Foreign Service Cars: Buyer Beware

Since our first month in Canberra, our Australian car has been a money pit and an ongoing source of dread. I’ve procrastinated writing a post about the situation for months because it had no clear resolution, and every time I thought about it, I felt too angry and frustrated. Truthfully, I’ve also had many other things to whinge about and I didn’t want to write one more bad-news entry! But I’ve come to the realization that this story could be of help (or at least entertainment) to someone else, and venting might actually make me feel better too.

Let me preface my tale of woe by saying that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) switch overseas assignments every few years, and procuring and shipping cars can involve a significant amount of planning and expense. I’ve heard horror stories of fellow officers’ cars smashed in transit, sunk to the bottom of the sea in a shipping container, and emerged from years of government storage full of mold or insects. This isn’t going to be that kind of story. But it is a lessons-learned story about buying a lemon of a used car and our journey to discovering it. And buckle up: it’s a long and painful one. Although it’s common in the Foreign Service to buy cars from colleagues sight unseen, anyone along the continuum from unlucky to outright burned will tell you: buyer beware.

Buying our Australian Car
Some FSOs ship a new or used car from the U.S. or a third country to a country of new assignment. Some of us buy cars in our host countries, either from a dealership, a private seller, or someone in the official diplomatic community. There are a lot of specifics that go into making the decision, and also pitfalls unique to expats. In 2015, three months after I arrived in Tashkent, I was thrilled when my 2010 Volkswagen SUV arrived at the embassy without a scratch, but became incensed when I noticed the odometer had an extra 107 miles on it that could not be attributed to the shipping process. I filed a formal complaint and was told that if the Department received enough complaints about a third party vendor, they’d eventually terminate the contract. [Say what? Yes, I did note the odometer reading before shipping my car, and I think it’s foolish if you don’t. It’s also outrageous that someone thinks they have the right to joyride in a stranger’s personal vehicle without their permission and under the auspices of their employment while it’s being shipped at U.S. government expense just because they can! I’m supposed to feel lucky that my car didn’t get wrecked while it was wherever it was, where it wasn’t supposed to be? Just because I have something nice doesn’t entitle anyone else to take advantage of me. Ugh. But I digress.]

As I have mentioned before, I didn’t have a right to import my Volkswagen into Australia because the steering wheel is on the left-hand side. My orders gave me the option to store it, and I agreed because there was little likelihood of recouping even half its worth in Tashkent and since I’d imported it duty-free I didn’t have the right to sell it on the economy. Even after sitting in a crate in Antwerp for two years and devaluing accordingly, I figured I’d still do better to sell it in the future or perhaps resume driving it during my unknown third assignment.

So, I was in the market for a car with a steering wheel on the right-hand side. I hadn’t driven one in more than ten years, and the idea of actually buying one was slightly intimidating. I decided to go with another all-wheel drive SUV, but not something new and fancy when we were about to be demoted back to new-driver status. Thinking of causing a fender-bender in a brand new car that would almost undoubtedly be my fault gave me serious pause. I looked online at dealership offerings, but was stunned to see how much more expensive cars are in Australia than in the States. With four months to go before our arrival in Australia, I didn’t want to wait until we arrived to look. I started searching the weekly embassy community newsletter for prospects.

I decided that I didn’t want to spend more than $10,000, because I wanted to pay with cash and not take out any loans. I also wanted something solid that wouldn’t crumple in an accident. I expressed interest in three or four cars that I saw listed, but each time the owner replied that the car had already been sold. I came to realize that embassy cars go quickly, and decided I needed to act faster the next time I saw something that fit my budget and wish list. (Of course all of this was happening while I was working full-time and planning a million details for our upcoming Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move from Tashkent, too, which made me even more eager to check “buy Australian car” off my list.)

