The Truth About Cars » How to buy a used car http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Apr 2014 15:28:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » How to buy a used car http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Hammer Time: Blessed Art Thou Sausage Makers http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/hammer-time-blessed-art-thou-sausage-makers/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/hammer-time-blessed-art-thou-sausage-makers/#comments Thu, 09 Jan 2014 14:00:50 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=675834 Phony

In the world of auto journalism, there are a laundry list of used car buyer’s guides that end up molderizing on shelves and stagnating on servers.

These self anointed guides will offer the typical consumer nothing of value except puffed up prose designed solely, and soullessly, to make you feel better about your own car buying biases.

Let me take that back. Did I say nothing of value? My mistake. I meant negative value. As in you’re probably going to get royally screwed if you ever take their advice. Here’s why…

1. The journalists who cover the used car side of the business for these publications typically don’t actually drive the cars they review. A lot of the used car buying guides out there are written by what would kindly be called, “sausage makers.” Journalists who take portions of new car reviews that are already on the web, and repackage them into re-hashed stale prose for the oblivious reader.

2. The other more experienced writers just don’t have any extensive frame of reference when it comes to used cars. They may have kept one to three personal drivers over the last several years, often times classic and custom builds, and that’s about it.  As a result they are stuck in the anecdotal world of, “Well Jack? I know this used car was good for the family member/neighbor/ local taxi company… so I’m sure it will be a good car for you.”

3. Then there are the lucky hundreds in our industry who are forever stuck in that heavenly shangri-la of combed over press fleet cars. They get the pleasure of driving a brand new car, with a full tank of gas, that is usually detailed and tended to by a “Media Fleet Management Company.” These folks will write the types of glossy prose that attract the eyeballs of new car buyers. Some are truly great with the craft and have a well-earned reputation with their audience. Others not so much.

As for the used car buyer? They are tended to by the sausage makers. Folks who will repackage new car reviews for the proverbial buck that comes with mild historic revisionism.

The sausage makers of our business will be dealing with the 2014 models in the years to come once the new car reviews get repackaged, and remarketed, to the used car audience. When it comes to their reviews, you will find the usual chunks of phrasing and rephrasing of information that is already out there. They will have everything the new car review had, and for good reason.

This lack of useful information is not uncommon at all for many industries (and companies) with hundreds to thousands of products available to the everyday consumer. My first job out of school was partially composed of writing glorified descriptions of Korean food for a food import company. I knew absolutely squat about foods like agar-agar or conch. What saved me back in 1995 was the very same thing that saves most used car reviewers of the modern day, an internet search engine.

We all have to start somewhere. Robin Williams has a fond saying when it comes to this type of behavior which he partially borrowed from P.T. Barnum, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and jerk the rest off!” Automotive publications that attempt to cover the used car market, with a few notable exceptions, are to varying degrees, media driven jerk-off operations.

The reviews are designed to make you fall in love with a given product. Or at least cater to the bias confirmations within all of us. It’s a sound decision on paper given that the used car market tends to be anywhere between two to three times bigger than the new car market. It’s good business, which is why 98+% of most used car reviews range from the mildly positive to the exuberant.

So who can you trust when it comes to used cars?

You can typically only find a small part of the overall truth from two types of sources. Subscription based publications such as Consumer Reports and TrueDelta that actually sample and poll a large captive audience. These are good sources once the number of samples is reflective of a broad audience. You can also go more towards the anecdotal, with owner review sites such as carsurvey.org and enthusiast sites that focus on a specific brand or model. The enthusiast sites have small audiences and a hopelessly inflated view of their daily driver, while Consumer Reports has limited data due to many of their respondents trading in their vehicles at a given point and time, instead of keeping them for the long haul.

It’s not an easy answer, and often times you have to piece things together. A lot of the cars that have been endorsed in times past as reliable and recommended during their early years (think older V6 Camrys and Accords, and a slew of VW products) were often times sitting on a firm foundation of data that only eroded with the irreversible wear of cheap materials and defective designs. That transmission which implodes around the 90k to 120k may seem like the proverbial rock of Girbraltar until that second or third car owner is given an unpleasant surprise way down the line of ownership.

Then what happens to their car? Two things. It gets repaired or traded-in. Contrary to popular belief, automakers won’t typically offer a recall, design improvement, or warranty extension unless it serves their long-term financial interests. That $2000 transmission you are about to pay for may offer the automaker more net profit than your entire vehicle did when new.

As for the second or third car owner goes who got their ride on the cheap? They are mere specklings of marketing dust in a cosmos where the real stars buy new (or certified pre-owned) and get the vehicle serviced at the dealership.

This brings me to what I see as the big question for enthusiasts and the everyday consumer. When it comes to researching a used car, where do you go? Who can you trust? Do the Consumer Reports, Carsurveys, and TrueDeltas of this world offer the content you need to make a sound decision? Or is it the enthusiast sites that highlight some of the more extreme issues and opportunities that come with buying a specific used car?

