Should I buy my friend's car? How can we fairly value it?
January 30, 2013 11:29 PM   Subscribe

One of my oldest friends is selling his 2002 VW Passat Station Wagon (GLX V6). He bought it new and has taken good care of it (I've known him for 30 years; he takes care of things). He has all of the car's records. As it turns out, I'm in the market for a used car. The car drives beautifully. He is listing it at $6K. But a thorough pre-purchase inspection uncovered several problems, for which he is willing to take the price down. How can we find a fair value for the car? And should I buy this Volkswagen at all?

BTW, here's a link to the Craigslist ad.

A bit about what I want it for: I will be driving it around the Bay Area (trips to the mountains, beaches, etc) for the next five months, then driving it cross-country to Cambridge, MA where I have a one-year job lined up. After that I am not sure where I will be (I'm an academic). I'm also hoping to have a kiddo within the next year or two, and I like the fact that it feels so sturdy and safe, and can fit three kids in the backseat for nieces and nephews. And it seems pretty good in snow. After driving this car, the cheaper cars I was considering feel kind of tinny. This car feels luxurious.

Yesterday I took it, with his blessing, to get a pre-purchase inspection from the well-regarded VW indie that has done most of the work on the car. It turns out there's a bunch of work that needs to be done (torn CV boot, leaking engine mounts, breather valve, cracking, serpentine belt, a couple of small oil leaks, and a few other small things I'm not remembering. The work comes out to almost $2400. He is bummed, but is willing to sell the car to me for $6K minus the repair estimate, $3600. The only thing is, I want to be sure that the $6K is a fair value. The Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds values are miles (like almost $3K) away from one another, making it hard to know how to fairly value it. There's also something called Clearbook, which I suspect is closest, but I've never heard of it before. And NADA gives a super high figure, but it's a retail figure. Most of the similar cars we've seen are selling with higher mileage for more money, but most of them are from dealers and who knows whether people are actually paying those prices? It's confusing.

Kelley Blue Book - $7253 (good)
Edmunds - $4507
Clearbook - $5489
Nadaguides - $8700 clean retail (no private party price)

There is no rust at all (car has always lived in the Bay Area). But there are lots of dings and scratches and dents, and I'll need to replace the fuel door. I worry a bit about how those dings and dents will fare upon moving to the land of salt and snow. Would this car be better off staying in SF?

I should mention that eleven years ago (!) I bought a 1996 Saab from him that I drove happily for seven years. I know that VWs are often money pits, but he has not had many problems with this one, and it drives like butter. There are no worries on either side about this harming our friendship, even if things really went wrong. He has more money than I do, and has always been generous. I want to be sure we both get a good deal

If I buy another used car, I worry that I'll just be buying a big unknown. Possibly a more reliable big unknown, but still. And: the heated leather seats! The big cargo space to make it easy to move back to the east coast!

The other alternative is buying a much cheaper new car, like a Honda FIT. I know it's a good car. But I also know it won't be quite as safe, and it definitely won't be as a nice of a ride. And insurance/registration/taxes on a new car will be a lot more expensive, too. On the other hand, there's reliability to consider.

Can anyone help? I don't want to haggle with him - we both want to arrive at a fair price, and I want to decide whether the car makes sense for me at all, period, before I start a discussion about pricing.

Thank you!
posted by betsbillabong to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Hmmm, I thought I could edit this. Oh well.

One possible wrinkle is that my brother (who lives near Massachusetts) has offered to give me his 2000 Saab 9-3 with low mileage when I move back east. However, I'd really like a car now, and I also need a way to get all my stuff back. I could possibly sell the VW in six months.
posted by betsbillabong at 11:33 PM on January 30, 2013

One thing I do when in the market for used vehicles: visit and do a search for similar cars. You can also try searching Craigslist (even across the country, using Google and the "" filter). That way you have a real point of comparison, instead of using theoretical guides.

Another thing that's hard to put a price on: this is your friend. The peace of mind I get from buying from someone I trust can't be beat.

