Updated on 08.26.14

Our New Car

Trent Hamm

A 2004 Honda Pilot (Bought Off of Craigslist)

Meet our new automobile, a 2004 Honda Pilot, which we purchased as a replacement for our ailing, rusty 1997 Ford F-150 pickup:

2004 Honda Pilot

We purchased it a few weeks ago, paying cash, while simultaneously selling off our truck. Perhaps most interestingly of all, we found the vehicle on Craigslist, bought it locally, and got a very good deal on pretty much the exact vehicle we wanted.

Why Did We Buy?

Our 1997 Ford F-150 was approaching 200,000 miles and was having quite a few issues, including some significant rusting, engine problems, starter problems, a damaged flywheel, and a few other things going on with it. Not only that, we had a third child on the way, so we knew that we would need at least one vehicle that would comfortably seat all five members of our family, as neither of our vehicles did this really well.

Our primary buying concerns were space and reliability. We wanted a model that had a track record of reliability that also afforded the space for three children at a minimum (and perhaps one or two more).

Deciding What to Buy

We started by looking at Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, and other consumer publications that offered survey-based ratings of both new and old models. We actually began our search in late 2008 (!) by simply collecting data on all vehicles that could seat six or more and were made between 2000 and 2009. This pretty much restricted us to vans and SUVs.

We then began to rate them based on other criteria. How reliable were they according to the survey data? What was the gas mileage like? Does the brand or the model have a history of expensive repairs?

We wound up developing a spreadsheet of various van and SUV models, which I separated into three classes – Strongly Interested, Possibly Interested, and Avoid. The “strongly interested” models (of which the Honda Pilot was one of the top entries) were ones that had a history of reliability and at least passable gas mileage. The “possibly interested” ones had a few question marks but would have been acceptable purchases. The “avoid” models were ones that just weren’t up to snuff.

We then used various pricing sites to come up with prices that we were willing to pay for the models, particularly the ones we were interested in. We did not anticipate much value for the truck – we were largely assuming we would just buy the replacement and find the best way to offload the truck, even if it meant simply throwing a sign in the window and parking it somewhere.

The Search

We then spent fifteen months looking regularly for the right vehicle. We received lots of calls from local dealerships. I test drove quite a few vehicles along the way, as did Sarah. (One lesson learned – I don’t fit well in a Dodge Grand Caravan.)

As time went on, we started to look more and more into “alternative” pathways for buying a car. I discussed the ins and outs of this with a friend of mine with some legal expertise who advised me that I’d largely be fine with direct buys as long as we researched the vehicle ourselves and had a notarized and well-worded bill of sale.

Along the way, we saved diligently for the purchase, putting more than a healthy car payment away each month so that we could pay for the right vehicle completely out of pocket when the time came. We kept this savings entirely separate from everything else and never looked at it as part of our emergency savings.

One weekend, Rachel (click that link to find out more about her) showed us a local Craigslist entry for a 2004 Honda Pilot. The owners seemed to be asking a very reasonable price for the mileage and condition claimed, so my wife elected to give it a look.

My wife inspected the vehicle, test drove it, got the VIN number, and had it inspected. She reported to me that the previous owners were seeking to sell mostly because they needed to improve their monthly cash flow and debt situation – meaning, of course, that they still owed money on the car. She also reported that the vehicle was in stellar condition, as it turned out that the previous owner actually worked on automobiles for a living.

We obtained a vehicle history report for the VIN and didn’t discover any obvious red flags. We met again, where the owner expressed interest in buying my truck at the same time, in effect turning it into something of a vehicle swap with cash added to it. He wanted a vehicle for some very local commuting and, after driving it a bit and poking around under the hood and under the vehicle for a while, said he thought he could patch it up for a year or so and then he would probably sell it for parts.

The Sale

I contacted a lawyer about what steps to take to ensure that this purchase would be successful. He advised us to draw up a very specific bill of sale which indicated the specifics of the sale, that we do the transaction at the bank where the owner’s loan was held, and that we get the bill of sale and a lien release both signed and notarized while there.

