By on June 19, 2007

forsale.jpgUsed 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’ 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 our own 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 closest to the car’s original registration (listed in the Carfax or Autocheck report). Give them the car's VIN and ask if the vehicle is subject to any “open recalls:” mechanical issues the manufacture must repair at their cost, no matter what. You'll need to check the seller's records to see if the work's been done. (If not, you could have a bargain; I've bought dozens of "defective" Volvos whose owners were unaware of a throttle body recall.)

Next, 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 make a firm offer.

If confidence is still high, it's time to determine an appropriate bid. 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 the relevant bit of 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.] 

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49 Comments on “How to Buy a Used Car – Pt. 1: First Contact...”

  • avatar

    Research, research and then more research. And keep the emotions in check. Good advice – rarely taken, sad to say.

    I agree, used cars are the way to go most of the time. With care, they can be a fantastic bargain. Good article. Although Edmunds has a user forum and their own car reviews that are very helpful and informative so I would strongly recommend them for this reason. I agree about the others – prices there are meaningless. eBay is the only market measure that counts anymore.

  • avatar

    Great article, Steven — I look forward to Part 2.

  • avatar

    _Great_ article! I’m looking forward to pt. 2, especially since my wife will be in the market soon…

    And Peachtree street is ridiculously hot already. If it gets any hotter in August, the tarmac will actually melt and flow.

  • avatar

    A microscopic, up in the air, inspection is the critical item. You cannot hide excessive mileage, or accident damage, or flood damage from an experienced automotive technician. An independent shop is your best choice. They have the broad knowledge of having to repair all manner of vehicles and they know exactly where to look for in-built weaknesses. Again I repeat, a good starting point is the red dot/black dot chart in Consumers Reports for reliability and quality ratings. It’s devastatingly accurate, no matter what others may say.

  • avatar

    Yes, but *which* Peachtree Street?

  • avatar

    Yes, but *which* Peachtree Street? The REAL Peachtree Street – the one my office overlooks at Five Points. (But any of the 40+ "Peachtree" streets in Hotlanta are equally as bad.)

  • avatar
    Sid Vicious

    An excellent judge of character is your most valuable tool. Talk to the seller for as long as you can – about things other than the car. If he/she doesn’t feel “right” then walk away.

    And Phil – I bet I can hide 100,000 miles from you technician. Accident repair no, but mileage yes.

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson

    I’ve run into one persistent problem with used car dealers not associated with a dealership: knowledge of car options. Most of the time they do not know option packages and you have to do your research and physically inspect the car just to know the options on the car. The better dealerships (tpically, they sell the car new) do a much better job of this.

  • avatar

    New car dealers keep the good cars for themselves and sell the not so nice ones to wholesalers. The wholesaler either brings the car to the auction and sells it there, or sells it directly to another dealer. My point is, if you want a quality used vehicle the first place you should check is your local franchised dealer for whatever make you choose. Most new car dealers factory certify their used cars. Most certified cars come with warranty. I work for a Mercedes Benz dealer and our used cars get checked and rechecked before they are certified. The cars that cost to much to certify wind up “certified” down the street at our local used car lot.

  • avatar

    Claude Dickson wrote that option packages are hard to determine. The manufacturer’s customer service line can give you that information based on VIN.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    The REAL Peachtree Street – the one my office overlooks at Five Points. (But any of the 40+ “Peachtree” streets in Hotlanta are equally as bad.)

    Peachtree or West Peachtree? Or both? :) I agree that Peachtree is pretty flippin’ hot right now, any of ’em.

    I would recommend that if you’re in the market for a used car, just buy the month-long carfax pass instead of paying for individual reports. That way you can look up as many cars as you want without having to worry about how much it’ll cost. When I was shopping for my teg, that’s what we did… looked up everything we got our hands on. Kept me from making a couple of bad purchases, that’s for sure.

    A trained eye can spot accident damage, especially if it was repaired poorly. Odd panel gaps, cracks in the clearcoat, etc. But if you have the car inspected and it looks great, even though there is an accident on the carfax, you might still be okay on the purchase. It was worse when cars were body on frame and a bent frame meant a lifetime of problems, but with most cars being unibody, you don’t run that risk as much. And even minor accidents can rack up enough monetary damage to necessitate a police report.

    I’ll also second that going to a dealership for used cars is a giant rip-off unless you’re hardcore and plan to negotiate them down to a reasonable price. I’ve seen used cars priced higher than new ones at pretty much every dealership I’ve been to. But occasionally you can get lucky… we got my Integra for a song at a dodge dealership in Omaha. They dealt w/ mostly domestics and whoever priced it didn’t realize that they could have easily asked 2-3k more for it. So sometimes you get lucky. :)

  • avatar

    I had good results finding a used car by working with a new car dealer. I worked with a salesman and told him that I was looking for a clean used BMW 325 coming off a low mileage lease. About a week later he had one come in that was very lightly used that had all the service completed at their dealership. He called me while the car was still in the service bay and hadnt even been listed for sale officially. They certified and reconditioned the car (new tires, filters, etc) and I bought it that week.

    I did change to this strategy after driving all over town looking at several used cars. The variance in both condition and price meant I had to drive all over town looking and then finding out what their real price was by low balling bids. That is the drag about used cars. A car that looked fine on the web wasnt so nice in person.

