There are many, many things I love about New Orleans: the food, the architecture, the casual way everyone calls you “baby,” even the weather. But one thing I hate about living here is owning a car.
I would love it if we had good public transit, but that’s not what I’m talking about – public transit was also lousy in Columbia, Mo., but there I didn’t really mind. I liked the convenience of having my car right out in my driveway and not having to walk to a subway or bus stop.
But in Columbia, I didn’t worry about potholes or uninsured drivers or my car flooding or being stolen. I had two accidents in the 10 years I lived there – one that was absolutely 100 percent my fault (my speedometer had stopped working, and I, 18 years old and a truly novice driver, was more concerned about that than about looking at the road; when I looked up from the dashboard, I was careening through a red light, and I slammed on the brakes just a little too late) and one that was absolutely 100 percent not my fault (I was rear-ended while stopped at a crosswalk to let a pregnant lady cross).
When I moved back to New Orleans in January 2008, my Honda Civic was already 11 years old and kind of weary. But within the first three months of living here, I was rear-ended twice (both drivers were uninsured and begged me not to do anything, and I didn’t care enough to pursue it); backed into in a parking lot (luckily, this happened in Old Metairie, and the guy who hit me had $100 in his wallet, which he happily handed over to me and which I happily accepted); and had a piece of plywood fly off of a truck on I-10, crack my windshield, dent my hood, mangle my bumper and almost kill me. My ex didn’t fare much better. He rolled into the back of a woman’s car on Vets, and she claimed that her vehicle was destroyed and that she suffered grievous bodily injury, and we were dealing with the legal aftermath of the whole mess up to two years later. And then not six months later, someone hit him on Canal Street bad enough to seriously dent his car – the other driver got out of the car, picked his bumper up off the street, threw it in the backseat, shrugged, said something in Spanish and beat a hasty retreat. So between us both in 10 years in Missouri: three accidents. Between us both in six months in New Orleans: six accidents. And that’s to say nothing of the damage these streets inflict on cars. There is a reason our insurance premiums more than quadrupled when we moved.
In the past, though, I really haven’t minded all that much. I own my car in full, and it’s worth approximately nothing, so I don’t pay high insurance premiums; I just have liability because it’s not worth paying that kind of money for a car that is, at most, going to be valued at what my deductible would be. And I have never been one of those people who gets hung up on cosmetic defects, so I was able to take all of the damage to my car mostly in stride. I didn’t care when people opened their doors into it or grocery carts rolled heedlessly toward it. I was cavalier about hail damage. I was even (sort of) OK after someone backed into the car in my work parking lot, dented the bumper, shattered the taillight and fled the scene.
But the truth is, my car is failing. It’s dying. It still starts for me in the mornings but only grudgingly. The steering is going. The tires are old. The AC doesn’t work. The seatbelts are getting persnickety. I can’t pop the hood without pliers. Even a full tank of gas seems like a gamble these days.
And here’s where I get into a tizzy. I know I need a new car, but I don’t want a car I have to worry about. I guess I could just buy another used car on the cheap, but I am solidly in my 30s now (my birthday was last Friday), and I would like something slightly nicer than the succession of junkers I’ve driven into the ground since I turned 16. I’m not saying I want a luxury car or anything – even if I had the money, I can think of dozens of ways I’d rather spend it than on a car – but I would like a car I didn’t have to worry about mechanically.
As it see it, these are my options:
• Buy a brand-new car. I can’t quite bring myself to do this. First of all, I don’t want the worry. Second of all, I can’t shake what my dad always told me: “The most expensive drive you ever make is off the car lot; you lose thousands of dollars just driving away.” Third of all, I don’t even know what to look for. I mean, I think the new Mazdas are kind of cute, and my Honda has served me well, but I just get a case of supreme inertia when I start to think about actually reading Consumer Reports or something.
• Buy an expensive (by which I mean more than $5,000) used car. This, to me, is the sensible solution but also the worst of both worlds: It would be too much money for me to not care if the car got dinged or flooded but would not carry the security of a warranty.
• Lease a car. This is something I swore I would never do, but the more I learn about it, the more sense it makes. I know I would have to pay a lot more for insurance than I do now, but I love the idea of just … being done with the car in about three years. And the idea of being able to drive a car with air-conditioning and seatbelts and other unimaginable luxuries (God, maybe even something other than just a radio with a broken antenna?) at a monthly price I can actually afford is pretty damned appealing.
So what would you do in my position? Buy new? Buy used? Buy cheap? Lease? Keep patching up the Honda (after all, winter’s coming, so at least I’ll stop sweating soon)? Are there any new cars I should look at in particular? Also: Is your insurance even close to affordable? If so, who do you use?