Why I bought a GPS and unexpected benefits

I purchased my GPS primarily because I was actively shopping for a cheap house. Cheap houses are a much more fluid market than normal house shopping because they’re selling for a third of their market price. They get that way due to foreclosures, disasters, etc.

Originally I would spend an hour scouting out homes online and would jot the addresses and comments on the house onto scrap paper. Then I would use Google Maps to plot out a route that would meander through Kansas City. I would find the closest house and plot a route from my current house to that prospective purchase. Then I would create a route from this first house to the next house. It was a bit boring and if I was a better programmer I would have created a mash-up to fix it. But I wanted to just get out there and shop while the market was still depressed. Little did I know it would keep getting worse.

So at the end of this process I would have 20 printed out routes from Google Maps. After my first few times of actually driving these routes I figured a few things out.

  • First of all, some neighborhoods are just too rough for me. I grew up in various sorts of blue collar towns all over the world but even when a house is cheap, losing your life pretty much ruins the Cost Benefit Analysis of the proposition.
  • The second realization was an extension of the first. When you’re a target in a poor neighborhood you need to react quickly to threats. That means that sometimes you have to skip a house because there are two cop cars staking out someone’s house or there are drug dealers on the corner. Or sometimes you’ll be jotting down notes about a house and some dude will try to approach your car from a blind spot, so you have to motor out of there. Here’s the rub, static instructions from Google Maps don’t help you much when these sort of things happen. You need something more dynamic.

Since you’re reading this and saw the title, you’ve already come to the conclusion that was beginning to dawn on me. First I have to explain why I was so resistant to purchasing a GPS. I’m a died in the wool geek. I’ll buy a gadget for anything. Or rather, I used to buy a gadget at the drop of a hat. However, if you want to save enough money to buy a house for cash down, you need to learn a little restraint. Also, I got tired of being burned by early adoption. Products not working as promised and never supported by the original companies.

But working at Fortune 500 companies has taught me to spend money on problems when it makes sense. Basically at 32 I started getting a little bit of wisdom. And spending a few hundred on a GPS when you’re a) looking at spending thousands on a house and b) risking your life just shopping for said house just makes sense. So off to Radio Shack I headed. They had a cheap TomTom One listed at $300. I noticed that the price tag had an expiration date on it though. The nice off duty Marine working there was nice enough to look it up in the computer and discovered that it was actually going on sale the day after that. Also, he was a smart enough sales guy to let me take it out of the box and play with it. So I returned a day later and picked it up for $250.

I actually wanted to buy a Garmin product as they’re based out of Kansas City. Unfortunately their cheapest model was $550.

The GPS came with a mount to the window, docking station, software with maps, gift certificate for one free downloadable voice(I’ll write more about this later), and the wiring to hook it up in the car. Unfortunately, it’s a battery operated system. I say unfortunately because that means you have to take it home and charge it fully the first time before you use it. It’s the bane of geeks. We want our instant gratification. Give me my toy and let me play with it now. But I buckled down and plugged it in. I was able to update the maps, download a voice and a few other things while it charged.

I don’t mean to say that it is only battery operated. When it is in the car, it normally is connected to the power system via a lighter plug. But it has this cool option that you can unmount it easily from the window and take it with you. Which is handy because when I go with a buddy who’s got a truck, I can just grab my GPS and bingo we’ve got directions. I suppose you could take it as you walk around the woods, but it is a bit big for that. But it has to be in order to accommodate a pretty large touch-screen.

The GPS worked very capably and helped me purchase my current house at auction for 15k. Even for Kansas City, that’s cheap! And I’m on a decent block. I know my neighbors by first name even if I’m pretty sure some of them aren’t here in the US legally.

One of the things that’s hard to explain to people is how simple it is to use the GPS. I’ll probably take some video of it working in the future as it’s easier to watch than explain. In the meanwhile I’ll try to explain some of the features:

  1. Spoken Instructions – The GPS doesn’t just show you a map. It tells you about what’s going on. 2 miles before a highway exit, it will tell you that you need to exit soon. So you know to get over. Also if the next step is really close it will warn you about it. So it may say, take the exit now and then turn right after that.
  2. Countdown to the next step – As part of it’s Heads Up Display is the highway exit number and how many miles you have to go. So you know if you have 14 miles to the next step. It will also indicate the direction of the next turn. Also, it counts down the number of minutes it thinks it will be until you arrive at your final destination. You can also program it at the beginning of the trip that you need to get somewhere by a certain time. Which is handy. You know whether you have time to stop for coffee, or if you need to haul ass.
  3. Bluetooth – I don’t use it yet as I’m too cheap to buy a bluetooth headset that’s good. But I know it works pretty well in the sense that it will detect when you’re on a conversation and therefore will mute the spoken instructions. I believe it’s also got a microphone I could manually hook up that would work to interface with my phone. I really should set it up but just haven’t done it yet.
  4. Favorites – You can program in frequently visited spots. This has two applications. One is that you can program in work, buddy’s houses, the grocery store, etc. So you don’t have to keep typing in addresses. The second application is that you program in where home is at. So you don’t have to dig through the favorites menu when you go to your most traveled location, your home. I don’t know for sure, but it seems like it stops telling you spoken instructions once you are on a major highway to your house. Which makes sense, because you probably know the directions at that point.
  5. Traffic Jam Avoidance – In some major cities you can pay for updates to be pushed to your GPS. I don’t pay for that. But if you do see a traffic jam or a road outage, you can tell it to avoid the problem. So when you see traffic backing up, you hop off the highway and it will figure out the next best step.
  6. Backups – Okay, so you’ve been adding in all these locations but someone just stole your car. Well, if you backed it up with the docking station, you can just restore all that info and whammo you’re back in action.
  7. Previously Visited Locations – Let’s say you don’t want to program in some place you’re going to visit 3 times this week, but never again. Well, the GPS keeps track of where you’ve been and you can browse through the last 25 locations or so and navigate to them. Also, you can add a favorite based on the previously visited locations, which saves some typing.

I didn’t get the music version which cost a $100 more because I was concerned that the cold and heat of Kansas City would fry the thing. The music version has an internal hard drive that I think would hold 20GB of music. I did a bit of research and could find forum entries somewhere that indicated that replacing internal hard drives were becoming something more of a problem. Plus, I’ve got a ton of other music options already.So, there it is folks. I know my GPS paid for itself the second I bought my house. It may also have saved my life by keeping me on the move in the hood. They’re not for everyone, but I recommend you borrow one from someone for a weekend and see how it really revolutionizes your driving.


Daniel J. Doughty