Should automotive publications that primarily serve the new car market be used as a frame of reference as well? Or do commerce based sites like Autotrader and Cars.com offer more accurate information? Speaking of commerce, does resale price reflect the true worth of a used car or are there some hidden gems that simply don’t get picked up on the popularity radar?

As a longtime car dealer and Sabermetrics enthusiast, I am developing my own unique evaluation tools when it comes to measuring the overall satisfaction with used cars. What should be yours?

 

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Hammer Time: An Old Pair Of Boots http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/hammer-time-an-old-pair-of-boots/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/hammer-time-an-old-pair-of-boots/#comments Wed, 04 Dec 2013 13:00:29 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=669002

Imagine you’re going on a 27 mile hike over the course of three days.

It’s a long journey ahead. Hills nearly as big as mountains. Wet and slippery ground everywhere.

And the sun? It can beat you down to the point where you feel as ragged as a wore out mop. There will be no hiding from the obstacles ahead. None.

Now imagine if your partner for this journey came up to you, and the first words he blurted out were, “Those are some nice boots you have! But I got a killer deal on mine.”"

Would you think they were, well, a schmuck? To put it lightly?

Now consider this…

Every car buying decision can be summed up in four simple words.

Buy

What

You

Like

Deals don’t matter. Really. Take it from a guy who does this for a living. Buying a car, and keeping it, just because you got a good deal for it, is almost always the mother of all future regrets.

As a personal example, I once bought a 1993 Subaru Impreza for $25 that surprisingly ran like a top after I replaced the battery and the shiftlock mechanism. It had been in the inop lane of a nearby public auction with nary a glance of interest from anyone else.

I was inspecting over 10,000 vehicles a year for a finance company, and had the fortune of having the right car in front of me at the right moment. Except the Roo’ had one small issue. I hated driving it.

I hated the thin sheetmetal. The sound of the engine. The cheaper than tupperware interior. It just rang all the wrong notes for me whenever I turned the key.

But that wasn’t true for the man who wound up buying it . The guy who bought it from me on Ebay was a long-time Subaru enthusiast, and knew these cars better than I ever will.

He flew all the way from California to Atlanta, and drove it nearly 2500 miles back to Orange County.

Then he drove it for another 50,000 miles. After which, he likely used it as a parts car since he was a Rally Coordinator for Subaru.

He bought a 9 year old Subaru with 168k miles for all of $1576 (plus the auction fee) on Ebay.

Did he get ripped off? Did he get a killer deal? Does it really matter?

No, nein, and nyet! He bought what he liked, and let the laws of commerce take their course. That’s it. Game over, and everyone involved left with a nice smile on their face.

That’s how car buying decisions should work in the real world… and this story also serves a greater purpose as it relates to the tired old  buy new vs. buy old arguments.

Value, is usually not something you can mathematically calculate when it comes to your passions. If you find yourself bragging about the dollar bills you saved by buying x vechicle over y vehicle, that’s fine.

But you’re not acting like an enthusiast. You’re a frugalist, and very likely a delusional one. Nothing wrong with that. But let’s call things a spade instead of bullshitting about how frugal it is to buy a new or old sports car.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed my share of victories serving those who are tried and true enthusiasts. As for my losses, one I can’t forget was a stomach-churning $1500 loss on a SAAB 9000 CSE  that also, thankfully, wound up with the right owner.

No matter what I did to that SOB of a car, it just wouldn’t run right. I began to think that SAABs came out of the factories with blinking check engine lights.

Then it finally found the right caretaker and nearly 12 years later, it’s still running like a top.

God I hate those things!

A lot of folks want advice on buying a car. Heck, I’ve republished a series about it for six years now.

So instead of posting yet another testament to personal victories (and notable incompetence), let me spare you all the false bravado and simply offer ten classic sayings for this holiday season, finely wrapped in a long forgotten Hammer Time of yore.

Hopefully that will help you or your friends buy that next best car.

1. Buy what you like. Life is too short for cheap boots.

2. Be honest with yourself. Are you a trader? Or a keeper?

3. Traders either specialize, like I did starting out. Or they try to ride the wave of new car fashions.

4. As for the keepers? They usually pay less in the long run.

5. Depreciation kills,  monthly payments stink, and everyone from the tax man to the insurance companies favor the economics of a well kept used car.

6. Want cheap? Buy a Corolla.  A car that is made cheap won’t stay cheap.

7. Before you consider any car, new or used, get feedback from actual owners of that vehicle. The media will only tell you so much.

8. Enthusiast forums in particular can better help you navigate the path of ownership.

9. As for lowering long-term cost? The best recipe is investing in quality parts. Because there is nothing wrong with a quality product

10. That can’t be made right with quality product. 

Now having said that, I now need to get rid of a thrice repoed, 12 year old Dodge Intrepid. Any takers?

 

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Hammer Time: Good, Fast, And Cheap http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/hammer-time-good-fast-and-cheap/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/hammer-time-good-fast-and-cheap/#comments Tue, 26 Mar 2013 17:25:18 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=482165

Good, Fast and Cheap. 

