How to Buy a Used Car in Three not so Easy Steps or Do as I Say, Not as I Do – Part Two

In this second part of How to Buy a Used Car in Three not so Easy Steps, I will be talking about research and initial inspection. Last time I covered setting goals and doing the math. Once you have figured out what you want, why you want it, and how much it should/does cost, it’s time to go looking for it.

Before I get started let me just say, if you want more information, you might also look at the comments. In my last post the comments were so helpful and informative that I think I probably could have just published them instead! Nonetheless, in order to get such great commentary, I must first write some stuff, so here it goes.

I look mostly on Craigslist but have looked in Autotrader, Ebay, brand/make specific forums, and Hemmings Motor News. But every now and then you can find what you are looking for just driving around town with a sign in the window.  If you just want a reliable car, you might also try asking your friends if they know of one for sale. The power of acquaintanceship may get you a lower price and a more complete history of the car. However don’t think that just because it’s your friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s dad’s car that it is a good deal or that he is anymore trustworthy than a stranger.

Research: The first thing that you should do when you start thinking thta you know what car you want to buy, is to do some research. Let’s say you needed a minivan. Start by looking up minivans in Craigslist or it’s equivalent to get a good idea of what you need to spend and what year model is in your price range. Take note of which models/makes are selling for consistently less than others, this could be a good sign of poor long term quality. Now that you have an idea of what year range you can afford, look up all the perspective vans on the EPA website and compare them to get an idea of perspective fuel efficiency. Next look up the ones you are interested in on Edmunds and similar websites and look at owners reviews of the car.  Once you realize that the one you thought was coolest is a nighmare to own, do a simple Google search on the ones that people gave better reviews to. Try terms like “Toyota Sienna problems” or Dodge Caravan recall”. That should get you lots of results from people on forums etc. complaining about their problems. Look for a lot of the same problems on a particular model posted by different folks. Also if you can find a forum devoted to that particular model look in the tech section, especially at the stickys on the top of the page. This sort of research should dissuade you from from buying a Eurovan with an automatic transmission, or Land Rover that just needs a head gasket, or anything that needs a new timing belt!

Making the call: When calling about a car I have seen advertised or have been told about, I have a little list that helps me get right to the point of deciding whether it’s even worth looking at. First I ask why he/she is selling it. This can be rather telling, no one will ever tell you it’s because the car is crap and they want something better. But they might give you a poorly prepared answer, they sometimes become very uncomfortable answering this question; and that’s a “tell” in poker lingo. On the other hand if they tell you something like; “I need something that gets better mileage” or “I want something a little newer”, those are actually good signs of an honest response. But what you most often get is, “we need something bigger/smaller, sportier, etc. That really doesn’t tell you anything.

So on to the next question; “is your name the only one on the title of the car and do you have the title of the car?” If they tell you a story about how they are selling it for a friend etc. move on or deal directly with the real owner. If they tell you how they never registered it blah blah blah, just move on, that’s not the kind of car you want unless you just want a real beater and are willing to take a big risk. Next question; “does it have any issues?” That is a big open ended question and it’s a good opener. Once again this can help you to gauge honesty which is really what we are trying to do here. Don’t get discouraged if they actually tell you about some real issues. Ask yourself; are these issues stereotypical of of this make/model vehicle at this price point? Do some research online, if they are, then perhaps the owner is just an honest person who wants everything up front. On the other hand if they tell you it has no problems whatsoever, it may or it may not.

Now if the problems are not overwhelming, ask them how long they have owned it. If they say two months or two days, a good explanation is required and it probably won’t be good enough. If everything sounds good at this point, it’s time to go see it for yourself. Notice I did not mention price discussion here? That’s because without having seen the car, you have no business discussing the price at all. If it’s too expensive, then it’s too expensive. If it’s close to your price range, save the discussion for an in-person chat when you will have looked at the car and perhaps have some leverage based on your examination.

Hopefully you will get to look at the car at the owner’s residence or workplace. If they want to meet you or want to meet in a neutral location, gently nudge them into meeting at their place. Some people are pretty worried about getting scammed and such and don’t want people to know where they live, so this is understandable. But it’s better to see the car in its home to get a better sense of who this person is and where they come from. Especially with a diesel, and here is why; diesel engines are not very fun to check the compression or the glow plug system on, and the tools are expensive. The best way to tell is to start it up from a stone cold start and look at the blow-by. The car has to be stone cold, not plugged into a block heater, unless it’s winter in Minnesota. Feel the engine block, now go and crank it over for less than ten seconds. If it does not start, then it’s got a problem. Could be big, could be small, so how to find out? If you can eventually get it started (never, ever, use starting fluid and if the owner does, walk away), then let it run and go and lift up the hood.