From the tone of your post, it sounds like you've sort of made up your mind. And why not? It's a great car. My friend in SF did the same thing, and it turned out to be a fantastic vehicle for Tahoe trips.
posted by Talisman at 11:41 PM on January 30, 2013

What is the mileage? Did I miss it?

That's a HEAP of repair you are talking about. My beloved 2000 Jeep supposedly needs $900 dollars worth of repair for some minor leaks, and I decided to fix and not to sell her based on this. And my Jeep has 75,000 miles, which is crazy low for her age. Also, absolutely zero body damage or scratches.

Your friend has not taken such great care of this car if the mechanic or owner has allowed this amount of repairs to add up. Sorry.

$3600 sounds absolutely correct. $4,000 if you are feeling generous.
posted by jbenben at 12:05 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can do a ton of research to try to arrive at the "fair market value" of this car.

But frankly, most sellers of a vehicle in this price range aren't going to A) let you take it in for an exhaustive pre-purchase inspection and B) aren't likely to be willing to discount the price by the cost of repairs, and C) aren't your good friend who you know babies his vehicles, so you aren't likely to get a good deal like this anywhere else!

If your friend is willing to lower the price for the cost of the repairs, that's a *very* good deal. I'd take it at his price *if* the shop is willing to stand by their estimate. Or ask that the shop do the work first, then you pay full price (and he pays for the repairs). The thing you want to avoid is the risk that you pay $3600 for the car and $2400 for repairs but then after paying for those repairs it turns out that this wasn't all that the car needs and you end up putting more and more into it before everything is fixed.

If you really want to research prices, there's a site called that lets you do a search across all craigslist cities. I took the title of your friend's ad and searched:
posted by jcdill at 12:13 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

There are no worries on either side about this harming our friendship, even if things really went wrong.

Do you have any thoughts on what might happen if something major craps out on the car shortly after you've had the other repairs done? Let's say, a major glitch in the electrical system -- not unheard of with those Passats, and not something the mechanic might be able to detect preemptively.

I'm trying to think if there's a better way to fill your car-needs until you make your move, at which point you can take advantage of that FREE car from your brother.
posted by nacho fries at 12:29 AM on January 31, 2013

"... But I also know it won't be quite as safe, and it definitely won't be as a nice of a ride. ..."

Any car you buy in the U.S. newer than model year 2012 will have, by legislation, some form of Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which that 2002 VW has no clue about, and which can prevent deadly rollover accident results in many cases. Also, nearly any new car you can buy in the U.S. today will also have 10+ years of a combination of development of high strength steels in unibody construction, and vastly improved computer aided design and crash test analysis, as well as improved frontal crash requirements, that again, that 10 year old VW does not have, and never was designed to handle. Not to mention incremental improvements in airbags, seat belt systems, head restraints, interior materials (particularly as regards vehicular fire performance), tires and brakes, that pretty much put this concern of yours to bed entirely, in favor of purchase of a newer ride.

If safety is a serious concern of yours, buy something newer, preferably with ESC, side air bags, and perhaps optional safety items like front and rear obstacle detection with automatic braking, etc.
posted by paulsc at 12:29 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is how a friend sale should go down. I should know, I just did one. I told my friend, here is my dinged up 2002 Dodge Stratus, it has less than 75,000 miles on it, it has plenty of wear and tear, I'll show you all the problems, engine is great, transmission likes to poop out, replacement parts are cheap as shit, buy it from me for $1,000 no questions asked. Done. They walk away happy, I walk away with some change in my pocket.

Now let me make a couple of angry comments about Volkswagen. Once they are out of warranty, they are essentially expensive pieces of shit. The dealers like to gouge you for parts and repairs; replacement parts anywhere are going to be more expensive. Several oil leaks? At some point you're going to have to make a major repair, as these leaks can be a sign of severe engine contamination. How long has the CV boot been broken? Maybe the driveshaft is going to give you problems down the line. I'm surprised the transmission isn't leaking. Wait until that poops on you going up and down mountains. My family has owned at least 4 Volkswagens over the years, I honestly don't know what we were thinking. I had a GTI poop out on me 1 month out of warranty. They said it would cost $2,500 just to inspect the engine, not even fix the problem, and I walked off the lot with a piece of shit Audi instead. The V6 will guzzle gas like you won't believe. To quote another viewer, "marvelous to drive, miserable to own."