I made my next expression of interest on a 2005 steel-gray Nissan Murano minutes after the newsletter hit my inbox, and sure enough – I was the first. We did the typical Q&A and price haggling. I discussed it with my husband, and he raised a concern about the car being 12 years old, reminding me that during our tour it would be 13-15 years old. I explained that the mileage was about what you’d expect for a car that age and that the seller had bought it from a dealership. The seller also went into a lot of detail about the car’s features, and it seemed like a car that had been well-maintained. It had brand new tires, heated leather seats, a Reese roof rack, and was supposedly near-spotless. These claims were substantiated with photos sent over a few email conversations with the seller, who also offered to throw in a flatscreen TV. After a few days’ consideration, I decided I was comfortable making the purchase.

[Note: Since most of my blog readers are more familiar with U.S. currency than Australian currency, I’ll convert all AUD figures into USD for this post.]

The third week of April 2017, I sent the owner a check for $6,000 and once it cleared, he sent me information about the car registration and insurance details. Together we arranged to have an officer who was staying on at post act as caretaker for the car, and drive it around the block once a week until I arrived. I was the proud owner of a new-to-me car! As I drove one SUV across the steppes of Central Asia, it was weird to contemplate another SUV in another hemisphere and season, just waiting for us to arrive and go on parallel adventures. It was also weird to think that I owned two SUVs outright! Cue romantic daydreams about driving across the Outback under a blazing Aussie sun.

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Lucky me!

With ten months’ hindsight, I feel I made a few mistakes during the car-buying process. Many people do the same thing and have it work out fine, but this is what I would do differently if I had the chance.
  • The first mistake was not waiting for a car that was several years newer. The car looked great, but my husband was right – 12 years old is too old for your primary car, especially when you’re overseas and out of your comfort zone, and the car has had an unknown number of prior owners. Not to mention that we had a lot of road trips planned. I think I balance risk-taking and risk-aversion in a pretty rational way, but in retrospect here I gave my worries about messing up a “nicer” car too much credence.
  • The second mistake was fishing in too small a pond. With four months and more cash to spend, I should have waited and not felt “lucky” to snag a car. While it’s true that I was trying to be financially conservative, especially in light of the expensive home leave we had coming up and my husband’s looming unemployment, I did have the cash to buy a newer, more expensive car, and I should have held out longer.
  • The third mistake, which irritates me perhaps the most because I know better (and I think my dad had even mentioned this to me as well), was that I didn’t ask the owner to provide me with the final mileage on the day he dropped the car off with the caretaker. I thought about asking, and then decided not to, because I know how busy PCS time is and I didn’t want to bother him. At the end of the day, I let my perception that he was a “known” quantity as a fellow FSO keep me from being more skeptical and self-interested. Although what we call “corridor reputation” in the Foreign Service is real, everyone – from the person who published the newsletter, to the car’s owner and his wife, to the caretaker – were in fact, all complete strangers to me.

Things Start to Smell Funny
Fast forward to early August 2017. At the end of my first week at the embassy, my husband and I went to our social sponsor’s home after an evening happy hour. He had collected our car and had it waiting at his place.

It was night time in winter, dark, and as it happened, raining. I had refrained from drinking more than one beer at the happy hour because I was so nervous and excited to get my car. I got behind the wheel and tried to orient myself. When I eventually get around to doing a post on left-hand side driving (and I promise that I will), I’ll explain in more detail how I felt on that first drive. But for now, suffice it to say that I was aware within the first ten minutes that the car had a significant oil leak. I used to drive a Mercury Cougar; I know of what I speak! I could smell the oil burning on the manifold, and some other weird smell I couldn’t identify. Although my intense concentration and two-handed driving took all of my attention, somewhere underneath that in my mind a small flame of worry lit up.