Feel free to pick any two when it comes to all things cars. Consumer. Retailer. Rebuilder. Doesn’t matter. You always get a choice of two out of the three.

Don’t believe me?

Good. Cynicism is always a solid first step in buying any used vehicle. Whether you are kicking the tires at a lot as the end consumer. Or listening to the urgent chant of an auto auctioneer trying to sell the mediocre remnants of a rental fleet at a wholesale dealer auction. Everyone pretends to offer you a great deal.

But truth and reality in this business, at all levels of this business, are two very separate things.

Let’s take all those great deals I get from the auctions… good, fast and cheap. Sure. I do get them all. Just almost never in the same car. 

The Good and Fast Selling Car, Is Never Cheap To Buy

Do these sell? You betcha. The reason is that these cars wind up as ‘finance fodder’. Consumers who are looking for the cost of the monthly payment, and little more, almost always want a popular late model vehicle and are willing to spend five to seven years indentured to that popular ride for that privilege.

The only problem is that you can’t buy these vehicles in any great volume if you are an independent dealer. Thanks to record low production numbers in 2010, and the manufacturer’s new found ability to create aggressive CPO programs that keep this inventory firmly within the dealer network. So whenever these vehicles do pop up at the auctions, they are almost always a repo that is bid to an absolute pie in the sky valuations.

The price at the retail level only makes sense once you realize that the end consumer simply can’t do math.  

You Want A Good And Cheap Car? Are You Real Sure About That?

The good and cheap car, almost always, does not sell fast. We blame the public for this. Damn snobs!

In our business these are the cars that were made forever, have conservative owners, and were maintained with reasonable care. Ye olde Lincoln Town Cars and Mercury Grand Marquis, most Buicks, a few Oldsmobiles, Tauruses, Malibus, and generally anything that was either a rental fleet special back in the day, or appeals to mature people, will fall into this category.

Cars that once were fast selling, but have declined in popularity over the last several years, also fall into the good/cheap, but unpopular nexus. It used to be that Mustang and Camaro convertibles, and a variety of SUV’s that didn’t come with leather and all the options would wind up at the car lot for a very short period of time.

Well, if you are not in the mood to go anywhere, I guess I’ll just sit and think for a while.    Ten more years of thumb twiddling I guess!

Today’s gas prices have changed that game.

When most folks look at any base to mid-level V8 model these days, they don’t think speed at all unless it’s their first car. They think gas. As in gas guzzling models that are going to seriously crimp their already limited budgets.

The same is true with most large cars and trucks that don’t come loaded up with popular options, but have a big engine in them. If a consumer is willing to buy a gas swilling beast, it’s only because of all the cool features that make it worth a stiff gas penalty.

Uncool? This guy is 1000 times cooler than the five-figure debt you pay for what amounts to daily transportation.

The Not-In-My-Driveway Syndrome

The good and cheap car is a double whammy if the model you buy also happens to be a one generation wonder (Lincoln LS, Mercury Cougar, Pontiac G6) or has an unpopular feature (stickshift in a non-sporty vehicle, traditional wagon style, minivans without power sliding doors or leather seats).

Domestic luxury and full-sized cars, minivans, regular cab full-sized trucks, and most sport coupes that don’t have a popular brand name will also fall into this category. The Toyota Matrix sells. The Pontiac Vibe sits. Most consumers who pretend to shop for the deal of the Vibe, are really just looking for the Matrix at a cheaper than market price.

These unpopular cars will likely sit for close to three to four months, and the person you finance it to may be a serious gamble due to their employment and/or criminal history. They need access to a car and yours is simply a last result. As a result, most of these customers have payment issues within a few months.

The smart money in this business always avoids the good and cheap cars at the auctions for two big reasons. They are only cheap relative to the hysterically overvalued ‘finance fodder’ these days and, in terms of consumer tastes, they simply aren’t very good anymore.

Me? Trouble? Surely you jest!

You Want A Cheap Car That Is Popular? Then Never Mind The Good.

This leaves the type of car most of you turn your nose at, but eventually buy if you get it financed from a dealership that is not selling you a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle. The cheap and fast selling car that isn’t very good when it was leased, repossessed, or traded in.

This will almost always be a popular vehicle that needs substantial repairs in order for it to become a marketable commodity. Mid-2000′s Nissan Altimas and Sentras with the 2.5 Liter Engine or the pre-CVT automatic transmission. Older Honda Accords with V6 automatic transmissions. Certain Jeeps with differential issues. All of these brands and models still carry a premium return in the marketplace. Even though the powertrains may have repair issues that sometimes must be tended to before they can be sold to the public.

My mechanics, who also handle several other dealerships, have rebuilt dozens of Nissan valve bodies and 2.5 Liter engines over the past several years. Once they are rebuilt with parts that address the issues that are well known at the wholesale level, these units stay together.

It’s not rocket science. But the cost is substantial, and I also have to get all the other minor repair issues handled as well. So a car that I bought for $6000 with a well-known engine issue and a few other hiccups may wind up as a $7500 investment for my business.