You shouldn't pay a dime over $2,000 for picking up the tab on this. What is the point? He's your friend. If you're going to drive a risky out of warranty car and you have a kid on the way, then you should at least afford yourself the room to take the hit of expensive repairs for the next year or two. If after that, the car sucks ass, you'll feel okay about how much money you spent on buying it, and/or turn around and sell it to someone else. If it doesn't suck ass, then hold on to it. $2,500 max. Don't bend over backwards for this car. Who gives a shit what your friend is asking? You need to let him know what you think is the best fit for you, and see if he's willing to make a deal.
posted by phaedon at 12:57 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

We had a 2002 Passat -- this car eats money. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fact that your friend's mechanic has "allowed" this amount of work to "build up" on this car isn't ridiculous at all -- it's entirely par for the course for an early 2000's VW. Expect to shell out substantial amounts of money every single year to keep the car living until one day you finally realize, "Why am I putting myself through this?" and unload the car faster than a box of monsters.

That day will be the happiest day of your life.
posted by incessant at 1:15 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

There's always a spread like that between Kelly and Edmund's. I believe Edmund's is aggregating data to tell you what similar cars actually sell for, while Kelly is suggesting asking prices that will be a good starting point for negotiation, i.e. they're high by design. When I've bought and sold cars, it's always been much closer to the Edmund's price.

I don't know about the Passat, but my wife's last car was an '01 Jetta and it got to be a maintenance nightmare before it hit 90K. There were some mechanical issues (suspension bushings, premature exhaust system failure) but mostly it was electrical problems that were expensive and apparently difficult to diagnose (VW charged me $90 to get one diagnosis completely wrong, even with all their trained techs and proprietary diagnostic equipment) and required expensive parts. Such failures got to be so frequent that our reaction was 'oh no, not again!' We finally dumped it and got a Honda.

Our Jetta was really nice to drive. It was quiet and smooth, and the interior surfaces were luxurious for the price point. But it's not really a high-end car; it's a car for which they've put the money into the feely parts instead of the worky parts. I can't see myself ever buying another.
posted by jon1270 at 2:23 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm gonna have to go with "walk away" here, too. A 10-year-old Passat, in the best condition, will be horribly expensive over the long term. This one shows strong signs of being...a well-used Passat. Your money will go farther elsewhere.

If we were talking about buying a friend's well-used Accord or Camry, or if you were buying this same Passat from someone you didn't know, then I could see maybe taking the risk. But here you're risking both your pocketbook and your friendship. Even if you've been assured of no hard feelings, this has a very good chance of coming between the two of you.

Oh, and I guess I should give background - I leased a new 2003 Audi A4, which isn't too different from the Passat. As others have noted, it was a very nice car and fun to drive, but after 16 service stops during the four-year lease, is it any wonder why I walked away at the end? Mine were all covered by the warranty, but I had no interest in owning the car after that.
posted by OHSnap at 3:22 AM on January 31, 2013

The fun thing about car repairs is that while they usually don't end up being cheaper than estimates, they often end up being a LOT more expensive, when the mechanic finds other stuff wrong, and when you add in tax and stuff. My girlfriend's 2000 VW Jetta that was such a great deal on Craigslist turned out to need one repair after another. It cost us $3700, and has cost another $4000 in the six months since then. I would highly recommend finding a nice Japanese car instead of a VW.
posted by Slinga at 5:42 AM on January 31, 2013

Never, ever, ever buy a mkIV VW. They are rolling money pits. Fun to drive, but they make the strongest of men weep like babies.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:58 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