Now, while it’s running, unscrew the oil filler cap. Once it’s unscrewed just let it sit on the filler neck. Does it hop up and down, or do the blow-by gases lift it off the neck entirely?  It shouldn’t do much hopping at all. It should just sit there and vibrate with the engine and it certainly shouldn’t be blown up and off by the gasses. If the car started OK, was cold when you did it, and the weather was below sixty degrees, but the cap bounces around a little it might be OK if you are not paying too much. On the other hand, if it was hard to start but it shows no signs of significant blow-by, it may be a problem with the glow plugs. If you are still interested, you could look up how to check them with an VOHM meter on the internet. If you really want to get fancy, you can even get an idea of compression with a volt meter, but that’s going further than we need go here.

I learned this on the first car I helped a friend buy. It was a diesel Rabbit. We got there and the car stared right up and ran fine. But the next morning Bill went to start it and it would not start. We tried replacing the battery, but it was not enough. Bill ended up having to plug the block heater in anywhere he wanted to park for more than fifteen minutes. The car had very low compression and that meant it needed lots of expensive work; lesson learned.

But maybe you are comfortable with a bit of a project. If so, jump forward several years: once I was more knowledgeable about fixing cars, I was more apt to buy projects. One day I saw an advertisement for a 1978 VW Rabbit in the newspaper (remember those days?), non-running, for sixty dollars. I had to at least take a look at it (that’s how it always starts). When I arrived, I found it was parked in the parking lot of some crummy apartments. It was a burnt orange two door. Being that it was a ’78, it it had the 1.6 liter engine, fuel injection, and was made in Germany, not Pennsylvania, so I was already interested. On top of that, the paint and interior were in great shape. Once I finally spoke to the owner she told me it had started running very badly and then one day would not start at all. I asked her if she would be unhappy if I got it running right after I paid her the sixty dollars. She said no, so I went out and had a look at it. Engine oil not milky: check; coolant not oily: check; getting spark: check; getting fuel: no. I had learned a thing or two working on my friend’s white Rabbit. So I turned on the key and listened at the passenger side rocker panel. No fuel pump whirring. So I looked under the dash and found the fuel pump relay (learned this on the VW bus), I pulled it out and jumped a wire across the only terminals that form a T. Now it was whirring. I paid her the 60 dollars and we did the paperwork. After that I fired her up and drove her home.

It was obvious on the drive home that there was more wrong with it than a bad fuel pump relay. So I checked the compression: good in three cylinders, but zero in the other. A peek down the spark plug hole found no hole in the piston, so off came the cylinder head. The exhaust valve on that cylinder had a nice pie shaped chunk missing. Luckily, it somehow had manged to break off and be spit out without scoring the cylinder wall. So the cylinder head went to the machine shop to have the valve replaced and I bought a gasket set, timing belt,  some oil, and coolant.  After it was all together it ran well. And for a total investment of less than two hundred dollars.

Step Two; Check it out:

Looking things over: The used car buyer with no mechanical experience should at least get a friend who does have mechanical experience to go along with him or her. That means mechanical experience on cars of a similar vintage. So your dad who used to wrench on his Camaro a lot back in ’73 but doesn’t know the difference from OBD 1 and OBD 2, won’t be much help looking at a Toyota Matrix with you. Yes, most cars are built around very similar principles; most have an internal combustion engine, an automatic or manual transmission (or even Continuously Variable), wheels and tires, springs, shocks/struts, a steering wheel, seats, windows, and lights. But the critical difference lies in the details. The differences between a Honda Insight and a Model T are far more than superficial.

You could start with a test drive, but I don’t. The first thing I do is just have a good look around the car.  Are there signs of abuse? Broken door handle, cracked window, scratches in the paint, dents on bumper corners etc. But look more closely, do all the panel lines line up OK? Are the panels all the exact same color? Look down the side of the car whilst on your knees. Is the side of the car good and straight, not wavy? Are there slightly lower or higher spots, or places where the paint is more orange-peel-like than others? Those might be signs of previous damage.  If you are very worried about hidden repairs on the body, you can buy a special magnetic tool to detect body filler and thin metal. Now open the doors and get down and look at the underside of the door itself, that’s a good place for rust to get started. Now lift up the carpets if you can and feel for moisture and rust. While you’re down there, check out the door sills and rocker panels as well. With the assistance of a flashlight, take a good look at the underside of the floors, any rusty or patched spots?

Now since you are still down there, go ahead and have a look at the pavement! Ideally the car will be parked where it normally parks. Look for oil spots and such on the ground. Now look up at the bottom of the radiator, bell housing, transmission pan, differential/s, and exhaust. On an older car there may be a little bit of oil on the bottom of the oil pan and bell housing, that’s to be expected. But there should not be any drips at all, nor should there be evidence of long term leakage, such as fine oil spray covering the transmission pan and rear end. The transmission pan should be bone dry, and so should the bottom of the differential/s.

Acceptable seepage on an older car

Look for tears in the steering rack boots if it has rack and pinion steering. Otherwise look for steering fluid leakage from the bottom of the steering box.