If the car doesn’t run well, I don’t get paid. Simple as that. If it does stay together for the long haul, I make money and the finance company I may sell this deal to will cut me a healthy check for putting the deal, and the car, together.

Hitting Them Where They Ain’t Gets Tougher Every Year.

These loopholes aren’t always in the same places. Volvos that were equipped with the completely mythical  ’lifetime transmission fluid’ often ended up with hard shifts that can be corrected using the Gibbons method. Honda hybrids with failing batteries can be given an extended life with a grid charger that isn’t available at the Honda dealer.

Nearly every manufacturer has some type of weakness that can be overcome with research, experience, and the willingness to ‘invest’ in equipment and a learning curve.

There are some dead ends. Northstar engines that are 2003 and older.  Chrysler 2.7 Liter engines. A long list of manufacturers that offered CVT transmissions in the prior decade. Those vehicles may suffer from the double whammy of high repair cost and low market demand. But in the real world of operating a used car dealership, where most of your customers finance their rides, the best recipe is to find a fast selling cheap car, and make it good.

If you know of a few, or even one, let me know.

Steve Lang contributes to The Truth About Cars, Yahoo! Autos and Jalopnik. Do you want good, fast and cheap advice? Then pick any two and write to him at steven.lang@alumni.duke.edu . 

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How to Buy a Used Car – Pt. 3: Due Diligence (The Inspection) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-pt-3-due-diligence-the-inspection/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-pt-3-due-diligence-the-inspection/#comments Fri, 17 Aug 2012 13:59:28 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=457181

[Ed: Part one of Steve Lang's updated used car buying guide is here, part two is here.]

You can rigorously apply the tests described by previous installments of this series without encountering a single setback. However when it comes to buying a used car, it pays to assume one simple salient fact: you don’t know the complete truth.

At least not yet.

When it comes to pursuing the deeper truths about a used car an experienced mechanic will inevitably become your greatest ally and advocate. For most consumers finding a knowledgeable mechanic will be the most important step in the used car buying process.

Before we talk about that, I want to be perfectly clear on this point.

used car is guilty until proven innocent. Do not buy one without taking the car for a professional inspection.

If the seller doesn’t agree to let you do so you’re done. Period. No exceptions. Ever.

Now mechanics tend to divide into three categories: the shade-tree, the Nazi and the diligent professional.

Shade-tree mechanics are hobbyists on limited budgets. Due to the lack of equipment (or experience), they may not be familiar with the unique wear issues and maintenance needs for your vehicle. The shade-tree mechanic will look at the car’s basics, take it for a short test drive and call it good (or “not bad”).

The Nazi will attempt to perform every mechanical test known to wrenchkind. Submit the car to a standard of inspection that is rooted in la-la land. Then make you financially fearful of buying anything other than (cough! cough!) one of their vehicles.

Obviously the Nazi is a non-starter.

Often times these party members will work for dealerships (but not always), and are therefore pre-occupied with meeting their service department’s monthly quota of service hours and revenue.

Unless your next car has a prancing horse or bull at the front of it, you’re usually far better off with a diligent mechanic.

The diligent mechanic will work through a standard check list and then take the car for a test drive in a variety of operating conditions.

Diligent mechanics are experienced independent professionals with established roots in your community. To find one, I strongly recommend visiting the Mechan-X files at Cartalk.com.

I also can’t over-emphasize the importance of personal recommendations; especially from people who own the same model of car you’re considering buying. Many small to medium-sized repair shops will post testimonials on their “ego wall.”

Read them carefully.

Before the inspection takes place, write the list of the concerns you created during the test drive. When you deliver the car for inspection, go over them with the mechanic one-by-one. Make sure you both have a clear understanding of all your potential concerns.

This will provide a base line for the inspection to follow.

Some mechanics inspect used cars for a set fee. Others charge an hourly rate. In both cases, the post-list discussion should conclude with a confirmation of the probable inspection cost. Leave some leeway; you don’t want the mechanic to stop their investigations for the sake of a few bucks. (Leave your contact number for this possibility.)

The best way to build a healthy relationship with any mechanic is to simply try not to be one of “those” customers.

Just let them get on with their job. Don’t stare at the mechanic while they’re doing the inspection. In fact it’s best to leave the premises entirely. And don’t phone your mechanic two hours later and ask for a status report; wait for their call.

Once the inspection is completed, sit down for a one-on-one debrief with the mechanic who made the inspection (even if you have to come back on another day). I always prefer to speak with the actual mechanic or at least have them in attendance with the “service advisor.”

Let the mechanic speak without interruption. Some diligent mechanics will go on for quite some time; some will simply say “here’s my report.” Either way review the information and let him explain every issue and potential issue to you.

After they’re finished, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about” or “Is this a sign of normal wear or abuse?”

Make your own list of trouble spots from this conversation. Note down the potential cost to repair and whether or not the issue is urgent or eventual.

Once you’re finished the play-by-play, ask a few general questions. I always ask “Did the owner do a good job maintaining this vehicle?” and “Did the owner use good parts or cheap parts?” Either of these inquiries usually invites a deeper insight with the mechanic.

