Closing the long-distance deal on my perfect Jeep

Jen A. Miller

This summer, I spent four weeks scouring the country for my perfect Jeep Wrangler.

Here's how I found it. And bought it. From 1,425 miles away.

Florida had been the focus of most of my Craigslist searches. But one night I pulled up the Dallas site, entered "2002-2006 Jeep Wrangler manual" — and there it was: a gorgeous red 2002 TJ with a tan interior and just over 71,000 miles.

The asking price was $11,500, or about $3,000 less than I'd seen dealers near my New Jersey home asking for similar models with many more miles.

I immediately fired off three emails, one to:

My friends both thought it was a possibility, and Chris offered to do a test-drive. I ran the VIN, saw the car was clean and asked the sellers if they'd be open to an out-of-state buyer. I told them I'd pay for the car through escrow.com or Paypal.com and arrange shipping.

They balked. I understand that. Scams are rampant on Craigslist and they were being cautious.

So I was a little sneaky.

Chris called and asked to look at the Jeep, pretending that he was going to buy it. After the test-drive and his inspection, he told me to get it.

I didn't bring in a national inspection service to check it out because Chris owns three Jeeps, knows what he's looking at and I absolutely trusted his evaluation of the truck.

Next, I sent the sellers an email explaining what I had done, offered to pay the asking price, fly down to pay for the car in person and then drive it home.

Chris visiting, and my willingness to fly down to make the deal, changed their minds. They didn't even require a deposit.

I booked a flight and got a crash course in how to drive a manual transmission — yeah, shifting gears was going to be an entirely new experience.
I also added the car to my insurance plan and printed out a temporary insurance card before I left.

Chris picked me up from the airport and drove me to a Wells Fargo branch near the sellers' home. There, I took out the money and the seller signed over the title. We also both signed two copies of a bill of sale, had it notarized at the bank and the car was mine.

The transaction ended with a nice, big hug with the seller and some hard-won knowledge about how to buy a used car half a country away.

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Jen Miller and her 2002 Jeep Wrangler after closing the purchase in Dallas

Lesson 1. Use your friends and family

I had focused most of my search on Florida because I went to college there and had friends and family sprinkled throughout the state who offered to help me.

Having Chris look at the car, and reassure the buyers that I was not a scammer, made a world of difference. He also picked me up from the airport and provided further instruction on how to work the clutch and gearbox before I left for New Jersey.

Lesson 2. Cash is king — but call ahead

One reason I flew to Texas is that the sellers wanted to be paid in cash. Most potential sellers I spoke with wanted the same thing, so it's not out of the ordinary.

I bank at Wells Fargo, so I called a branch local to make sure it had enough cash on hand to handle the withdrawal and a notary who could notarize the bill of sale.

Lesson 3. Shipping versus driving is not a straight financial decision

Shipping the car home would have cost $750 to $1,300. The cost of flying to Texas and driving the car home (gas, hotels, food) hit $850, slightly over what I budgeted.

On paper, shipping seems like the logical choice. But I knew the sellers wanted to do this deal in person. Plus, I had finally found my dream car. I didn't want to wait a week or two for the car to show up on a transport. I wanted it sooner than that. Like now.

I'm still not sure if I made the right decision.

The drive was not the best experience of my life. It was a lot of driving for one person, and I may have cried in the parking lot of a Denny's in Virginia because I stalled making a left-hand turn with traffic coming toward me.

By the time I finally made it home late on a Friday night, I didn't even want to look at the car.

Lesson 4. The ridiculous will happen

When I went to register the car and pay sales tax on it, the local branch of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission would not accept the title because it was not signed in black ink.

The bank had given us a burgundy pen, and that wasn't good enough for the supervisor at that branch. Her suggestion? Try to write over the writing in black ink and maybe she would accept it after that.

So, yes, an employee of the MVC suggested that I commit fraud, quite possibly on camera in their office. No thanks.

I could have tried another branch, according to a representative in the state MVC office.

But instead, the seller obtained a new title from Texas, signed it over in black ink, and mailed it to me. The New Jersey licensing office accepted it without hesitation.

Was this six-week process worth it? Absolutely. I'm still working on the kinks of driving a manual, but I'll get it.

The week after I brought the Jeep home, I drove over to run on the track of my former high school.

By the end of my workout, field hockey practice had started and my old Jeep was surrounded by lots of late-model high-end SUVs and sports cars, reliable sedans and minivans.

But you know something? My Jeep was the hottest-looking thing in the lot.

Although it took 15 years to realize this dream, I never gave up and I finally made it happen.

I searched the entire country and found the exact right one. I've even given it a name. From now on, it's the Rocketeer.