Recirculating ball type power steering system

Rack and pinion steering system.

If the car is rear or four wheel drive, put it in Park or Neutral, set the emergency brake, (don’t set the E-brake on a Land Rover, just chock it good, the E-brake drum is on the drive shaft and will inhibit checking the joints) and chock the wheels. Now get down there and try to twist the drive shaft back and forth. Do the Universal Joints clunk? Is there lots of back and forth lash in the drive train? There will be a little in the drive train, but should not be any in the U-joints. Also look for leakage where the drive shaft goes into the transmission. If it’s a car that has CV joints, check for tears in the outer and inner boots and look for signs that the grease has escaped.

Bad CV boot = bad CV joint=half shaft replacement.

After spending all that time down there, you should be ready to get up and look at the engine. Open the hood and have a good look. Is there oil leaking anywhere? Are there wires that have been taped up? Are the belts OK? How about the radiator hoses? Look for swelling near the ends of the hoses and feel them to see if they are getting soft due to electrolysis. Now, if all checks out OK, have the owner start it up while you stand just to the side and look/listen. Starter engaged OK? Bunches of valve noise (tapping/clicking) for a minute? That could be a sign of using crummy oil filters with no anti-drain back valve or that it needs a valve adjustment if it’s an older car. If excessive valve noise persists, begin worrying. You should expect some valve noise from an older Japanese engine but none from an older American motor.

Also, while it’s running, perform the blow-by test outlined earlier. You should look at the underside of the oil filler cap too. Some slight white-ish residue is a sign the the car may not have been driven much in the last few months; might be a good thing, might not. Ask the owners about what they have been doing with the car the last few months and see if the story fits the evidence. Green-ish or yellow residue may be indicative of a bad problem. It most likely will be dry and dark brown or wet and oily – that’s OK. Now before things get too hot, shut it down. On a carbureted or throttle body injected car, remove the air filter and look down the throttle bore. Is it oily in there? In a diesel it may be slightly oily but should not be dripping with oil. Is it carboned-up and black? If it’s a port fuel injected car, and you feel confident you can do it without breaking things, pull the MAF/MAS hose off the throttle body and look for the same problems.

Take notice of the condition and brand of the spark plug wires, ignition cap (if it has one), and oil filter. Cheap brands are bad news. Factory brands are good news. If the oil filter is orange (not gonna name brands here), or if it is a really cheap generic brand, beware. But do your research here. The factory filter for a VW could be a Mann, Mahle, or Bosch. While the correct spark plug wires for a Toyota are Toyota, the best ones for a Land Rover are not Land Rover (STI, or Magnacore are considered best). Not that it’s a big deal to have different ones, but if you don’t do your research you might think the good ones are crap and vice-verse. What we are trying to determine is the maintenance strategy of the owner. A person who buys a Toyota for it’s great reliability and then puts the cheapest generic parts on it really makes no sense at all. After all, the correct operation of a a car is a function of the sum of it’s parts.

Now check the oil. If it’s a diesel it will be pitch black, that’s OK. On a gas engine it should be dark brown to clear. If it’s muddy, like chocolate milk, stop here, thank the owner for his time and leave, that’s a sign that water is mixing with the oil. Unless of course an engine rebuild sounds like fun to you. Also make sure the car is on level ground and check the oil level. If it’s very low, that is another bad sign. Where did it go, how long has it been gone? If the oil is new and clear, it might be OK or it might be because there was a problem to hide. Now check the coolant; some cars have a coolant reservoir with a pressure cap and no radiator cap. Other cars have a radiator cap and unpressurized reservoir. If it has a radiator cap, slowly open it with a rag. If it doesn’t, open the reservoir cap in like manner. Take a look; is it pure red or pure green? That’s good, but it should not be rusty colored or have any scum floating about. It should not be too hot, so stick your finger down in there and pull it out and wipe it off on a white rag. All you should see is coolant. If there is blackish oil scum, it may be in need of a whole new engine block!

Milky oil

Time to check the steering and suspension system. With the ignition turned on, but the car not running, have your friend turn the steering wheel back and forth until it gets hard. Kneel down at each front tire and look/listen for clunking. Now trade spots. Is there a lot of free play in the steering before it starts to get hard? Do you feel a clunk just before it does? That could be several things that are not right. Now go over to the front tires and begin pushing and pulling on the top of the tire from side to side (not round and round the way a tire rolls). Get the car rocking good. Can you feel a clunk and/or free play in the wheel? If there is it may need ball joints or wheel bearings. Now do the same with the front and back edge of the tire. Try to turn the wheel like the car was going to make a turn, but pull back and forth on the tire (don’t roll it). Is there a clunk here? If so, it may need tie rod ends.

Lower ball joint

Now that all that is mostly done, it’s time to move on to the test drive which will be covered in the next and last installment. So next week I will cover the test drive, final check, and bargaining. See you next week. Read part three.