If the used car has survived the inspection process without revealing any critical issues to your diligent mechanic, it’s time for the final negotiation with the owner.

 

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How To Buy A Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive-2/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-two-the-test-drive-2/#comments Thu, 09 Aug 2012 16:59:50 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=456083 Picture Courtesy of Gameguru.in

[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule.

Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes.

When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal on a test drive. Ever. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.

 

Fluids

Open the hood and look at five big areas. Oil dipstick, coolant, power steering fluid, radiator cap and brake fluid.

Oil: Golden brown, light tan, a little dark, or even dark brown to light black are fine. The oil is just doing it’s job. A tar color or tar like consistency is not good.

Check the dipstick for level and color. Then check the oil cap on top of the engine (on most models) for anything that resembles milky crud. If it has a thick film of milky crud, that’s engine sludge, you’re done.

Coolant: Check the coolant reservoir for level. Most sellers pay attention to this. But a few don’t. Remove the radiator cap if it’s accessible. If you see crud on the cap, you’re done.

Power Steering and Brake Fluid: Check for the level. In the case of power steering, check for any heavy leakage around the hoses. If the power steering hose is saturated with oil, this could be a sign of a more expensive repair in the times ahead. Make a note of it.

 

The Tires And Body

Tires: First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right later on) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.

Doors: Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. This will also give you the opportunity to inspect the seats and floor. On the doors, check for paint on the hinges and black moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, make a note of it if you later chose to have the vehicle inspected. It can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.

Panel Gaps and Trunk: Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath if you live in an area where rust is an issue. Lift the trunk’s carpet and see if there is any water or damp residue underneath.

 

The Interior Features And Lights

When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired or replaced easily and cheaply.

Windows: Lower each of the windows first while the key is at the ‘on’ position, and fire up the car.

Engine: Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle? Start it up again if you aren’t 100% sure.

Buttons: Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Ask for help and have the owner turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.

Exterior Lights:  Then check the headlights along with the brights. Brake lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.

Windshield Wipers and E-Brake: Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.

Air Conditioning: Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.

Power Steering: Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born). Make a note of it.

 

The Drive

Shift: Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.

Brakes: Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds. Keep the driver’s window open during the first half of the drive.

Transmission: Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least fifteen minutes. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue. Make a note of it.

Engine: If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature gauge should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.

 

Quick Stop

After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on.

Gas release: Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. I also take this time to put $5 of gas in as a goodwill gesture.

Most folks will not have a car buyer as studious as you, and it’s nice to reimburse folks for an expense.

Transmission Fluid: Restart the car. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level and color. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is very dark brown or black, or smells burnt, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.

Final Oil Check: Turn the vehicle off and again, check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high), or if the oil cap is milky brown, you’re done. I’ve dealt with more than a few cars that had their oil caps wiped clean before the test drive.

 

Last Inpsection And First Decision

After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’.

CV Joints: Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.

Decision Time: By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) Show them the gas receipt as a goodwill gesture and thank them.

If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.

[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at steve.lang@thetruthaboutcars.com]

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Annual Edition: How to Buy a Used Car – First Contact http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/3rd-edition-how-to-buy-a-used-car-first-contact/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/08/3rd-edition-how-to-buy-a-used-car-first-contact/#comments Wed, 01 Aug 2012 19:58:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=455111 Click here to view the embedded video.

Used cars give automobile buyers the best possible bang for the buck– except when they don’t. As a professional dealer, I could tell you stories of used car calamities that would make public transportation seem like the only sensible option. Tales of stitched together death traps that looked as new as the day both cars were born. Cars with supposedly clean registration papers that turned out to be hotter than Peachtree Street in mid-August. Instead, I’m going to tell you how to buy a used car without getting your proverbial clock cleaned.

Finding an appropriate used car is a pretty simple business: decide what kind of car you want, research it online (especially model and brand-specific enthusiasts’ sites) and then go out and find one.

You can find a great car at a variety of sources: private, owner, independent used car dealer, used car superstores, new car dealer; even a “buy here / pay here” lot might stock a great vehicle or two (credit the law of averages). On a percentage basis, I’ve found that private owners and independent dealers offer the best bang for the buck. Conversely, your neighborhood impound lot or public auction is a no-no nadir.

When you make contact with the seller, ask for the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). That’s the government-mandated ID code welded onto the car’s chassis (and attached elsewhere), and listed on the car’s registration papers. Thank the seller for the info, tell them you’ll call them back, and hit the ‘Net.

Plug the car’s VIN number into Carfax’s or Autocheck’s on-line database. For a nominal fee, these sites will tell you if the car’s been flooded, torched, stolen, crashed, rebuilt, salvaged or had its odometer rolled back. The information on these sites is not all encompassing. But it can save you the cost of having your mechanic inspect a vehicle that is not worth your time.

Equally important, it’ll let you know if the car was a rental, a fleet vehicle or had a long series of owners (i.e. sporty models with neglectful owners are financial time bombs). Cars that have been recently owned for a short period of time may either have nasty issues that the seller may not want to disclose; such as powertrain issues and failed emissions. Or it may be that the seller is a curbstoner who makes a convenient side living by flipping cars to those who know little about them.