The second thing that bothered me, once I really looked at the car in the daytime, was the way the owner failed to disclose how ripped up the sides of the front seats were. For example, here’s the picture he sent me that shows the driver’s seat:

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His photo misses, by mere inches, showing how ripped up the side of the seat is, complete with a very amateurish-looking attempt to sew it up. Below is a close-up I took:

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It’s a similar situation on the front passenger seat, too, although the driver’s seat is worse. I’m not bringing this up because a ripped seat in a 12 year old car would have been a deal-breaker. I’m bringing it up because I think it was disingenuous to send me a picture that concealed a flaw of the car, a flaw he was obviously aware of. I think he just selfishly wanted to avoid giving me any leverage to try and negotiate for a lower price, or ask for him to fix it properly. The seller, knowing that I was in Uzbekistan and would not see the car until four months after his departure from Australia highlights the vulnerability of FSOs who buy cars sight unseen.

Now, there are always going to be unreasonable people on both sides of the FS car seller-buyer equation. Sellers want to recoup as much of the money they spent on the car as possible before leaving their post, and buyers want *all* of the car for *little* of the price. I totally get these differing interests, but neither position is totally fair. Because I hadn’t been operating in that realm, i.e. I was willing to pay a fair price for a solid car, I started to get a bad feeling, and wondered what else about the car might have been “cropped” from the “picture”.

Around that time, I noticed that the car had a jury-rigged Bluetooth system, and a strange phone or GPS holder on the dash, but I couldn’t figure out how either of them worked. I fired off a quick email to the seller to ask. To my surprise: crickets. Never got a response at all, and have not to this day. So obviously he wasn’t interested in communicating with me about a car he’d sold to me four months prior, but since I didn’t have the Bluetooth passcode I thought it was fair to reach out. Being ignored made me wonder again if I was going to regret buying this car. So, I don’t use the Bluetooth.

Later in August, once we moved out of the hotel and into our home, I remembered with a start that there was supposed to have been a flatscreen TV and a bag of adapters in the trunk. I contacted the former caretaker of the car, who had coached me through some tedium with registering and insuring the car, as well as dealing with the accreditation issue to swap my shadow plates for diplomatic corps plates – an overall process that took hours and hours…and hours. Sure enough, the TV was at his house.

When I went over one night after work to collect it, and to thank him for watching the car for me, I was surprised to learn that he’d taken out his own insurance policy on the car so he could use it for commuting an hour round-trip to the embassy on cold winter days instead of riding his motorcycle. I was so surprised that I really didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t aware that anyone was going to do more than drive it around the block during those four months, but he mentioned it so offhandedly that I figured there had been a miscommunication somewhere with the seller, who had written me that the caretaker would “start the car every other day and make sure it gets another good wash before you pick it up.” In a later email, the seller had also said that the caretaker would “drive it around the block occasionally to ensure it stays in good condition.”

I didn’t want to be accusatory towards someone who’d by all accounts done me a great favor, but I also found myself wondering how many thousands of kilometers had been put on the odometer since I’d bought it. And I didn’t know the answer, because I never asked for that information. (Knowing how closely I track these details on my “real” car makes this even more dumb and out of character.)

I asked him if he’d noticed the oil leak, since he’d mentioned that he was mechanically inclined. He seemed surprised and said no, that surely he would have noticed something like that. He also pointed out that the gaskets on that particular model of Nissan were angled to the side and oil leaks were a known issue, and talked about some minor maintenance he said he’d done on the car.

As even short drives around town in August ended with the intense smell of burning oil from under my hood, and sometimes even smoke, I started to feel…pretty pissed off.

It’s bad to feel taken advantage of, but it’s worse to keep asking yourself, why didn’t I do this, or why didn’t I do that. But little did I know, that things were going to get so, so, SO much worse.

So. Much. Maintenance.
As I wrote about previously, one of the things I was responsible for doing in order to complete registration of my car was what Aussies call a roadworthy inspection. Unbeknownst to me, in addition to a massive oil leak, I also had an antifreeze leak, revealed in all its glory on August 21 when I pulled up in front of the auto inspection bay and my car unceremoniously dumped antifreeze all over the pit. Needless to say, in the middle of the work day I then had to find a mechanic within five minutes’ drive of the inspection station and arrange to replace a split hose. And of course they made me reschedule my inspection, translating to more time off. Hoses and belts crack, I told myself. It’s just normal maintenance.