So that’s exactly what we did. We conducted the full transaction at the bank, handed over a check, signed the papers, and drove off on our new Pilot. We wound up paying about $1,500 under the blue book value for the vehicle. We received the title within two weeks of the sale and I paid the appropriate taxes and fees at the county offices shortly thereafter.

Are We Happy?

Absolutely. The vehicle has run wonderfully since the purchase and has met our every need. It has plenty of space in the second row of seats for our three children and enough space in the back to haul bicycles (which we’ve already done). We received a full maintenance schedule with the vehicle and figure that we’ll be due for our first significant maintenance in late summer.

In short, we’re thrilled with the purchase. Our patience and diligence paid off – we got the vehicle we wanted for a great price and we were able to just go write a check for it, easy as pie.

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  1. Shannon says:

    How many miles on the vehicle and what’s the price that you paid?

  2. Vicky says:

    Aw, I like it! My mother in law has a Pilot, and she loves hers. I’m looking into a Honda Fit for myself soon – once we find the right one at the right price.

  3. David says:

    Good choice. But can never read stories like this without hearing the Beach Boys:

    Sell me Honda, sell sell me Honda,
    Sell me Honda, yeah –
    Get it out of my yard.

  4. Rachel says:

    Congratulations on the purchase! Quick grammar hint, though–your title is wrong, as it should be “Off” rather than “Off of.” It reads better that way, too.

  5. Michelle says:

    See!!! Craigslist isn’t the cesspool you think it is!! I’d be interested in seeing the spreadsheet you came up with, just to see what other cars you were thinking of and how they stacked up.

  6. Penny says:

    Would you be willing to share your “Bill of Sale” template? I am looking into buying a used car from a (likely) private owner soon, and I don’t want to get hosed….

  7. Mol says:

    What do you think about Carmax? I have had a good experience with them and would do business with them again, but wonder what you have experienced (if anything).

  8. Jackie says:

    I’m surprised you call craigslist an “alternative” way to buy a car. I feel like I’ve heard that private sales make up the vast majority of car sales and have for a very long time.

  9. almost there says:

    Congratulations on the Pilot. You should have no trouble with the engine and transmission. It is the same that is in the MDX (Acura), Honda Odyssey, and the Honda Ridgeline. Also my 2004 Saturn Vue has the same engine and transmission.

  10. Henry says:

    Replacement for the truck? What about the Prius? Aren’t you afraid that you will wind up plowing through a farmer’s market in that thing?

    Contacted a lawyer over a used car? What did that cost you?

  11. Isha says:

    Great choice! I’ve always bought & sold via individuals, and I can’t say I’ve ever done more than sign the title.
    Hope you have many good years with this vehicle.

  12. Isha says:

    I should clarify, I always have the vehicle inspected and research it, but I’ve never drawn up a bill of sale or anything like that.

  13. Katie says:

    Would you be willing to share what carseats/boosters you own? I had wondered before how you could fit three seats in the Prius, as I think that you mentioned you could. (We can barely fit two seats into our car!)

  14. Troy says:

    While I completely disagreed with your previous Prius purchase methods (New, High demand, From a dealer, Financed)I find this purchase to be inspiring.

    You purchase a 6 year old clean reliable car from an individual, paid less than it’s book value, and paid cash. That is how you buy a car.

    I am willing to bet you will have the Honda longer than the Prius as well.

    Nice choice. The Pilot is an excellent vehicle all around.

  15. Jennifer Lissette says:

    Congrats on the new car! We bought a 2005 Pilot in August and I love it. We’ve started our family and my husband’s 1998 Ford Focus had over 220,000 miles on it. The Pilot was the first car that either of us had ever bought without an auto loan and it was liberating.

    Our method for purchasing it was a little different because we had family help. My husband’s cousin owns a used car dealership and purchases cars to sell on auction. He was able to tell his buyer what we were looking for and then call us to get our maximum bid on the specific model. We ended up getting an amazing deal on a fully loaded Pilot. We hope to have it for at least the next ten years.

  16. JT says:

    Congratulations. I have a 99 Honda CRV with 100K+ miles on it. Hondas are very reliable vehicles in general and the Pilot is a nice size for your family.

