How to Buy a Used Car in Three Not So Easy Steps or Do as I Say, Not as I Do- Part Three

As frequent readers will recall, in my last post I talked about researching and inspecting your prospective purchase. In this, the final post, I will talk about test driving and bargaining.

Once you have thoroughly gone over the car, if you are still interested, it’s time to look at some service records, if they exist. Ask the owner if she/he has records, where he/she has had it serviced, when and where the oil was changed? Take a look at the receipts, and also at the owner’s manual service book. If you ran, or hopefully they ran, an online car report; piece it into the puzzle with the records and service book. Taken together you should be able to get a good picture of how many people have owned the car, how and when it’s been serviced, if it’s been severely damaged, etc. The old story goes; I went to look at a one owner car owned by a little old lady who only drove it to the grocery store and back. I thought, wow, what a find! But when I got to look at the car it was a total piece of crap. The engine was all carbon-ed up from never being allowed to get to full temp/speed, the tires were original and cracked, and the oil was sludge. I asked, “hasn’t it given you any trouble”? And she said “nope, I never even had to have the oil changed”.

Test Driving:

Now if everything checks out, it’s time for a test drive. be prepared to show your drivers license and insurance proof, after all, it is still their car. Get in and before you start it up, turn the key to the power-on position. Check all the dash warning lights and make especially sure the Oil, Check Engine, Temp, and Brake warning lights are working.  Turn on the windshield wipers and go through all of their settings, front and back, with the sprayer. I once bought a car and did not check that. It started raining on the way back and when I went to turn them on I had nothing. It was a very difficult replacement job on that particular car as well, so assume nothing. Now go ahead and start the car. Watch the rear view mirror for any smoke at start up. That could be in indication of worn valve guide seals. Most likely the radio will be turned on, turn it off, you can evaluate the sound system later, but right now you need to hear the car. Toward that end, roll down the windows all the way to make sure they work and then roll them all up except yours, leave it open a little so you can hear the engine and tires. Now before you drive it, turn on all the lights including the hazard flashers. Get out and have the owner sit in the driver’s seat. Now go around the car and check for proper operation of the lights. Have him/her actuate the brake, reverse, and high beam lights as well whilst you look on. Now check all the seat belts and interior door handles, window switches, etc. for proper operation.

Now that you have performed the necessary pre-trip check, it’s time to actually drive the car. Start by turning the steering wheel from lock to lock (don’t hold it locked to one side for more than a second, it can damage the power steering system), what you are doing is feeling for any thumps, knocks, grinding, in the steering wheel. You should also listen and try to discern any undue groaning, grinding, grrring etc. Certain cars will have different “normal” sounds, Fords from the 80’s-90’s for instance tend to be pretty noisy but can go on like that for a long time. Also be aware of the parts costs for various parts of the car you are interested in. That way you will know if the need for a new power steering pump is a fifty dollar problem or a four hundred dollar problem. Rock Auto is a great resource for researching parts costs, as well as your local parts house.

Now it’s time to put it in gear, if it’s a manual transmission, depress the clutch and hold it there for a few seconds. Listen for unusual sounds which may indicate a worn out release or pilot bearing. Now let the clutch out and then put it in again and shift into gear; all throughout your test drive, be on the lookout for gears that engage with difficulty, grind into gear, pop out of gear, or whine/moan when in that gear. Try each gear, accelerate at a normal rate and then let off the gas quickly without  depressing the clutch. Does it pop out of gear, does that gear make bad noises? Now do the same thing but get up to cruising speed for that gear selection and let off the gas slowly causing the vehicle to gradually slow down and then bring it up to cruising speed again. Often a bad fifth gear or overdrive gear will moan under these conditions. But once again you should know what is acceptable for each vehicle. My work truck grinds into third gear sometimes and makes plenty of noises, but it has been doing that on it’s Spicer transmission for well over one hundred thousand miles.  On the other hand if you were test driving a Volkswagen type 3 and it did that, you might not get many more miles out of it before it got a lot worse.

For an automatic transmission one wants to listen/feel for each gear change. Count them and figure out if they are all working. Also feel for slow, harsh, slipping, or rough shifts for each gear. If you are test driving a GM from the 80’s with a 700-R4 transmission and it is a little slow to engage overdrive, you have a problem. However, if you are test driving a “built” hot rod and the shifts are harsh and seem late, it is probably just fine. Once again, do your research, test several of the same make/model cars to get a feel for them if you can. Continue to monitor the transmission functionality as the car warms up and throughout the test drive.