I felt fortunate that I was able to get that hose replaced within a couple of hours and be on my way for $77.40. I was bummed about the cost (it’s a piece of rubber tube, after all), but starting to remember that things done relatively cheaply stateside cost an arm and a leg in Australia and can take forever. One issue is wait time for imports, but the standard of living here is also really high; Aussie mechanics make about $95 per hour in labor. So in other words, they make more than I do, and they don’t work weekends.

I made an appointment to go back for an oil change, since I then felt like I had a mechanic I could trust, but they didn’t have any openings until September 4! (By the way, that ended up being the day I was released from four days of hospitalization and had a chest catheter installed to try and prevent losing my foot from a bone infection, and we had to go and deal with more car crap.) I don’t recall that I ever made a “booking” in the United States for a freaking oil change, or left my car overnight – which I also had to do. The cost for the oil change was $180.88. And whatever we paid to Uber back and forth. I tried not to let it chap my ass too much that during literally the first four weeks of owning this car, I’d already poured in more than $250 in repairs and maintenance when I had much bigger and more expensive health problems to worry about.

The guys had pointed out the oil leak to me after they changed the oil. I told them I was aware of it and asked for a quote to replace the gaskets. I was so stunned by their quote that I checked around with colleagues and local friends to see if it was legitimate and sure enough, sadly, it was. The shop was so busy I couldn’t get an appointment until October 10 and the total for that repair came to a whopping $525.09. Honestly, who spends this kind of money on routine maintenance and repairs? Australians, that’s who.

It All Starts to Go Wrong
The day after the oil gasket replacements, I was driving home from from work and all of a sudden the engine light came on. I felt my heart sink. I spent my birthday and the next couple of days taking my car back and forth to the mechanic and driving around in their loaner car, a really crummy sedan shedding bits of foam from underneath the fallen headliner (ceiling fabric). The guys said they must have knocked something when doing the oil gasket work, and tried a couple of times to figure out what. I’d take the car to the shop, a day or two later we’d get it back with assurances that it was fixed, and within 30-60 minutes of driving it, the engine light would come back on.

They told me they would wash the fuel injectors in an ultrasonic bath and that should take care of it. I paid $220.85 for that. The day after I got the car back, the engine light came back on. I took it back to them. They did something and didn’t charge me anything, and said it was all right so I went to get it. The light came back on the next day. They told me I needed to replace one of my oxygen sensors. I agreed to do it, and it cost another $194.75.

I started to feel so frustrated. Every time I’d get my hopes up that the situation was resolved, I’d find out that it wasn’t resolved, and that I needed to come up with more money. We took the car back to mechanic #1 repeatedly, and then the engine light stayed off for more than a day. My husband and I went out to a nice dinner with friends after work, and on the way back home stopped for gas. As I rolled up to the pump, the engine light came on. We looked at each other, and I didn’t know whether to cry or get mad. I think I did some of both.

To understand fully how much all of this sucked, you have to consider that at this point, I’d spent $6,000 buying this car, $181 in maintenance, and another $1,018 in unexpected repairs. Besides just the money, we spent a ridiculous amount of time on the phone, at the shop, taking Ubers back and forth, explaining the same thing over and over, and driving around in unfamiliar loaner cars. How much our time was worth I have no idea.

During the same period, I was learning a brand new job, had moved twice, had been hospitalized twice including having to wear a chest catheter with 24/7 liquid antibiotics for six weeks while still working, was arguing with the embassy about who was responsible for some stolen household effects (HHE) in our shipment, and I was supporting all of my unemployed husband’s financial obligations – not his fault, but a big stressor nonetheless.