What phaedon and incessant said. I wish I hadn't bought my used Jetta. I purchased it in one state, moved to another 800 miles away right after. In addition to being crap after the warranty expired, the local dealer where I moved to was dishonest and gouged me out of a lot of money, trying to keep the thing on the road. Walk away from the used VW. Get a Japanese car with a reputable dealer/repair near your new home.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 6:17 AM on January 31, 2013

No, you should not buy this car. To do so would not be healthy for the friendship.
posted by kavasa at 6:25 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Not to mention incremental improvements in airbags, seat belt systems, head restraints, interior materials (particularly as regards vehicular fire performance), tires and brakes, that pretty much put this concern of yours to bed entirely, in favor of purchase of a newer ride."

Yes, you can get safer cars made today, but the '02 Passat Wagon was among the safest vehicles of the time. On top of that, they were ahead of the game in terms of unibody design by at least one vehicle generation. In very closely sharing an Audi platform, they wound up with a wildly over-engineered car for its price point. In terms of fatalities per mile, it's the 27th safest vehicle of all cars made from 1994-2008 and you'll notice almost all the cars better than it are large SUVs or full-on luxury cars.

That said, hell no, walk away. The B5 is lovely and the interior is incredibly high quality (VW dialed it back in subsequent generations because it ate into Audi sales). But these cars are a total crap shoot. They can be super reliable (mine was up...until the end) or just awful. And when they break, it's an Audi, not a VW. The cars are so miserable to service that it's the vehicle that finally turned me off to the brand after a string of 11 VWs.
posted by pjaust at 6:47 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

To do so would be violating two of the most important laws of car buying: never buy a car from a friend or family member, and never buy a used Volkswagen.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:54 AM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

incessant has it right. My husband and I have a 2003 Passat that is the most fun car to drive EVER and when it's working it's a beautiful thing but damn does it just eat our money for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For comparison, we also have a 2000 Honda Odyssey that may just last for the rest of our lives. Very few problems.

We thought we were going to replace the Odyssey soon but after the last round of repairs for the Passat, we're ditching that one and giving the van to our son when he gets his license (he plays string bass, too, so it all works out).

Don't buy the VW.
posted by cooker girl at 7:00 AM on January 31, 2013

With 100k of VW experience; I believe that minus the 2400 for repairs it is ok. And if the CV joint is not making noise; I'd hold off on the repair until 5k past making noise. Serpentine belts usually crack, then fray; and then break 5k later. The V6 is kinda sought after VW motor... torque and hp and tough; probably worth 2k in itself even if the entire vehicle crumbled. And hungry for fuel! I'd offer a little less than the adjusted offer; seems to be a cherry in disguise; i.e I've had two nieces; both with New Beetles. One fell apart consistently; the other has consistently been failure free.
?leaking engine mount? ?how much would it sell for in the NE? ?has it been driven softly; or roughly?
posted by buzzman at 7:04 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having recently upgraded from an aged Jetta to a not quite as aged Civic I can offer a few bits of potentially useful wisdom.

VWs rattle, squeak and otherwise make noises. The older they get, the more noises they make. If you are at all OCD then this will drive you insane I promise.

That said, my old Jetta still runs well if a little herky jerky.

He's going to sell the unrepaired car to you for $3600 and then you're going to put $2400 into it? Honestly that scares the heck out of me and tells me your friend doesn't take as great a care of his things as you seem to think he does.

That said, the Passat is a nice car (basically a down marketed Audi A4). I do like VWs and have owned more of them over my driving life than any other kind of car but I do have to say that I love having my Civic because it works and doesn't have random rattles (yet).
posted by fenriq at 8:28 AM on January 31, 2013

Response by poster: Hi all,

Thank you for your answers. Keep them coming! Really helpful, especially the posts referring to actual price points. I have actually NOT decided anything. This morning I'm thinking that valuing the car at 5K with all mechanicals fixed is the prudent thing to do, if he'll go for that. But I don't want to rip him off, and I think it's hard for him to see his beloved car valued so low.

