love. Find out the blue book value of the vehicle you intend to purchase. ( Here's a website where you can check the blue book value of a vehicle online). Shop around. Be aggressive in negotiation when you actually get into the salesperson's office. Do remember that especially for used cars, there is a lot of leeway in the price. Don't let them get the upper hand. You do hold all the cards. If a salesman tells you his manager won't approve of a lower price, send him to his manager. He will. No matter how attractive the price, hem and haw. Don't jump. Tell them that you may be able to squeeze the payments into your budgets, but aren't sure. Ask if they can possibly go any lower. If they say no, tell them you have to think about it. The words you want to hear are, "What's it going to take to sell you this car today?" And if you play your cards right, you will hear that phrase. Never volunteer figures. If they ask you "How much lower?", get them to talk first. If you volunteer a figure, you've got your rock bottom price and it might not be as low as they would have gone. Our Little Quad, on the first day of negotations, managed to get the price down to 78% of the blue book value.

This comes to the second part of negotiation. Never, ever sign on the first day. No matter how popular the car, no matter how much you want it, do not sign on the first day. Give a small retainer, if you like. Even better, see if you can get them to let you test drive it overnight. But do not sign .

Poly families can be either an intimidating force or a freak show if you're buying through a dealership. (You should have seen the salesman juggling the sodas that he was bringing into his office for the pre-negotiation drinks!) Get your best verbal chess player to do the talking -- even if that person is not going to show up on the title. Sometimes double-teaming works, but it is best if the team is of the same sex. (Anyone in a quad absorbs this almost intuitively). My wife and I do this rather naturally, our skills having been honed on the men. Try to work with a salesperson of the opposite sex. Yes, I know it sounds sexist, but this really does work well. By the way, while intimidation is a good tool, that "frank comeraderie" you can sometimes get works even better.

Make sure you keep up with the maintenance schedule. Regular oil changes do more than any one single thing to extend the life of your car. Do not neglect this! If you know how to change the oil yourself, you're ahead of the game, but even if not, you can search fliers and circulars for specials on cheap oil changes. Whatever you do, don't neglect this. Here is a link to an adequate schedule for car maintenance.

Go easy on your breaks. Yes, I happen to drive like Satan, and it is expensive. Use the break and accelerator pedals as if there was a balloon between them and the floorboard that you do not want to pop.

Insurance is a big expense. Many insurance companies offer a multi-car discount. The catch is that the same person or married couple must own the cars. The only way around this is to have a legal entity such as an LLC or a corporation to own them. Other than that, keep your driving record clean. Other tips on car insurance can be found here .

Don't drive much. Seriously. If you need to go to a store that's 1/2 a mile down the street and you don't need to get there in a hurry, walk. Plan trips so you can pick up things on your way home from work.

Use the public transportation option where feasible. No, you're not going to be able to take the bus to a warehouse store to go grocery shopping for two weeks, but you may be able to take a bus or carpool to work. And if it's less than a mile away, it's cheaper and faster to walk.

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