My husband and I asked one of our friends for advice, and he recommended that we visit the mechanic he’d used for three years. My husband took the car to the shop for a second opinion. It took a couple of weeks for them to get us in, but when they did at the end of October, the guy ran some diagnostics and cleared the codes, charging us $92.75. He told us the engine light wouldn’t come back on. The next day, the engine light came back on.

We made another appointment and the third week of November, we again dropped the car off at the shop, picked up their loaner car, and waited a few days for them to fix the problem. The mechanic replaced another oxygen sensor and re-cleared all the codes, and this time it cost $286.35. You know what I’m going to say next, right? Within an hour or so of driving the car, the engine light came back on. I wanted to message my husband and tell him, but I didn’t even know what to say. I actually considered driving to the edge of a cliff somewhere in the Blue Mountains, removing my diplomatic license plates, and just pushing my car over, but I didn’t want to be an asshole. Or a litterer. Or have the ambassador declare me persona non grata and PNG me out of the country.

So, my husband went back to mechanic #2 and had a serious conversation with him. The mechanic said that he thought the problem all along had been one or both of the catalytic converters. He said that they were failing, which kept tripping the oxygen sensors. There are apparently four oxygen sensors, and any of the four of them can trigger the check engine light. So I basically just wasted so much money repairing parts that kept getting ruined by other malfunctioning parts. My husband asked him how much it would cost to replace both catalytic converters and all four sensors. Between parts and labor costs, it would be well over $3,000. We were stunned. The mechanic offered to turn off the engine light so we could sell the car. We gave him a definitive no, and that was the end of mechanic #2.

I spent the whole morning of Thanksgiving crying and feeling miserable. I was afraid to drive my car an hour away to see one of my good friends from Germany who came to Australia for two seconds, and because of my stupid car I didn’t even get to see him. Even though when I got married, he flew to San Francisco all the way from Munich for my wedding.

I told my dad the whole terrible tale, and when he heard about the suggested “fix” he almost went ballistic. He advised me not/not to put any more money into the car, especially without a written guarantee. He asked me if I could sell it for parts. I said that I couldn’t part it out by myself. He offered to help me buy another car. I told him I had some money for another car but just didn’t want to spend it while I was the only breadwinner. I was too afraid that something would happen and I wouldn’t have anything but credit cards as a buffer, which I almost never use. He asked me if we could take the car to a local Nissan dealership to confirm whether the catalytic converters were actually the problem. Nissan folks should be the experts on Nissans, right? We made an appointment, and for a moment, felt some hope.

Yes, There’s More
We had to wait for three weeks in order to get into the Nissan shop because they were busy and had a lack of loaner cars. When my husband finally dropped the car off in mid-December, they kept it for a few days and then charged us $99.94 to clear the sensors and of course, within a day the engine light was back on. My husband negotiated with the manager who verbally promised us that if we brought the car in for a full diagnostic session, that he would guarantee repairs and that if the engine light came back on, there would be no charge to us. So the third week of January, the afternoon before we were going to pick up our car, my husband calls the manager to ask for his verbal promise of guaranteed repairs in writing and the manager reneges on the agreement! The agreement was the only reason we were even waiting for our appointment to go back there.

We ended up getting charged $535.14 for their “diagnostics”, which said that the oxygen sensors needed to be replaced, but that replacing them MAY OR MAY NOT be the problem and that the catalytic converters MAY NEED to be replaced too, but that we wouldn’t know until after we replaced all four sensors!!

At that point, my husband pretty much lost it. He filed complaints with Nissan, spent hours on the phone and emailing with the general manager, and then the kicker: on the way out of the house for a beach weekend, we went to load up the trunk and found a bunch of car parts!! We didn’t know if the parts went to our car or if we even needed them. We had a moment where we wondered if we should cancel our road trip, but I told my husband that if the car broke down I was just going to leave it there.