A couple of points, since people have asked:

(1) I forgot to say what the mileage was. Sorry! It's got 77K miles on it, which is low. It's mostly been used for driving to Marin and Tahoe.

(2) The mechanic (Advanced Autowerks) made a point of saying that the owner (my friend) had done a good job maintaining it; that things like CV boots and engine mounts go bad, and that if he had neglected it the list would be a whole lot longer.

(3) I think there's a good chance that I will sell the car once I get my brother's car, so I'm likely to own it for less than a year. Does this change the calculus at all? I will be driving cross-country in June and it would be nice to have a comfortable large ride.

(4) The VW in question has a 2.8 V6, and it was made in Germany, not a mkIV I don't think. It's basically an Audi A4 in different clothing. The sludge issue, which seems to be the biggest deal, seems to affect only the 1.8 turbo engines.

And I'm quite sure that even if the car died completely, it would not have a major effect on our friendship. We've dealt with much bigger issues than that, and our friendship is worth a lot more than $6000.
posted by betsbillabong at 9:10 AM on January 31, 2013

When I sold my 2002 Passat, y'know what my mechanic said to me?

"Oh no! What are you doing? I gotta send my kids to college!"
posted by incessant at 1:46 PM on January 31, 2013

"... Yes, you can get safer cars made today, but the '02 Passat Wagon was among the safest vehicles of the time. ..."
posted by pjaust at 9:47 AM on January 31

I think we probably agree, pjaust, that automotive safety has come a long way in the last decade, in no small part thanks to the continuing integration of electronics and sensor technology in newer cars, and that a full decade of progress in such an area should be enough for the OP to draw a line in the sand, if not at the full decade mark, then perhaps at the 4 or 5 year mark, with respect to safety, when choosing a vehicle, particularly when that OP says "I'm also hoping to have a kiddo within the next year or two, and I like the fact that it feels so sturdy and safe, and can fit three kids in the backseat for nieces and nephews." Hauling kids, on a regular basis, raises the bar where safety considerations are concerned, in the minds of most car shoppers.

After all, your own link says, above the table of vehicular data:
"... Since the introduction of seatbelts and airbags the most significant life-saving technologies for automobiles have been ESC (Electronic Stability Control) - mandatory beginning in model-year 2012, and side-curtain airbags - mandatory beginning in model-year 2013. For many years, prior to these mandatory incorporation dates, many manufacturers offered this equipment only as options, so be certain they are in the vehicle you choose. ..."
Given that ESC and side air bags have been available on cars and SUVs in increasing percentages with each fleet model year, across all major manufacturers, since about 2007 (and since about the mid-90s in some premium makes like BMW and Mercedes), it seems reasonable to suggest that the OP take a long, hard look at other vehicles in the same price range, with these important safety features, in later model years than the Passat in question. If the OP could also get lane departure warning system, and perhaps automatic front and rear object avoidance systems, so much the better, for safety.
posted by paulsc at 3:19 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite] is a friend.

2002 passat - avoid like the plague.
posted by couchdive at 4:51 PM on January 31, 2013

The work comes out to almost $2400. He is bummed, but is willing to sell the car to me for $6K minus the repair estimate, $3600.

I agree with other people above that you should assume the work may end up costing a lot more, so it would be best to count it as $6000-(whatever repairs cost). Would your friend be willing to do that? (I just had a repair estimated at $800 that ended up costing $1400 once the engine was taken apart, myself).

Also you should assume there is a reasonable chance that the car might crap out entirely before the end of the year you need it for. If you are still cool with taking that risk, then yay, buy it.

(My experience "buying" a car from a friend was that we agreed I could have it for free if I paid the $1500 worth of repair work it needed. I did that (although it ended up being closer to $2000). We transferred the registration to my name, and two weeks later it needed a new gearbox and clutch as well, for $1000 more. The mechanic said he thought my friend had probably not had the car on the proper maintenance schedule and not done specific replacements/repairs she claimed she had already done. I was kind of mad at my friend a little bit, but also mad at myself because I could have got the same car for less money by buying it from a total stranger and then maybe I might have felt I could go back to them and complain about misrepresenting the maintenance, but I didn't want to risk my friendship by complaining to my friend in the same way.)
posted by lollusc at 4:58 PM on January 31, 2013

Response by poster: Hey, thanks everyone.

