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

After writing Cars of a Lifetime every Sunday for the last year, I realized I have bought a lot of used cars! Not just the ones I owned, some of which I passed over writing about, but the many I have helped others to buy. I am often the go-to guy for a used (and sometimes new) car purchase. It’s hard to say if that’s a good thing. But I got to thinking that maybe someone out there on the Interweb might need some of the knowledge I have accrued (without making the mistakes it took to get said knowledge themselves). In the beginning of this three-part series I will recall several stories of success and failure to highlight the right and wrong ways of buying a used car. In the rest I will sum up the most important things I have learned. I hope my mistakes and my successes will help you when you go to look over that Curbside Classic for sale down the road.

I think I have come a long ways from the first used car I ever purchased. For example: just last year I was looking for a family wagon and saw an seven-passenger Audi station wagon advertised on the Coast. So we drove down to look at it. I was early; I was supposed to call them when I arrived and get the exact location of the car. But the owners were not answering their phone. I found it myself and gave it the once over. It was in a hard to find apartment complex parked far away from all of the buildings. It was OK looking from the outside. I waited fifteen minutes past the appointed time and finally they showed up. They were all in a Suburban and the car was supposedly the guy’s daughter’s. He said he had done some work on it for her. When I asked him how much he knew about European cars he became slightly defensive. Then, when I asked him about the history of the car and why she didn’t want it anymore he became almost aggressive! He opened the hood and I was greeted with the sight of an engine bay that had been hastily cleaned up but still had an oily sheen to it. The acrid smell of hypoid oil wafted out and into my nostrils. I told the man that a test drive was not necessary and thanked him for his time. He wanted to know why I didn’t want it. So I told him: he doesn’t know anything about it, it has no provenance, no records, it’s oily, it smells, it’s not taken care of, and it’s in a strange location. He became very red in the face but I shook his hand and wished him the best of luck. Someone can’t punch you with their good hand if you are shaking it.

Just last week I drove up to Portland, still looking for that elusive seven seat family wagon, to look at a Volvo 245. Undisclosed in their ad was that it was located at a big Volvo shop/used dealer, red flag number one. When I got there, lots of grimy guys and poser kids were milling about the garage smoking cigarettes, red flag number two. I was directed inside to find a youngish fellow waiting for me. We went out to the car which looked nice enough at first glance. I asked him if he worked there and he told me he was the stock boy. I asked him how he came about the car, I told him I didn’t mind people buying cars, fixing them up and turning a profit. He told me that’s just what he had done but that the heater core had to be replaced and so he had it done and now he would see no profit. So I asked him who’s name the title was in, he was unsure, red flag number three. Now the hood was up, and it looked good inside. But I was mostly set against buying it by now. Out of hope, I looked it over some more. My senses told me that there was bad news somewhere in this car. No water in oil, no oil in water, the engine looked OK. But next I got under it and the first thing I found was a big hole in the floor. It was rusted through in several large spot. I thanked him and told him that I would not be the man to fix those.

But it hasn’t always been that way, oh no…

The first used car I actually purchased was from a dealer (often a mistake, given the need to meet overhead costs, the generally accepted higher asking prices, and the poor reputation of used car salesmen). But I was desperate (another mistake).

Our year-old Hyundai was sitting idly behind our college dining commons in a pool of transmission fluid (thanks to my high speed driving antics) while we continued to make payments on it. As I knew nothing about working on cars, fixing the Hyundai myself was out of the question. Our insurance deductible was $500; we had $300. So I went down to the used car lot down the street. That was mistake number one: I should have kept looking.

He had several cars that were too expensive and I did not want to finance. But just as I was planning to go, I saw an old blue pickup in the grass behind a shed. I asked him about it and he said he thought it needed some carburetor work but really didn’t remember. So I asked how much if it would run?  He said three hundred and come back with a battery and some gas and we will see.

I did, and somehow we got it going. I handed him over the $300 and drove off. As I pulled into the turn lane of the highway, I immediately discovered several important things about this truck. One, it handled crazily (later found that it had different sized tires and wheels all around, one being the front wheel/tire from a Ford tractor) and it had about six inches of play in the steering. Two, the brakes felt all wrong (later discovered that only the front brakes were hooked up). Three, the passenger side door would not stay shut, and four, it backfired, a lot. Down the road I went, holding the door shut across the seat.

That truck got us down to Jackson, Tennessee, and all the way up to Utah. But not without a good deal of fixing (rigging). It was cheap but could I have gotten a better deal for my three hundred bucks? I think so, after all I once had a very dependable (for a Rabbit) VW Rabbit I got for sixty bucks.

So what could I have done differently my first time?

Step One: Set goals and do the math:

The first thing one should do is to consider exactly what it is they need. Do you need a car at all? Cars are more than just an initial expense or even monthly payments. One should calculate the cost of ownership to include the initial purchase/down payment amount, monthly payment and/or insurance payments, projected maintenance and upkeep, and projected fuel expenditures. So if you can just walk to work, you might want to forgo a car and all its expenses and troubles altogether. But if you have a family of five and occasionally haul people to church/kids to soccer/prostitutes to johns, etc., then a Mazda Miata might not be the right choice for you. On the other hand if you are retired and it’s just the spouse and you, and you have some money to spend on an enjoyable ride, a sports car or even a large comfortable car might be right for you.

Another thing the inexperienced car buyer should do is to look into private party sales. I have often heard people exclaim that buying from a private party is risky because one does not know anything about the person one is buying from. And that used car dealers have certain standards they must conform to. It’s true that some states/countries have lemon laws and such, but those laws have specific limits of time and claim-ability. On the other hand, one can often find a private party that bought the car new and can provide complete service records with it, something most used dealerships can’t or won’t do. And a Carfax report is not service records. Further more, any Carfax style report, while helpful can only tell you a very small amount. Either way, it pays to take your time and look a lot. Borrow or rent a car if you are in desperate need, don’t buy one under those circumstances if at all possible; it’s like grocery shopping while you are hungry.

And lastly for part one; if the car is to be your daily driver (or even if it is supposed to be a project) you should consider everything it will need to bring it up to safe, legal, and reliable operation. Figure that sum up, add about 20-30% to that sum for all the stuff you might have overlooked or could not expect. And then add that sum to the price of the vehicle. That is the real initial cost of the vehicle. If you don’t have that much, look for a better car or bargain the owner down enough to make it affordable. Remember: be ready to move on and keep looking, don’t fall in love with a car, there are lots of cars out there and the more you look at, the more likely you are to find the perfect one for your needs.

In my next post I will cover research and initial inspection. Good luck until then! Read part two.