Searching the nation for the Jeep of my dreams

Jen A. Miller

I drove a minivan in high school.

Not just any minivan, but a 1990 powder blue Dodge Caravan that had been the family taxi hauling four kids and their backpacks and soccer bags for more than 100,000 miles.

Whenever I could, I'd leave the van at school and catch a ride to soccer practice with my friend Page, who had received a brand new Jeep Wrangler for her seventeenth birthday.

I was insanely jealous. It was such a cool car.

Sure, the trunk was tiny, and it bounced around like a truck, but I liked trucks. My family's in construction and almost everyone had a pickup. This was cooler than a pickup. This was a Jeep. I wanted one too.

I never shook that feeling, not when I went to college where I didn't have a car. Not when I graduated college and bought a reliable and frugal, if somewhat boring, Honda Civic.

But it didn't match the rest of my life, which is an untraditional one. I'm self-employed. I run marathons. I travel solo often, travels that included zipping around Italy by myself this spring. I don't always like comfortable and steady because that's boring.

So, when the Civic started requiring more repairs, my thoughts again turned to the Wrangler.

2011_jeep_wrangler_auto_lg

2011 Jeep Wranger

I could get the Civic fixed, or I could loosen up the financial reigns and spend for a car that matched my personality.

I wanted that little truck. I wanted to take the top and doors off and drive to car down the shore, wind blowing in my face, and then take it onto the beach. I wanted to turn on four-wheel-drive and cruise over the snow. I was getting my Jeep Wrangler.

Car shopping today isn't what it was when I bought the Civic.

I didn't go to car dealerships hoping to find the right one, or look at newspaper classified ads.

This is the 21st century. Scouring the country for the perfect car is entirely doable, especially if you're looking for a very specific car, like I was.

I didn't want a new Wrangler. They look and run too much like SUVs. I'm a little rough-and-tumble, and I wanted a rough-and-tumble car.

This wasn't an easy search, and there's no one process that's going to work for everyone.

Still, here's my road map for how you can buy a car sight unseen from halfway across the country without getting scammed or ripped off.

Step 1. Set your budget
I put mine at $13,000. Yes, that seems high for a used car, but Jeep Wranglers are among the top five models for holding their resale value.

Step 2. Pick your car — and be specific

If I just searched for all Jeep Wranglers, I would have drowned in options.

So, after talking to two friends who also own Jeeps, I set my parameters at this: Jeep Wrangler TJ, 2002-2006, patriot blue or burgundy, under 100,000 miles, under $13,000, six cylinders. No automatics. No Jeeps that have been lifted more than two inches.

These trucks are also prone to rust if driven over roads covered in rock salt, so I also was looking for a Jeep that was someone's summer toy or driven in states that didn't get snow.

The search shifted slightly as it went on. I added red to the list of exterior colors and focused on cars with tan interiors instead of gray. I looked at cars slightly over that 100,000 mile mark, too, and stretched my budget to $13,500.

Step 3. Search far and wide

I used three online sales sites — eBay Motors, AutoTrader and Craigslist (which I actually searched using autotempest.com, which allows shopping across multiple Craigslist locales).

After inputting my parameters, I unearthed an astounding number of Wranglers on the market from New Jersey to Washington (the state) that I could evaluate and compare.

jeep_wrangler_autotrader.com

Here's what I learned from my first nationwide car-buying effort.

Lesson 1. Check the car's history

Running the vehicle identification through a service like Carfax or Autocheck can tell you where it's been registered, if the title is clean (versus a salvage title), if there's a loan on the car and any accidents. Some sellers and dealers will make a report available to you for free. Some won't.

At first, I bought one Carfax report, which cost me $39.99, because I thought maybe that would be the car and I wouldn't need any more. How wrong I was. So then I bought a bundle of five Carfaxes, which cost $49.99.

When that ran out, I turned to Autocheck, which provides the same information but also has an unlimited plan. I could search as many VINs as I wanted for a month for $44.99.

Carfax has a 60-day, $54.99 plan, but you can only search license plates, not VINs. It gets you the same information, but a lot of sellers don't want to give out their license plate numbers.

Lesson 2. Don't buy a car just because you're frustrated

I hit a point three weeks in where I tired of the search and almost bought a "rust-free but had rust" model I found on Autotrader. I took a few days' break from car searching and started fresh again.

Lesson 3. Don't let anyone guilt you into a purchase

A dealer in Atlanta had a nice Jeep, but I thought he was asking too much — and it had 140,000 miles on the odometer, far more than my maximum target of 100,000 miles.

When I told him that I had chosen another car, he sent me a long email trying to guilt me into changing my mind, then a nasty P.S. of hoping that car doesn't have any problems for that price.

I get that this is how they make their money, but this is a major purchase. I wasn't going to be pushed into buying a car because someone tried to make me feel bad about finding a better fit for me.

Lesson 4. Everyone lies

After a Florida seller called me a nasty name when I questioned why his Wrangler wasn't registered, that "no rust but has rust" truck and a dozen other little fibs I got from sellers who were obviously misrepresenting their Jeeps, I came to expect everyone was lying to me about everything.

That's why doing things like running the VIN number and ordering inspections is so important.

Lesson 5. Have an expert or two in your corner

I often asked questions and ran the most promising candidates by two friends — Garrick here in Jersey and Chris down in Texas — who are Wrangler aficionados.

When one owner told me they never drove their Jeep off-road, Garrick looked at the photos and noticed that the parts you always remove before going off-road had been taken off this one.

I was also prepared to pay about $100 for a nationwide inspection service such as SGS, which partners with eBay, to check out any truck I was seriously interested in buying.

After four weeks of searching, I found the Wrangler of my dreams in Dallas, of all places.

Coming tomorrow, how I bought a truck 1,425 miles away, got it home and have no regrets.