Buying a used car is a crap shoot. No matter how well prepared you are, you still run the risk of buying someone else’s problem. Somebody is selling the car, and there has to be a reason. Sometimes the reason is simply that it’s time for the owner to move on, yet other times it’s because they are at their wits end with it. Fortunately, you can prepare yourself and minimize the risk somewhat. With this in mind, here are a few tips to help get past some of the hurdles that we’ve come across personally, or from watching customers struggle with.
- Take your time: Patience definately is a virtue when buying a used car. It never fails, that you are looking for a car and you need it now. The worst possible time to buy a used car is when you have an impending deadline, as you may tend to overlook things that you might have seen if you were more relaxed. A perfect example is sitting in The Garage right now. The tranny had blown up on our 92 Voyager (there’s a surprise) and we needed wheels by the end of the week. I found a really nice Volvo 740 turbo wagon with fresh paint and the 3rd seat. The car drove well and had new tires and brakes all around. I fell in love and bought the car on the spot. 3000 km later, the engine let go. It has now sat in The Garage for a year and a half. If I’d had the time, I would have done a compression test beforehand and known that the engine was weak.
- Compare prices: Every city has some sort of online car shopping portal, or even the good old fashioned print version. Here in Canada, we look to autotrader.ca to shop for used cars. These places are your best resource for pricing when looking. You’ve decided upon a model, now watch the trader for a few weeks to see what’s out there and what people are asking for their cars. Notice how a car with high mileage will usually be priced lower than one that has barely been driven. When you finally go out to see a few cars, you should already have some idea what you should pay for your new ride.
- Get Experienced: If you aren’t really experienced, get help. I mean it. Just because you can swap your spare tire for a flat doesn’t mean you know what you are looking at. Even experienced guys miss things (see #1) so don’t trust your own judgement here unless you really do know your stuff. Find a friend, or a friend of a friend who is a tech. Buy him a beer or 5 after he comes out to look at cars with you. If he knows the particular brand, even better. If you can’t find someone, then spend a bit and have a local dealership check a car you like out for you. Most shops will charge you about an hour labour and will be more critical of the car than the corner shop will. You want them to be critical, as it is your money they are protecting.
- Ask Questions: How long have you owned the car? Why are you selling it? What are you buying to replace it? Where did you have the maintenance done? Do you have receipts? Has it ever had an accident that you are aware of? Does the car have any strange quirks or habits? These may seem basic, but it’s amazing how much you can learn from the way a seller reacts to some of these questions. An honest seller will answer straight up, while the dishonest seller may ignore a question or not have an answer. Don’t forget to ask seasonal questions. For example if it’s 90 degrees in the shade, you can’t tell if the heater works. Likewise, it’s hard to tell if the A/C works in the dead of winter.
- Visual Inspection: There is a lot you can learn from a car just by walking around and opening your eyes. Even on a good used car, there are clues as to what type of life the car has led. Is the car clean in general? I don’t mean the super wash most people give a car before showing it. Look at the carpets, are they worn out or have they been looked after. Are the seats worn out? Look at the tires. Is the wear on all the tires equal? Are one or more tires worn unevenly, or worn out completely. Are the rims all scuffed up from someone parking by feel. Is there any chunks missing out of any of the rims? Is the shine the same on all the body panels? If not, this may be a sign that the car has been in an accident. Open the hood and look around. Is it relatively clean? Check the oil. It should be light to medium brown, not black & gritty feeling. The underside of the oil filler cap should just be oily, there should be no heavy sludge build-up, or worse milky build-up. If it’s an automatic transmission, pull the tranny fluid dipstick. The fluid should be bright red and should not smell burnt. There are many other things to look for and we’ll cover some of these later in the series.
Watch over the next couple of days for the next installment of the Used Car Shopping Series, when we’ll go over the Road Test, Documentation, Haggling and more.