To properly test drive a car you will need to get it up to highway speeds for at least a few minutes. Once you have driven it around a bit and it has reached full operating temperature take it unto the highway or a long smooth stretch of straight road. Let the owner know that you are going to accelerate to highway speed briskly. Don’t burn rubber or anything like that, but once you get above surface street speeds, put the pedal to the floor to get up to cruising speed. No need to red line it, but do give it the gas. Acceleration should be smooth and swift, unless it’s a Citroen 2CV! If you are test driving a very fast car, more preparation, talking and insurance might be necessary or in some cases you could just let the owner do the accelerating under power part. You should still be able to hear and feel any problems. Listen for rattles indicative of worn engine bearings and other nasty sounds. Watch the oil pressure if you have a gauge, it should rise with the engine RPM and go down at idle. Learn what normal oil pressure is at idle and at cruising for this car. Too low could indicate a badly worn engine, too high could indicate additives put in to mask a problem or other bad things. You do need to be at the wheel during highway cruising. Many times the car has felt great at lower speeds but on the highway the wheel shakes violently due to many things such as; unbalanced drive shaft, bad CV joint, bad ball joint, bad tie rod end, unbalanced tire, etc. Just ask James Pembroke Tenneson!

Keep all your senses open during your test drive, feel for unusual vibrations, smell for the sulfur smell of a bad catalytic converter, the burnt smell of oil, listen for rattles and knocks, look for steam and leaks.

Now once you have gone down the highway for a few minutes and nothing has self destructed, pull over somewhere safe, set the parking brake, pop the hood and have a looksee at the works under there while it’s still running. Look for things amiss; is there steam coming out of the coolant reservoir, oil dripping on the ground, smoke rising from the engine? Let it idle for a couple of minutes and then check the automatic transmission fluid if so equipped. Too high is just as bad as too low on the dipstick here. Now, look at the color of the fluid, in most cases it should be a nice ruby red. If it’s grey-ish or has flecks of stuff in it, you may have some real problems. If it’s brownish but not muddy, smell it. Does it smell like varnish, if so it may be very old but not necessarily a sign of impending failure. If on the other hand it smells burnt or nutty, that’s a bad sign.

Let the car idle for at least ten minutes and watch the temperature gauge if it has one. If not, just look at the coolant reservoir and dash lights. What we don’t want to see is signs of overheating. such as steam or water coming out of the coolant overflow hose or dash warning lights coming on or the temp gauge going to high. A diesel vehicle will often be more prone to overheating at highway speed whereas a gasoline car (or especially propane) will be more prone to overheat at extended idle.

Now get back in and find a nice wide parking lot where you can drive it around in circles. First turn the wheel all the way one way and accelerate at moderate speed to describe a half circle. Next do it the other way. Did you hear any clicking, grinding, rubbing from the front end? If so than you may have a CV joint going bad. Or did the steering wheel track unevenly, or give rough, bumpy feedback? If so you may have bad ball joints or worn steering components. On your way back to the owner’s house, run the heat at full set it to defrost. It should of course blow hot. If the window fogs up or you smell the sweet smell of antifreeze, your going to need a heater core. On a VW Rabbit, it’s a cheap, easy fix, on a Volvo 240, begin the grieving process early, or don’t buy it. Run the air conditioning, it should blow cold. If it does not and the owner says it just needs a recharge, it does not. It most likely will not work again without a sizable investment, though I have got lucky with a AC clutch problem or the occasional recharge. But we are trying to eliminate luck as much as possible here, so if you need AC, either count the cost, or don’t buy this car.

Now once you arrive back at your starting point you can test out the sound system and other on board equipment such as seat heater, seat function, DVD player, etc. If everything is good, ask to look at the title. The vehicle title should be in the name of the person present. Ask to see some identification, tell them they can cover up their driver’s license number if they are concerned, you just need to verify that they are who they say they are. Now make sure the title matches the vehicle. Look at the VIN on the title and the VIN plate on the vehicle. There will usually be one on the driver’s side dash, visible through the windshield and one on a sticker on the driver’s side door jamb. If you are especially leery you might find out from a body shop friend or the internet where other VINs are located. Most vehicles have a VIN on the frame or sub-frame, and several located in hard to reach spots. The VIN plate should be secured with it’s original fasteners, the sticker should be unmolested. If there is anything amiss or if it is a very old car with non-standard VIN protocols, you will have to do some research to figure out how to verify you are buying the car on the title.