    Enjoy the car!

  17. SG says:

    From a European perspective it always looks strange if someone buys a SUV and claims it’s a frugal purchase. But, I guess, things are still different (and gas prices lower) on the other side of the Atlantic…

  18. SG says:

    Wikipedia tells me the Honda Pilot gets 16 mpg. Is that what you call “passable gas mileage” in America? Here in Germany, noone would buy a car, not even an SUV, with gas mileage lower than 22 mpg or so…

  19. deRuiter says:

    Craigslist is great if you have any self preservation instinct. First of all the bulk of sellers are normal people who want to sell, rent, or buy. Second, don’t fall for the Nigerian bank Scam which, due to the economy, has been expanded to include $50. items. Deal in person. That said, I’ve sold a number of things which were shipped to people all over the country and to a man they were all pleased with their purchases. Look out for bad grammar, bad spelling, typos, form letters which mention “your item” instead of naming the thing, people who are living abroad and plan to rent your place and send Western Union payments, AND ANY LETTER WHICH OFFERS TO PAY YOU MORE THAN THE ASKING PRICE AND YOU SEND TO THE SELLER OR A THIRD PARTY A CHECK FOR THE DIFFERENCE. Craigslist is a superb resource for those looking to deal direct, and get the best prices. It’s also free to list unless you’re selling real estate in New York and San Francisco. I agree with the writer who questioned “Craigslist” as being and alternative way of car buying. Most used vehicle transactions are private, not dealer transactions.

  20. $1500 under blue book?

    You just can’t beat that.

    I am also impressed with the amount of time you shopped for it. This also probably helped a lot in getting a great deal.

    Good job!!

  21. Kevin says:

    What’s interesting is that the previous owner still had a loan on a car that’s ~6 years old. Yikes.

    If you’re referring to Kelley Blue Book, their estimates of car values tend to be high; better to use NADA.

    Come on, Trent. You’re usually so transparent, but not in this case… how many miles, and how much?

  22. deb says:

    I have a 2005 Pilot and I LOVE it, very nice car! Yes, the mileage could be better and an SUV seems excessive to some, but we’re a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 teen boys who are 6+ feet tall), we take frequent canoe/kayak trips with the boats on top, car trips with all of us plus 2 dogs, haul remodeling stuff for our house, etc. We use every inch of that car. I keep track of every fill-up, around town it gets 18mpg, highway 23.

    Our other car is a 2002 VW Golf diesel. 50mpg and it’s very hard to squeeze everyone into it (it’s DH’s commuter car).

  23. Jackie says:

    I am planning to buy a new (preowner) vehicle and your article was very helpful. I am looking at Honda as well. The last two vehicles bought in my family were purchased from Carmax and we have been very happy dealing with them.
    Interesting how you did your own research.
    We have contacted a lawyer for advice in the past for a one time conversation at a very small fee.
    Good job!

  24. chris says:

    Please share your bill of sale template and your ‘research spreadsheet’


  25. Gretchen says:

    I thought the truck only had rust on the bumper. That’s “significant”?

  26. J says:

    First congratulations on your post. I am curious as to where you are going to put those one or two more children, though, since you have three spaces in the rear taken up?

  27. Molly says:

    Off the subject…..I love the “Hawk” flag in the picture. I live in N.C., but am a grad of U of Iowa.


  28. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    As of last year, the truck only had rust on the bumper. Over this past very hard winter, it developed side rust in significant amounts.

    We paid $10,800 for it. It had just shy of 90,000 miles on it. With the options it had, Kelley had it at around $12,300.

  29. Lee says:

    Did you get the car inspected by a mechanic before agreeing to the deal? I didn’t see that mentioned in your article. I wouldn’t buy a used car without this, especially from craigslist!

  30. PF says:

    Congrats! I have a 2002 Acura MDX, which is essentially the same vehicle. I have only had to do scheduled maintenance and THAT’s IT! I have 105K on mine and drive it on several miles of rough dirt road every day. The vehicle is a workhorse.

    You will need to replace the timing belt soon. The MDX says 105K, so I’m sure that the pilot must be the same.