This due diligence must be done, but the information on these reports is far from perfect. Any damage not filed in an accident report won’t show up. Arbitration issues can also fall through the cracks. When TTAC alum Frank Williams checked an Audi he once owned, the report made no mention of the fact that Audi bought back the car under Lemon Law provisions.

To fill the holes in a used car’s mission critical history, it pays to dig a little deeper.

Contact the service department at the brand-appropriate dealership and ask the service advisor for a maintenance report. By law, dealers can’t print out the information or give the owner’s name. But they CAN verbally report a car’s service history. If you’ve got the wrong dealership, contact the seller and ask where the car was serviced.

This brings us back to your most important source of car-specific information: the seller.

After you’ve secured the VIN and done your homework, call the seller back. There are dozens of excellent questions you can ask, and one you shouldn’t: what’s the price? Avoid negotiating price for the same reason you wouldn’t bid on a house without looking inside.

Here’s how I do it:

“I like to catch up on maintenance whenever I buy a car. Can you tell me where the car was serviced, what you’ve done lately and if there’s anything else I’ll need to do in the next year or so?”

“I usually have my cars inspected at ‘x’. If I like the car, would it be OK to have it inspected?”

I always use conditional words and phrases– “Can you… would… do you know…is it possible.” It’s non-threatening, and the polite approach encourages the owner to provide additional information. It also can help you thresh out who is the genuine owner and who is the opportunist.

Thank the seller; you’ll call them back when you’re ready to see the car in person.

If confidence is still high, it’s time to determine an appropriate price. Forget Ebay, Kelly Blue Book and NADA. For popular late model used automobiles, Clearbook is the only pricing guide that matters. Edmunds,com can also be a solid cross-reference when it comes to late model vehicles.

If there aren’t any recent or enough listings, go to your local bank or credit union. Tell them you’re looking at buying a used car and ask them to print out an industry wide pricing guide called the Manheim Market Report (MMR).

The MMR lists wholesale and retail used car prices based on millions of recent transactions. Although the MMR is not for public consumption, almost all financial institutions with an auto lending department have access to this information.

Time for a bid? Nope. Time for a test drive.

Every year I plan on improving the content of this car buying series for your benefit. The world changes and with that, this series will continue to reflect what is new and important for you as a car buyer.  I invite your feedback. Especially if you want share your recent used car triumphs and tragedies below.

 

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How To Buy A Used Car Part 4: Negotiating http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-4-negotiating-2/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-part-4-negotiating-2/#comments Fri, 12 Aug 2011 18:43:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=406936 [Ed: Part one of Steve Lang's updated used car buying guide is here, part two is here, and part three is here.]

When it comes to buying a used car there are two basic negotiating mindsets. You can either be fair and decent or unfair and obnoxious. If you seek to chisel and deceive then chances are you will get a bad car. Only the desperate and deceitful are willing to put up with that type of BS.

Want a ‘great’ car? Then realize that many sellers respond extremely well to honesty and decency. Win – win is no sin. So, karma lovers, here’s some tips for negotiating the purchase of a used car by observing the Golden Rule.

Making the Offer:

If you’ve followed parts one through three of this series congratulations! You’ve found a car that’s superior to 90-plus percent of what’s out there. Rejoice and let the seller enjoy the benefits of properly maintaining his car.

How to Value the Car:

NADA tends to have high valuations while Kelly Blue Book overprices late model vehicles and underprices older ones. Contrary to reality, you can’t find many good $1000 cars regardless of what the Blue Book says. Nor should you get a 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis with over 200k+ for the NADA pie in the sky price of $5000. Stick with Edmunds private party values or the ‘completed items’ section on Ebay.

Negotiate After the Inspection, Not Before:

Some folks believe that you should make an offer before the final inspection. I never do.

The reason is that sellers will then get stuck on an unrealistic price if there are major maintenance issues. A $5000 car that needs $1000 in maintenance was never a $5000 car in the first place.

Most sellers will get stuck on that ‘perfect’ number and reject any substantial adjustments. A good inspection will always yield both parties an offer based on the car’s condition.

How to Negotiate

Begin by declaring your intention to buy the car… so long as the repair costs are addressed in the price.

If these repairs are minor, immediately offer to split the difference for the repair costs and call it good. If, however, mission critical repairs run into the high hundreds to thousands of dollars, you have an “opportunity” ahead of you.

Summon the mechanic!

Ask your mechanic to fax the used car’s inspection report to the seller before you speak with them. At first, the seller (and possibly you) may be shocked by the numbers involved.

This can be especially true with older vehicles and luxury cars. However, with a little constructive conversation, even the most alarming repair costs needn’t kill the possibility of an amicable agreement.

Do The Right Thing

I like to start negotiations for cars with repair “issues” by giving the seller an opportunity to do the right thing. “Given what’s in front of us right now,” I ask. “What would be the fair way for both of us to resolve these repair costs?”