@paulsc, that is really helpful safety information. Thanks! The car does have side/curtain airbags, but I think only the W8 model that year had electronic stability control. I'll take a look. This might be the reason to nix the sale, as well as to turn down my brother's offer of the free Saab. I still wonder if it's worth buying just to keep for the next six months, or if I should just get a new car.

@couchdive, I saw that too, but virtually every complaint is the oil sludge problem with the 1.8L turbo engine, which is a completely different car that had a terrible oil sludge problem. I'd never get one of those. The hard part has been sorting out whether the many people talking about their terrible Passats were people who had that model. The engine on this car is a completely different model that may have some known issues (that's what I'm trying to figure out), but not the oil sludge.

My friend went to Tahoe with his family and lent me the car for the weekend. I'm going to drive it around, ask the mechanic who did the 2-hour inspection whether it can make a cross-country drive, and test-drive a bunch of new cars. Oy. I don't think I'll pay him for than $5000 for the car, including repairs, and I think it's fair to ask him to buy it *after* repairs.
posted by betsbillabong at 9:14 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think I'll pay him for than $5000 for the car, including repairs, and I think it's fair to ask him to buy it *after* repairs.

Another thing to consider is that what makes sense for you may not make sense for your friend, because by now you probably know much more about the car than most other potential buyers. Your 'fair' price is just the amount that makes sense for you given your awareness of the car's flaws, whereas some uninformed schmuck's fair price might be a couple thousand more. Buying the car from your friend under these terms may be "fair," but all the benefit of that fairness goes to you.
posted by jon1270 at 2:54 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @jon1270, yes, I've definitely considered that. And like I said, I don't want to drag the price down to a point where he's not happy. I'm not trying to bargain him down to the lowest possible price. This only makes sense if it feels like a win to both of us. If I decide I want the car, I'll tell him what it's worth to me, but that he should go ahead and try to sell it for more. He can always come back to me if he can't get it, assuming I still want to buy it. I'm not in a rush. This is mostly about - if I'm going to need a car to drive cross-country this summer, I may as well get it now and enjoy the California countryside.

That said, I would never buy a car without getting a thorough mechanical inspection, so I'm sure that other serious buyers will find the same things that I did - none of that came from my relationship with him, but rather being willing to pay $100 and sit in a mechanic's shop for two hours while it was gone over with a fine-tooth comb.

At this point, I am strongly leaning towards getting a new car anyhow, since if I'm going to spend $2500 a year on maintenance, I may as well spend it on car payments and end up with a reliable car five years down the road. But either way, our friendship is worth WAY more to both of us than one silly car.

I'm off to test drive a Mazda 3 and (if I can find one), a Hyundai Elantra Touring. Wish me luck!
posted by betsbillabong at 12:53 PM on February 1, 2013

Response by poster: Just to let y'all know what happened: I decided to value the car at $6000, minus the maintenance needed this month and all the work that the pre-purchase inspection revealed. Much more than that and it was starting to be a wash with the cost of a brand new car, which would have none of the risk. When I looked into the safety it still seemed safer than many of the cars I could currently afford - it's built like a boat, has ABS, side and side-curtain airbags, and traction control. Is it as safe as a brand new Volvo wagon? No. But I think it's probably safer than a brand new Honda FIT or Mazda 3.

I offered my friend $3000, and told him that while that was what made sense for me, he could likely get more from Craigslist and should only sell it to me if he felt good about it. He answered that he was really happy to keep it in the family as well as stop dealing with all the weirdos and lowballers from Craigslist, so now it's mine.

Thank you all for your advice. If repairs start to get out of hand, I will sell it. But it makes a lot of sense for me now. Wish me luck!
posted by betsbillabong at 1:14 PM on February 11, 2013

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