When we came back, he went Monday morning to Nissan and demanded the car parts be put back on and they agreed. He also forced them to write an apology, on their letterhead, documenting what had happened. The Nissan sales department had the nerve to offer my husband $800 for the car on trade-in, if we would agree to buy a new car from them. Ha! Four brand new tires and the Reese roof rack alone are worth more than that. He actually started laughing at them.

After that, we were done. Utterly, irreversibly done.

And six months, $8,214, and innumerable hours of suffering later, I’m driving a car with the engine light on.

Moving On
Because the Nissan is running OK, we decided together that we would continue driving it within the ACT as long as it runs, in order to recoup a portion of the money that we spent “repairing” it before getting rid of it at what we expect will be a total loss. We will spend no money on it other than whatever basic maintenance and insurance is required. We also agreed that I will use some of my savings to buy another car that will be no more than three years old.

An ironic postscript here is that last week, an 89 year old woman hit the front of our car in a parking lot. She initially took responsibility and apologized, but later refused to file a claim and insinuated that the accident was somehow my husband’s fault. We have the same insurance company that she has, and when we filed our claim, the agent told us that she was the at-fault party and that she was not even returning their calls. She is going to end up paying for the repairs to our car, and we think that she prefers to go out of pocket rather than filing her own claim because she’s concerned that her driver’s license is going to be cancelled. Frankly, I think it should be cancelled. I debated whether or not I even wanted to have this &%@$#( car repaired at all, but decided that I didn’t want to drive around in a dented car and further that she shouldn’t get off scot free.

If you’re still with me, I say to you: please learn from my mistakes and bad luck and mistreatment when and if you buy a car sight unseen in the Foreign Service. If you’re not in the Foreign Service, please laugh about this, or punch something for me. In retrospect I would have much rather spent more money up front to get us a more reliable car, but I had no idea that all of this was going to happen. The problems with this car made a very stressful transition and period in our lives all the more so. There were so many times during the last several months that I told my colleagues my car was back in the shop and they just looked at me in disbelief.

Although I’m the kind of person that would prefer to fix something rather than junk it, this was a great reminder about the value of time, and knowing when to cut your losses. At the end of the day, I have no idea whether the seller knew that this car was a lemon, or whether I was just unlucky enough to buy it at the time when everything started to go wrong. All three mechanics told me that this car has not been maintained properly over its lifetime, from cheap gas to neglect, and that’s the reason that all of this has happened. But I cannot prove it. I have never corresponded with the seller or his wife about any of this, because I know that they will just say that when they had the car, it was running great. I’m not going to libel them because I think that’s wrong, but this is a cautionary tale. There are no guarantees when buying a used car, but I certainly will do some things differently next time.

Like buy only brand-spanking new cars under warranty from now on?!

  3 comments for “Foreign Service Cars: Buyer Beware

  1. drmitsy
    March 4, 2018 at 23:33

    Wow, quite the story–my total empathies to you and hubby. That mechanics can simply continue to charge you without any accountability or offering some kind of break…ugh. Although I’m not in the Foreign Service, I will certainly take your advice to heart as I prepare to buy a motorbike in Cambodia. I was definitely going to try to find the balance between cost and quality, but I will lean more on quality! Crossing my fingers that your car will ride OK for as long as possible. Be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. March 8, 2018 at 23:37

    Absolutely feeling for you on this one. All I could think throughout the on-going saga of your tale was – that engine light was the only well functioning thing in that vehicle!! We have one nickle and dimer at the bottom of our steep hill drive that hasn’t moved in over 2 years and will need a tow up the drive just to sell for parts. It is a sore subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. March 21, 2018 at 13:04

    OMG, that is so awful! Don’t worry, karma will get them eventually!! Thank you for posting this story. I’ve thought of bidding on Australia in the future, so it’s good to know what the costs and mechanics are like. I hope things go more smoothly for you and that you have a great rest of your tour!

    Liked by 1 person

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