Worst case, the sellers stand pat. In that case, walk. Best case, the seller says they’ll simply lop-off the total bill from the asking price. If that happens, it’s time to shake hands and do the deal.

Compromise

Some sellers begin by offering to reduce the asking price by a very low number. They figure you’re there to haggle (hoping you won’t).

Provided the asking price minus 50 percent of the repair costs is acceptable, again, offer to split the difference.

If that doesn’t work for either or both of you, it’s time to go through the inspection report– and the probable costs of repair– line by line.

Not all repairs are equal

Keep in mind some items are your financial responsibility. Unless it involves a major repair (timing belt, water pump, adjusting the valves, etc.), upcoming maintenance regimens are always down to you.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

In particular, oil changes, tune-ups and replacing filters that aren’t necessary right now should be removed from your list. By doing this from the onset you’re showing goodwill and fairness.

Find an alternative when you need to.

If the seller claims the cost of repair listed in your inspection is too high, ask them if they know of another mechanic who’d be willing to do it for less, and the type of guarantee they will offer. I’ve seen $450 repairs with 30-day guarantees turn into $200 repairs with a full year guarantee. If the car is worth it to you, it pays to explore alternatives that will benefit both of you. It may take research and patience, but it can be done.

Tit-for tat works wonders

Finally, if you have experience repairing minor automotive issues, use that skill to create some wiggle room to help close the deal. “You know, I think I could handle that myself. What do you think about us taking off x repair? Would a price of y make it a fair deal for both of us?”

Take it or leave it

If you can come to a mutual understanding, enjoy your ride! If not don’t beat a dead horse. I like to back-out by thanking the seller for their time. Leaving a copy of the inspection report as a “gift” and telling them my final price, should they reconsider. Above all don’t sweat it. There are plenty of excellent used cars out there looking for a good home.

Let’s Recap

To get a great deal: research diligently, test drive patiently, let an expert figure out the unknowns, and negotiate in good faith. Do this and you’ll save unnecessary test drives and thousands of dollars in future repair costs.

You’ll also buy the cream of the automotive crop at an extremely fair price.

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How to Buy a Used Car – Pt. 3: Due Diligence (The Inspection) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-%e2%80%93-pt-3-due-diligence-the-inspection/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/how-to-buy-a-used-car-%e2%80%93-pt-3-due-diligence-the-inspection/#comments Wed, 03 Aug 2011 22:03:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=405512

[Ed: Part one of Steve Lang's updated used car buying guide is here, part two is here.]

You can rigorously apply the tests described by previous installments of this series without encountering a single setback. However when it comes to buying a used car it pays to assume one simple salient fact: you don’t know the complete truth. At least not yet.

When it comes to pursuing the deeper truths about a used car an experienced mechanic will inevitably become your greatest ally and advocate. For most consumers finding a knowledgeable mechanic will be the most important step in the used car buying process.

Before we talk about that, I want to be perfectly clear on this point. A used car is guilty until proven innocent. Do not buy one without taking the car for a professional inspection. If the seller doesn’t agree to let you do so you’re done. Period. No exceptions. Ever.

Now mechanics tend to divide into three categories: the shade-tree, the Nazi and the diligent professional.

Shade-tree mechanics are hobbyists on limited budgets. Due to the lack of equipment (or experience), they may not be familiar with the unique wear issues and maintenance needs for your vehicle. The shade-tree mechanic will look at the car’s basics, take it for a short test drive and call it good (or “not bad”).

The Nazi will attempt to perform every mechanical test known to wrenchkind. Submit the car to a standard of inspection that is rooted in la-la land. Then make you financially fearful of buying anything other than (cough! cough!) one of their vehicles.

Obviously the Nazi is a non-starter. Often times these party members will work for dealerships (but not always), and are therefore pre-occupied with meeting their service department’s monthly quota of service hours and revenue.

Unless your next car has a prancing horse or bull at the front of it, you’re usually far better off with a diligent mechanic. The diligent mechanic will work through a standard check list and then take the car for a test drive in a variety of operating conditions.

Diligent mechanics are experienced independent professionals with established roots in your community. To find one I strongly recommend visiting the Mechan-X files at Cartalk.com.

I also can’t over-emphasize the importance of personal recommendations; especially from people who own the same model of car you’re considering buying. Many small to medium-sized repair shops will post testimonials on their “ego wall.” Read them carefully.

Before the inspection takes place, collate the list of the concerns you created during the test drive. When you deliver the car for inspection, go over them with the mechanic one-by-one. Make sure you both have a clear understanding of all your potential concerns. This will provide a base line for the inspection to follow.

Some mechanics inspect used cars for a set fee. Others charge an hourly rate. In both cases, the post-list discussion should conclude with a confirmation of the probable inspection cost. Leave some leeway; you don’t want the mechanic to stop their investigations for the sake of a few bucks. (Leave your contact number for this possibility.)

The best way to build a healthy relationship with any mechanic is to simply try not to be one of “those” customers. Just let them get on with their job. Don’t stare at the mechanic while they’re doing the inspection. In fact it’s best to leave the premises entirely. And don’t phone your mechanic two hours later and ask for a status report; wait for their call.

