How To: Buy A Used Car: Episode 2

Ok, so you're sick of looking at your computer screen and are ready to go drive some vehicles. Good. Let's get ready to get out and do just that.

Reading Listings
You've been pouring over these listings. Can you remember one vehicle from the next? Which one had a couple dings in the driver's door? Which one was under the average miles (12,000 miles per year)? Yeah, it's tough to keep it all straight. Print off a page for each vehicle you want to look at and make some notes on the back. Note the questions you want answered and where the holes are in the info they provided. Not listing the mileage usually means that they are high. But were they just too lazy to look? Is there something else that they fail to mention? Examine the language that they use carefully. One big question to always ask yourself - why are they selling it? Moving abroad? Looking to upgrade? Need more space? Car is due for an overhaul? Transmission is shot? In need of cash? Try to glean what their motivation is, and if you don't know, then ask!

Along with prints of the ads, do your best to get a value out of Kelly Blue Book based on the info your have. In this age of information, many sellers have already done this, but there are a lot of overpriced cars out there. Personally, if the ad didn't give enough info to get an accurate value out of KBB, then they didn't give enough info to get me to respond. Those vehicles are typically a let down.

Go through this process and line up 4-8 vehicles that you are interested in. Avoid dealers. If you want, go ahead. We just don't recommend it. There are some fine vehicles on their lots. There are some good, honest folks working on some of those lots. They are few and far between. We looked at some ourselves and found both good and bad vehicles and good and bad salesmen. Some were high-pressure, lying snakes. Some were honest, kind and respectful. Unfortunately, we were unable to come to a deal with this good dealer as their price was more than we could spend. It was a good vehicle, and a little tough to walk away from, but as we drove away, we felt great and totally in-control of ourselves and our money for sticking to our ideals and not caving in and borrowing even a small amount of money.

With your vehicles of choice found, line up a few appointments for one afternoon. Not only will you maximize your time and save fuel by consolidating trips, but you'll also be able to compare vehicles better, and give yourself that walk-away power. As much as the seller can say, "I've got two other folks coming to look at it". You can say, "I've got three others I'm looking at this afternoon", and mean it.

Exam Time
Once you've arrived to view a vehicle, give it the once over. Then the twice over. Maybe you are lucky enough to have extensive automotive knowledge. Maybe not. For the latter, here are some tips:

  • Ask questions if you have some, but do your best to stay quiet. A nervous salesman will start talking to avoid the awkward silence. Let them talk. This is a great way to get information that they would not have otherwise volunteered.
  • Inspect the rubber - will they need replaced? 1/16 of an inch or less of tread and you are due for a new set.
  • Look down each side of the vehicle. Has it been hit? Dings in the steel bodywork?
  • Ask to look under the hood. Even if you don't know much about what's under there, is it clean? Clean-ish? Little things like this will give you a hint as to how well it was cared for.
  • Inspect for re-painted parts. Running your finger on the underside of the edge of a door or hood will tell you if it has been repainted in a body shop. Body shops do it with a spray gun and masking tape, leaving a rough edge on the bottom. Factory paint jobs are done by robots and leave a smooth edge. (A tip from the fine folks at CarMax)
  • Inspect the suspension by pushing the bumper down and releasing quick. How did it react? Suspension components in good condition will recover quickly, springing back up and the settling back into position. Ones needing replaced will bounce a few times.
Do these things and you'll not only learn a lot, but also come off looking like a gear-head to the average Joe or Jane seller.

A step further would be to bring a diagnostic tool, like mechanics use, to read error codes from the computer. This can tip you off to unforeseen issues like a bad catalytic converter, or engine troubles.

If you are really cautious, then you'll have an appointment arraigend with a local mechanic that you trust and have him inspect the vehicle. You'll obviously want to discuss this with the seller first.

Test Drives
Some folks are very (very) trusting and will let you drive it alone. Others, like us, are a tad more cautious than that and insist on riding along. Either way, go for a spin. Tooling around the neighborhood is fine... for other folks! I came to test this thing out. Always ask/warn the owner (if they came along) before doing anything abnormal. If they aren't cool with you putting it through the paces (with in reason), then it's time to move on. If they are, then find a nice deserted country road and start in.
  • As you back out, look at where the vehicle was sitting - Any fluids on the pavement? Antifreeze? Oil? Or just condensation from the A/C (which is ok)?
  • Find a good location and see how it corners. Take the turn a tad faster than normal. Excessive body roll? How did the steering handle it? Over, under?
  • Take some bumps. Remember testing the suspension in the drive way? Lets do that while driving. Railroad tracks, pot holes, how did it fare?
  • I haven't finished test driving a car unless I've put the hammer down to see how it will react. Was it sluggish? Did it hesitate? How did the transmission go through the gears? Did everything seem as it should? Excessive engine noise?
  • Don't forget to test the breaks. With no-one behind you, stop short. Squeaky, slipping, grinding, bumping, groaning, weak?
All in all, think about how and where you drive in an average week, and turn it up about a notch. Inspect the interior also.
  • Burn marks in the seats are a good sign it was driven by a smoker (a dirt ashtray is also a good sign, duh).
  • Is the headliner stained? I don't know how you do that, but it looks bad.
  • Make sure everything works - power options, flip out cup-holders, A/C, lights, stereo
It really, really helps to have someone with you who can check some of these things while you are driving.

Closing the Deal
At some point lets hope that you find the right vehicle for you, at the right price, and that it passes inspection. If not then try not to rush yourself. Don't create artificial obstacles for yourself (I have to have a car soon!). When you do find it, lets do our best to get a deal.
  • Is the price right? You've made notes, asked questions, test driven... is there any reason to discount their price?
  • Do they have the title? Not having it can complicate things, but is no reason to walk from a good deal.
  • Are you serious? If you want it, today, then bring cash. And a bill of sale.
Come armed with everything you need to close the deal. Again, like when we were selling, do your research as to your local laws and know what you need - bill of sale, title transfer forms, insurance needs. Don't expect the seller to have a clue. Likely, they don't, so always look out for your best interest. When you are ready, make them an offer. Even if you only discount it slightly, offer them less than asking. Always. The worst they can do is say no. If you can buy it for under book value, then you'll have some room to make repairs if there is something you missed. Make it easy for them to take the deal - bring cash. Count out those $100 bills and make them the offer if they will (and can) do the deal now.

Ever bought a used car with cash? Notice how great it drives?

Read the rest of the series:


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