By Harmon Leon
I can think of nothing more nerve-racking and less enjoyable than shopping for a used car. Ok, maybe dental surgery with rusty pliers. You take a big spin of the wheel hoping it doesn’t’ roll up lemons, putting blind trust into a commission-hungry salesman or random private owner. How can you really know the car’s true history? Will it break down the first time you back it out of your driveway? Is the car haunted? Was there a dead body in the trunk? These thoughts and more race through used-car-shoppers’ heads as they try to find new used wheels.
So here are a few tips to help you get on the road (no pun intended), so you don’t make the 10 most crucial used car-buying mistakes.
1) IN THE LAND OF THE USED CAR LOW MILES IS KING
Pop quiz hotshot: two identical cars with different mileage, which one do you choose? Besides the average wear-and-tear and depreciation on a vehicle, a car with low miles has a much better resale benefit and provides a more extended warranty at a better price.
2) DO SOME HOMEWORK ON THE PREVIOUS OWNER
Who are these people that previously owned your vehicle? What have they done to your car!? How can you truly be sure it was a little old lady who only drove her vintage Mustang on Sundays or a stunt driver who liked to frequently engage in “ghost riding the whip”? Here’s what to look for: having only one previous owner is a good sign. Having several owners? Well, look out! Another big red flag is inconsistent service records. Check out the VIN on Carfax.com before you sign the papers.
3) BUY BEFORE THE DEPRECIATION CURVE WAINS: With a used car, the previous owner has absorbed a fair amount of the car’s total depreciation, which generally falls in the two-to-four year range (though it varies from make and model). Thus, a vehicle to keep your eye on is somewhere in that range before the depreciation curve levels off. Also, beware of someone pushing off a twenty year-old vehicle as a “classic.”
4) LOOK FOR USED CARS STILL UNDER WARRANTY
Makes sense, huh? New cars are usually sold with a three-year/36,000 mile warranty. Grabbing a used car with anything that’s under the 36,000 mark means it’s still under the factory warranty. So do the used-car-math; if anything goes wrong under those miles, then it can be fixed under the manufacturer’s warranty. Hurrah!
5) GIVE THE USED CAR A GOOD INSPECTION
First impressions are everything when it comes to dating. The same applies to used cars. Before you even get behind the wheel, walk around the vehicle to get an overall impression. Make sure there’s no ripples in the door panels—a tattletale sign of a hidden accident. Same holds true to uneven gaps between the doors and along the hood. Is fluid leaking onto the pavement? That’s a bad thing. Go crazy by opening all doors, the trunk, and the hood. Test the A/C and heater, power windows, and whatever buttons your tacky little fingers can touch. Like someone wearing the wrong shoes, make sure all the tires match; a clear indication that the previous owner put conscientious care into the vehicle and invested in his baby.
6) LOOK AT SERVICE RECORDS
Ask the owner/dealer for service records and receipts. Look for regular oil changes (every 5,000 to 7,500 miles). Cautious purchasing — red-flags include major repairs such as transmission rebuilds, valve jobs or engine overhauls.
7) TEST-DRIVING USED CARS
Don’t buy a used car simply because you think it looks pretty. (Guys I’m talking to you!). Get behind the wheel. What’s your first impression on how the car feels? Is it the new love of your life, or do you sense that it’s going to be nothing but trouble? Do you feel comfortable with the layout and gauges? Try to start the engine when it’s completely cold to see if that might be an ongoing problem. Example: blue smoke from tail pipe equals bad – very bad! Turn off that radio and really listen to the engine. Does it purr like a kitten or sound like metal in a garbage disposal? Open `er up on the road and downshift as well. Try some steep slopes and play “Bullitt.” Play a little Grand Theft Auto by taking it around corners and slamming on the brakes. Does it feel comfortable? Are there weird rattles and shakes? Can you live with it if there are? This is your time to decide.
HAVE A USED CAR CHECKED BY AN INDEPENDENT MECHANIC
Sure it looks like a reliable car, but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn out to be a big stinky lemon. Before driving off the lot, bring your potential vehicle-solemate to a repair shop the conducts regular diagnostic work. Have them go through it with a fine tooth comb. (Diagnostic tools would actually be better.) This shouldn’t be more than $100, but damn well worth it! A good mechanic can tell you what hidden auto maladies are hidden beneath the surface. Be sure to get a written report on the car’s conditions, the repairs that might be needed, and how much it would cost to fix them—thus you can wheel-and-deal the sales price accordingly.
9) ALWAYS READ RESTRICTIONS ON WARRANTY BEFORE BUYING AN USED CAR
In some cases, the current owner may have purchased an aftermarket warranty. If so, be sure to verify that the warranty can be transferred to your name when you buy the car.
10) GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING
Like a bad marriage, this is what you have to fall back on with things go array. Especially be sure to get the price, terms, repairs and trade-ins clearly written on the sales agreement.
ONE LAST PATRIOTIC TIP: BUY AMERICAN!
USA! USA! USA!
CONGRATULATIONS AND ENJOY YOUR USED CAR SHOPPING!