Buying a used car can be a difficult experience. You run around all day looking at cars, dealing with strangers and getting dirty. On top of all that, you probably need to buy a car as soon as possible. This article is intended to guide you through this rough time, and protect you from the pitfalls of buying a used car.
The first thing you’ll want to do is asses the situation: do you really need to buy another car? If your current car fits your lifestyle, and just needs minor repairs, you may want to reconsider. If the car has become unreliable, or the cost of repairs is equal to what you might pay to replace your car, you probably need to buy another car. Ideally, you should get your current vehicle running, so that you can sell it. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a worthwhile option, and is a subject best suited to a different article altogether.
Assuming that you’re going to go ahead and buy a used car, you’ll need to think about where to look for one. My personal first rule of buying a car is: don’t bother with dealerships. Period. They charge too much, and some of them are just outright deceptive. I’m not saying that all individual sellers are honest, but they usually don’t have a professional mechanic facilitating their trickery. Some great places to look include newspapers and online classifieds like Craigslist and Backpage.com. Cars that are for sale on the side of the road may be worth looking into as well.
Then of course, we have my personal favorite place to shop for used cars: charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army. These places are a little harder to find, but they can be a goldmine as far as used cars are concerned. When someone donates their car, it is beneficial to many people, for many reasons. For the person who is donating the car, it is easier than selling, tax deductible, and may even help support a good cause. For the charitable organization, it is a valuable source of income, and for the buyer, it can be a great deal. I bought my last two cars through a charitable organization, and I can tell you that they were both excellent vehicles, though they needed some minor repairs before they were roadworthy.
Once a car has caught your eye, it’s time to do some research on that particular make, model, and year of vehicle. You want to know what parts regularly need to be replaced, so you know what to look out for when inspecting the vehicle. You also want to find out if the car has a reputation for reliability, and if replacement parts are readily available. There are a few websites online that are great for finding this information. A quick web search including the year,make and model should reveal several great resources. While you’re at it, look up the blue book value of this car, and compare prices for similar cars in your local newspaper.
Once you’ve found a car for sale that has a good reputation for reliability, you’re going to have to inspect it thoroughly before committing to buy it. You should do a relatively thorough inspection yourself, but ultimately, you should either bring the car to a mechanic, or vice-versa. Whatever you choose, an honest seller shouldn’t mind. If the sellers balks, he/she probably has something to hide, and you should move on to the next car. If you don’t know of a trustworthy mechanic, there are automobile inspection services that will send a mechanic out to the car of your choice to perform a rigorous inspection. The upfront cost might be around one hundred dollars. The value of knowing that the car you’ve purchased is mechanically sound is priceless.
When you’re inspecting the car, the least you should do is to look at all of the car’s fluids. The oil should be a golden or slightly brown color. The antifreeze should be fluorescent green ,not rusty. Some manufacturers use orange or red antifreeze as well. Make sure that the engine is cool when you remove the radiator cap- otherwise you run the risk of getting doused by a geyser of hot antifreeze. Look under the oil cap- if it has a milky color, this means that there is likely to be a head gasket issue in the engine. The automatic transmission fluid should be red or pink, and should not smell burnt. If there’s anything fishy about any of these vital fluids, you shouldn’t bother with that car. I’ve seen transmission fluid in the oil (actually a trick to reduce valve noise), oil in the radiator(a sign of a blown head gasket) and burnt ATF. These are all bad signs. While oil that is too clean is fishy, it doesn’t really mean anything by itself. If you encounter freshly changed oil, and everything else checks out, check the oil after a test drive to see if it’s changed. Also, when the test drive is over, try to park the car on a clean patch of concrete or put newspaper under the car so that you can see if the engine is leaking.
If everything under the hood checks out, Start the car and listen to it idle for a minute or two. Did it start easily? Does it idle smoothly? Does it smoke? If not, then I’d say that it’s time for a test drive. I like to take rather lengthy test drives, just to be sure. It should be made clear that you’re going to spend about half an hour driving the car. You should be trying to feel out the car- is there any free play in the steering? Are the brakes quiet? Does the car stop smoothly? Does it pull to one side, either while cruising or braking? Does it accelerate smoothly? Drive the car at both freeway speeds and in residential areas. Do not play the radio- you want to hear any noises that the car is making.
Take the car to an empty lot and make a few slow, tight turns in each direction. Roll down the windows, and turn off any noise making devices. Listen carefully for any kind of steady knocking or clunking noise coming from front wheels. This sound might mean that there are CV joint problems. CV joints are expensive to replace (usually about $300) and can destroy other engine components when they ultimately fail, as they tend to send shrapnel flying under the hood.
If everything checks out, it’s time to call in a professional mechanic. If you noticed anything unusual during the test drive, be sure to mention it to your mechanic. You’re almost guaranteed to get a short list of things that need attention from your mechanic. Ask your mechanic which repairs are the most important. Remember, any repairs that must be done can be used as a bargaining chip if you decide to buy the car.
If your mechanic gives you the O.K. to buy, then this brings us to the negotiation phase. Sometimes a simple question about lowering the price will get the seller to give you a price break. If not, you may want to point out any blemishes or mechanical problems to the seller before suggesting a lower price.
Sometimes sellers will use pressure tactics in an attempt to create a false sense of urgency in order to influence your purchase. They will say that there are other people who are interested in the car. They may even go so for as to have people call them while you are negotiating. Don’t fall for this old trick- take your time, and don’t let them pressure you into anything.
If everything goes according to plan, you should end up with a decent used car at a fair price. Congratulations!