Once the inspection is completed, sit down for a one-on-one debrief with the mechanic who made the inspection (even if you have to come back on another day). I always prefer to speak with the actual mechanic or at least have them in attendance with the “service advisor.”

Let the mechanic speak without interruption. Some diligent mechanics will go on for quite some time; some will simply say “here’s my report.” Either way review the information and let him explain every issue and potential issue to you. After they’re finished, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about” or “Is this a sign of normal wear or abuse?”

Make your own list of trouble spots from this conversation. Note down the potential cost to repair and whether or not the issue is urgent or eventual.

Once you’re finished the play-by-play, ask a few general questions. I always ask “Did the owner do a good job maintaining this vehicle?” and “Did the owner use good parts or cheap parts?” Either of these inquiries usually invites a deeper insight with the mechanic.

If the used car has survived the inspection process without revealing any critical issues to your diligent mechanic, it’s time for the final negotiation with the owner.

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How to Buy a Used Car – Pt. 1: First Contact http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/how-to-buy-a-used-car-%e2%80%93-pt-1-first-contact/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/07/how-to-buy-a-used-car-%e2%80%93-pt-1-first-contact/#comments Thu, 07 Jul 2011 09:24:33 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=401747


Used cars give automobile buyers the best possible bang for the buck– except when they don’t. As a professional dealer, I could tell you stories of used car calamities that would make public transportation seem like the only sensible option. Tales of stitched together death traps that looked as new as the day both cars were born. Cars with supposedly clean registration papers that turned out to be hotter than Peachtree Street in mid-August. Instead, I’m going to tell you how to buy a used car without getting your proverbial clock cleaned.

Finding an appropriate used car is a pretty simple business: decide what kind of car you want, research it online (especially model and brand-specific enthusiasts’ sites) and then go out and find one.

You can find a great car at a variety of sources: private, owner, independent used car dealer, used car superstores, new car dealer; even a “buy here / pay here” lot might stock a great vehicle or two (credit the law of averages). On a percentage basis, I’ve found that private owners and independent dealers offer the best bang for the buck. Conversely, your neighborhood impound lot or public auction is a no-no nadir.

When you make contact with the seller, ask for the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). That’s the government-mandated ID code welded onto the car’s chassis (and attached elsewhere), and listed on the car’s registration papers. Thank the seller for the info, tell them you’ll call them back, and hit the ‘Net.

Plug the car’s VIN number into Carfax’s or Autocheck’s on-line database. For a nominal fee, these sites will tell you if the car’s been flooded, torched, stolen, crashed, rebuilt, salvaged or had its odometer rolled back. Equally important, it’ll let you know if the car was a rental, a fleet vehicle or had a long series of owners (i.e. sporty models with neglectful owners are financial time bombs).

This due diligence must be done, but the information is far from perfect. Any damage not filed in an accident report won’t show up. Arbitration issues can also fall through the cracks. When TTAC alum Frank Williams checked an Audi he once owned, the report made no mention of the fact that Audi

bought back the car under Lemon Law provisions.

To fill the holes in a used car’s mission critical history, it pays to dig a little deeper.

Contact the service department at the brand-appropriate dealership and ask the service advisor for a maintenance report. By law, dealers can’t print out the information or give the owner’s name. But they CAN verbally report a car’s service history. If you’ve got the wrong dealership, contact the seller and ask where the car was serviced.

This brings us back to your most important source of car-specific information: the seller.

After you’ve secured the VIN and done your homework, call the seller back. There are dozens of excellent questions you can ask, and one you shouldn’t: what’s the price? Avoid negotiating price for the same reason you wouldn’t bid on a house without looking inside.

Here’s how I do it:

“I like to catch up on maintenance whenever I buy a car. Can you tell me where the car was serviced, what you’ve done lately and if there’s anything else I’ll need to do in the next year or so?”

“I usually have my cars inspected at ‘x’. If I like the car, would it be OK to have it inspected?”

I always use conditional words and phrases– “Can you… would… do you know…is it possible.” It’s non-threatening, and the polite approach encourages the owner to provide additional information.

Thank the seller; you’ll call them back when you’re ready to see the car in person.

If confidence is still high, it’s time to determine an appropriate price. Forget Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book and NADA. For popular late model used automobiles, eBay’s ‘Completed Items’ section is the only pricing guide that matters. Specifically, check out your prospective purchase’s green “ending price.” The number reflects the final purchase price for cars that actually sold in the marketplace.

If there aren’t any recent or enough listings, go to your local bank or credit union. Tell them you’re looking at buying a used car and ask them to print out an industry wide pricing guide called the Manheim Market Report (MMR).

The MMR lists wholesale and retail used car prices based on millions of recent transactions. Although the MMR is not for public consumption, almost all financial institutions with an auto lending department have access to this information.

Time for a bid? Nope. Time for a test drive.

Mr. Lang invites readers to share their used car buying advice and their used car triumphs and tragedies below.
He can be reached at steven.lang@alumni.duke.edu

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