Step Three; The bargain:

Presumably you brought along the full asking price of the car when you came, or for security purposes have quick access to it. If not, then perhaps this car is out of your price range. The difference in price that you may try to get out of the seller is not so you can afford the car (you should be able to if you are looking at it), it is for necessary repairs, maintenance, registration, etc. If you are having to talk the seller down just to afford the purchase price of the car, then you are reaching to far. Step back – save your money, or get something less expensive because if you can’t afford to put anything into it, it will depreciate rapidly before your eyes. More so than anywhere else, the second law of thermodynamics (in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state) is in effect on cars. The energy that must enter the system to keep entropy at bay is from you, and your pocketbook.

Photo pmorgan

So determine first if the seller is willing to haggle at all; simply ask something like, “are you at all flexible on the asking price”? If he/she (and women are almost never willing to haggle) says no, don’t argue, just think it over. If they say yes, a little, etc. then the door is open to a sort of game we all know the rules to. But just in case you got left behind when the rules were handed out here is how they go; if the seller is asking say; forty five hundred dollars for the vehicle and is willing to bargain, the five hundred is what he has usually put up for bargaining leverage. He is expecting to get four thousand dollars out of the sale, but would be happy to get more. If you are a real capitalist you will see that it is your job to pay as little as possible and it is his job to get as much as possible. If on the other hand you are buying from a friend or relative, it would just be better to speak honestly with each other and come to an amiable price over a cup of coffee (unless it’s a relative you really don’t care for).

If you have determined that the seller is willing to deal, then have a walk around the car with the hood up. Nicely point out it’s good and bad features, throwing in estimated repair costs along the way. Mind you, you must sound nice and don’t sound as if you are picking the car to pieces. Presumably you want the vehicle, it’s OK to act like it, just act like you have a few small reservations, that once cleared up, will allow you to purchase the vehicle. This is assuming that there are a few small things that do need attention. If there is not and the car is really, nearly perfect, and the price is right, don’t waste each others time haggling over nothing. Either pay what the owner wants or make an offer that’s only a few bucks off the asking price. I have often just paid what the owner asked because the vehicle was worth it and they could have asked for more.

As you complete your walk around of our theoretical four thousand five hundred dollar car, do some math with the owner that subtracts the estimated repairs from the asking price until you get a couple of hundred dollars below four thousand. And then ask them if they will take that amount for the car. They will most likely say no, and might say that they are not willing to go below four thousand two hundred and fifty. Now you can offer the four thousand, that’s how the game works. If they really wont go below the four thousand two hundred and fifty just pay it.

Step three B; That new used car smell:

Well, now you have a new (to you) car. The first thing you should probably do before you take all your friends joy riding in your new ride, is get the oil changed and perhaps have the tires rotated. If you are not doing these things yourself, have a competent mechanic do it, not some teenagers working for minimum wage at a quickie shop! If you are going to be taking to a shop and not doing your own repairs, take it to a good shop with a trustworthy mechanic. If you are buying something other than a Japanese or American vehicle, I strongly advise you to take it to a shop that specializes in the make of your car. Sure, maybe Bill at Bill’s Auto Repair has been your family mechanic for as long as you can remember. But has your family mostly owned say, American cars? If you are buying an American car then Bill is your man. If however, you are buying a Mercedes, you might want to take a good look at what Bill works on most. You really will need a Mercedes specialist. If the car is in good repair and has a service record, it would probably pay to continue to take it where it has been going. Yes, specialists usually cost more, but you are paying for years of knowledge gained by years of experience with that particular make/type of car. If the car is in good repair due to that specialist and you are not doing your own work, be prepared to do whatever he asks you to do. Remember the proof is in the pudding, so even if he tells you something odd like, never use synthetic oil, or put it in gear and floor it once a month, trust him, you have to!

If you are going to be doing your own work, I suggest you ask yourself if you are really up to the task; that’s a decision only you can make. I suggest that you do buy a factory service manual though. The manuals you can buy in most auto parts stores are good, but they are rather limited in their scope. Sure the factory manual costs more, but it will have several pages devoted to things like installing new seat heater switches and grids, or adjusting sliding door mounting tracks that the other ones will not. For most makes and models of car there are forums on the internet these days. Such forums can be a great resource for learning about all the dos and do-nots of your particular model of car. It’s always fun to learn from the mistakes of others!

So now that you have a good mechanic picked out or are armed with the knowledge and tools to do it yourself, get out and enjoy your new ride!