As many of you know, I'm currently mired in the search for a new car. Unlike last time, it's not going so well. Last time was easy. I simply drove to the Cadillac dealer and announced that I was there to buy the slowest-selling turd of a vehicle they've ever offered, to which they responded that they were sorry, but the ELR hadn't arrived yet.
But then I told them I wanted a CTS-V Wagon, preferably for a few grand off their asking price. So they thought about it for a moment, and conferred for a while, and eventually they came back and said: Yes, that's fine, provided that you do not, under any circumstances, trade it in here when you're finished. So I didn't. Instead, I sold it to some guy in Dallas, who is probably driving it around right now and wondering why he keeps finding packing peanuts under the seats.
But things haven't been so easy this time. Part of the problem is that a large number of cars I've called on have already been sold, a tiny little detail that doesn't seem to prevent dealers from advertising these cars for days, sometimes weeks, after the car has already gone home with someone else. This happens a lot. For instance: just a few days ago, I found an exciting car that looked great in the photos, and included exhaustive paperwork, and had low miles, and I immediately thought it might be The One. So I eagerly dialed the dealer's number, and spoke to a salesman, my voice bursting with anticipation, only to hear: "That car? Oh, we sold that car a few weeks ago."
Now, in this sort of situation, I am generally very polite, and I typically say something like: "Oh, not a problem! Thanks!" But what I'm really thinking, what I believe we're all thinking in this sort of situation, is: "THEN WHY THE F*** ARE YOU STILL ADVERTISING IT ON AUTOTRADER, YOU MOTHERF***ING BASTARD?" I'd like to think these dealers will go to a particularly grueling section of hell designed specifically for them, and also for those people at the grocery store who block entire aisles with their carts as they search for fruit snacks.
But I'm getting off track here, because today's topic is even more frustrating than dealers who advertise cars that have already been sold. Today's topic is Carfax.
Now, before I get started with this, I'd like to stress here that I really love Carfax. This is especially true if Carfax happens to be a Jalopnik sponsor. Maybe it is, I don't know. If it is, then I must say that Carfax is the greatest tool known to man, and it's extremely useful, and those commercials with the fox are just so freaking funny that I sometimes think about going to a local park and adopting a fox of my own, just so he can wear a shirt and accompany me to car dealerships. In fact, I think a Carfax report is absolutely every penny of what they charge. I'm not exactly sure how much that is, because I just mooch them off my friends at dealerships. But you, the average consumer – you really should pay for it.
No, I'm just kidding. I actually do like Carfax for a multitude of reasons, the largest of which is that it means dealers can no longer hide accident damage from the average consumer, who typically couldn't tell the difference between an Acura and an electric blanket.
But despite all of its excellent qualities, Carfax has a problem: the calculated number of owners.
For those of you unfamiliar with Carfax, allow me to take you through the average report. Each one takes up about four pages, even though the amount of useful information is limited to approximately 74 words located somewhere in the middle. That's where it tells you how many miles the previous owners drove, where they lived, and whether the car was ever involved in an accident. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell you things you really want to know, like whether anyone has ever licked the steering wheel.
However: Carfax also goes to the trouble of calculating, using its powerful computerized brain, just how many owners a vehicle has had. It then prints this figure in some enormous font, right at the top of the page, above all the meaty information. I believe this number is based on title transfers, or registration statistics, or possibly a random number generator designed to spit out a figure somewhere between 1 and 13. I say this because Carfax is laughably inaccurate with this information (or, if they are a Jalopnik sponsor, what I mean to say is "occasionally imperfect"), as I shall now demonstrate using a real-world example. Here goes:
Let's say you're Tommy, a bodybuilder who lives in northern New Jersey and therefore drives an automatic BMW 328i Coupe. ("But it has the sport package," you tell everyone.)
First, you lease the car, which makes you owner number one. That's fine. At the end of the lease, you realize you've gone way over your mileage limit because your main girl lives in Teaneck, but your son's mother lives on the Shore, and you still have to go see your momma in Parsippany. So you buy the car, meaning of course that you finance the car ("I got six grand cash down"). This, according to Carfax, makes you owner number two.
Well, three years later, you're holding a steady job at the local golf course ("I betcha fifty bucks I can hit this one over the parking lot"), so you finish paying off the car. Now the title is transferred to your name, and that – according to Carfax – makes you owner number three. This is in spite of the fact that you're still Tommy, the same guy who has owned the BMW from the beginning, the same guy who has occasionally used said BMW to distribute marijuana throughout Bergen County.
And, see, that's a problem, because eventually the feds come knocking on your door asking all these questions about how a guy who makes pretzels at a driving range can afford so much jewelry. So you follow the advice of your lawyer (DeAngelo, Moretti & Lombardi, Esq., attorneys and bailbondsmen) and you hide the BMW from your assets by transferring the title to your mother, even though you're still driving the car. Now she's owner number four.
A few years later, you've beaten the case, all thanks to DeAngelo, who gave the jury some free samples of your product. So you transfer the title back into your name, and the car is yours again. Except, you guessed it: Carfax now thinks you're owner number five.
Now, in many circles, this wouldn't be a problem. So what if a car has been around the block a few times? So what if a few different owners have graced the driver's seat? So what if the previous owner emptied an entire bag of packing peanuts into the cargo area, and some got into the hole for the trunk latch, and now you have to remove most of the interior trim in order to properly close the tailgate? You don't expect every vehicle to be a one-owner cream puff, do you?!
The answer, of course, is no – but some precision wouldn't hurt. Not that it matters anyway. All of those one-owner cream puffs you see advertised on AutoTrader? They were all sold last week.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.