  31. SoCalGal says:

    Congrats on the new car. Both of our cars were bought on Craigslist with no problems. We have also sold cars via CL and had very good experiences. Happy driving!

  32. Karen says:

    Add me to the list of Congrats!! It looks brand new!!

  33. Evita says:

    Congratulations on your new car! glad you are so pleased over it.
    And you must an extremely patient person to take a year and a half to make the purchase. I am stunned….

  34. Kristine says:

    That’s awesome that you bought your car “outside the box.” It looks like it really paid off for you and your family! Congrats!

  35. JS says:

    I love craigslist. I bought an over the stove microwave for 25 dollars! It is in great condition. Owner wanted to sell it because he renovated his kitchen and the microwave did not go with the decor.

  36. Carmen says:

    Hope you enjoy! We bought the 2004 pilot new 6 years ago and have been very happy with it!

  37. Tall Bill says:

    Well Done!


  38. Kat says:

    Congrats on the new car, it looks really nice! You should have Honda look it over, I think all their models have timing belts that need to be replaced at around 100k miles, which isn’t cheap but should be done.

  39. Michelle says:

    Pilot’s have a third row. That’s where the other children will go.

  40. J says:

    Thanks, Michelle.

  41. SLCCOM says:

    The previous owner may not have been the first owner. I doubt that he still owed money after 6 years.

    Enjoy! I love my friend’s Pilot!

  42. My in-law’s two Honda’s have over 300,000 miles each, and they drive through the nasty Ohio winter weather so they’ve been bathed in salt and snow and still kept on trucking despite hitting multiple deer and who knows what else. I think they’re the most reliable cars on the road. Good choice!

  43. Matt says:

    Would love to see your spreadsheet comparing the vehicles as we are looking into a family car as well. Might save us some leg work.

  44. Jenny says:

    We love our 2005 Pilot. We bought it for the ratings, resale value, and third row seating option. Now we don’t have to take a second car when the in-laws come for a visit. Best part is that it’s paid off. We have a commuting car for Hubby (Scion XD) that gets better gas mileage and we like it too.

  45. Annie says:

    Wow.. a lot of criticism for someone who was able to purchase a vehicle for cash money! True, it may not get what some consider great gas mileage, but it gets better than the last car I owned before this van. By the time they calculate interest saved, peace of mind at having a paid-for vehicle and the satisfaction of knowing they got what they wanted they will save money even at the lower gas mileage.

    My current van was one-owner, purchased from friends when the transmission went out. Even paying to replace the transmission I saved over $2,000 what the van would have cost me had I purchased it at a lot with the added benefit of the rebuilt transmission (which used vehicles normally do not have). It gets 20 miles per gallon and is large enough to camp in as well as haul things like I frequently do between family members. While Prius may be a fine vehicle it isn’t worth anything to me if I have to make a payment on it…. Great purchase!

  46. Derek says:

    Just passing through. I’m using the spreadsheet as a tracking method for the pros and cons of particular vehicles too. I wanted to see if there were prior existing wheels before investing too much time.

    Speaking of investing too much time. Fifteen MONTHS? How many hours do you think you spent between your research and test drives?

    Its been about a month for myself, and I have spent approximately 20 hours for online research and around 10 hours test driving vehicles (and trying to escape salesmen). I have begun asking myself how much is my time worth. If i get a great deal and save a $1000 on my perfect car, I’d essentially be making $33/hr. At what point do you value your time more than the deal?

  47. John says:

    Awesome-I was just reading your post about looking for a Van and I was going to suggest the Pilot..then you bought one! I would NEVER buy a used car from a Stealership…I have two friends who bought clunkers and paid big money with no recourse. I friend bought a white 2002 Camry and the whole car exploded in rust 30 days after purchase. Another bought a corolla and the CEL came on 3 days after she bought it..it needs a new cat. The dealer cleared the code and sold her a knowingly junk car.

  48. John says:

    Have you considered “snow tires” for the prius? You live in a snowy climate, your car should be outfitted accordingly in the winter months. I have a second set of OEM wheels for my RSX and my wife’s CRV and we get through any snowstorm with ease in MN.

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