  • avatar

    this is xlnt advice, but how much is your time worth? this process takes days, even weeks to accomplish. multiple trips to the seller, bank, hassles on the phone trying to get information that often is not easily obtained. don’t get me wrong, you will likely save money and get a good car, but for me i’d rather save up more money and make my life easier. my last purchase was an 05 M3 with 6k miles. it was certified by my local BMW dealership for 6 yrs/100k miles so in fact had a better warranty than a new car. it was 5-6k less than a new one, the service history and carfax was clean (it had been sold initially by the same dealership) and it has been trouble free since, and still has tons of warranty left. and btw, the CPO cars are much easier to sell when that day rolls around. so for me it was a no-brainer, and i think the extra costs will come back to me when i sell the car.

  • avatar

    Any discussion on buying used cars should mention
    or take into consideration the age of the vehicles.

    Most recent model vehicles(2-3 years old) are “lease returns” or traded in to “franchised new car dealers”. These are the vehicles that are touted as CPO vehicles. Most manufacturers require a balance or warranty to qualify a vehicle for CPO status.

    The vehicles that do not qualify for CPO (it could be a perfect low mileage vehicle, the cream puff that ran out of time on the warranty) since the vehicle does not qualify for CPO status the special financial terms are not applicable.

    In most cases captive finance companies to maximise recouping residual values of lease returns sell these vehicles at “auctions” for franchised and independent dealers these cars under bought under the same conditions and parameters by both dealers.

    Most captive finance companies to minimise any form of recouse perform due diligence for each vehicle prior to running it on the auction block.

    The mind game starts with accedented vehicles, the accidents that appear on accident reports. Surprisingly these vehicles do not sell for a lot less money, and if there is no frame dammage(what is frame dammge?) are eligible for CPO status.

    Older vehicles are a different “kettle of fish” and the private sellers that are selling these older vehicles if they would be dealers would quickly lose their dealer license.

  • avatar

    I get asked often about used car prices. People often find that they can’t trade their cars for anywhere near book value. Or they try to sell themselves, asking the “Private Party” value, and get no bites.

    Often these book values are way off.

    What I do to figure out the real market value is conduct a nationwide search on Autotrader or, and look for the lowest price at which a number of cars are offered.

    More detail here:

  • avatar

    Are CPO programs designed to give the customer increased value / peace of mind, or to bolster the residual values of lease returns?

    The biggest competitor to CPO cars is the equivalent new car, what is a better deal or perceived as better value a 3 year old CPO car, or the equivalent brand new version both for 399 a month at 3.9% lease rate?

    Exceptional value is usually the 3 year old “luxury car” that came off a lease, offered for sale by an independent dealer. The captive finance took the “hit” on the residual, and the buyer can get a 3 year old car for half or less than the new price with remaining factory warranty. There are a few credible extended warranty companies that offer great programs for these cars.

  • avatar

    The problem with some extended warranties is that you pay for the repirs first, then they reimburse you. They have to approve thew work first, then the price. This opens up a huge can of worms in my opinion.
    I work for Mercedes and we can certify any car in or out of warranty as long it is less than 6 years old and has less than 75K on it. Also it has to pass M-Bs inspection process.

  • avatar

    “Can you tell me … if there’s anything else I’ll need to do in the next year or so?”

    That’s a good one. Imagine a used car salesman saying, “Well, probably within the next year you’ll need new tires, exhaust, and brakes. Also I noticed the sunroof is a little leaky, so set aside some cash to deal with that.”

  • avatar
    Matthew Danda

    The real issue here is time versus money:

    Spend more money = use less time

    Spend less money = invest more time

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    There’s used and then there’s used. My last 3 used vehicles were bought with less than 50k on the clock, less than 3 years old, and still under the manufacturer’s original warranty. IMO that’s the only way to go. I also bought all 3 at reputable dealerships. Perhaps I paid more than I would have had I bought them from private sellers, but, as Phil pointed out, my time is valuable, too. A lot of these checks/inspections aren’t neccessary if the vehicle still has a significant portion of the factory warranty left.

    As for price, I researched exhaustively on the internet (except for the 1990 Mitsubishi Montero, which I purchased in 1992!) I decided ahead of time what I wanted to pay, started lower and allowed myself to be “bumped” up to my max, and negotiated a deal on my trade in to boot. While the process wasn’t painless, neither did I suffer any ‘buyers remorse’ in any of the 3 purchases. And the first two used cars lasted a total of 210,000 miles and 11 years without any major problems (a few minor ones with the Montero in the 7 years/129,000 miles I owned it, but nothing that left me by the side of the road.) The third, which I just bought in January (2004 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 pickup) is doing fine as well and still has 2 years and over 10k on the 5/60 engine & powertrain warranty. (Besides, it’s a Toyota.)

    These recent experiences have just reinforced my belief that new cars are for suckers. Not that there’s anything against that, mind you, it’s just that cars (especially Japanese cars) are so well made now that in terms of overall quality and reliability, a 2-year-old, 20k or 30k car is equal in every way to a brand new one, except that it costs thousands of $$ less.

    And I admit that, in terms of car buying, I’m basically a parasite: I can’t enjoy my new-to-me ride until someone else buys it, drives it off the lot, takes that massive depreciation hit, and then trades it in.

  • avatar

    There was a time when I could buy a used car with impunity, as I have rebuilt engines, transmissions, brakes, etc. I can still check those on a used car.

    The difficulty, is with the PCMs , and other electronic mudules and gadgets. These are NOT so obvious anymore. And, how do you maintain connections ?

    I still see used cars on the lots with cruddy coolant, unchanged tranny fluid, and neglected lubrication everywhere else.

    I’ll pay more for a new car that hasn’t been neglected by dome dork or rental fleet. Just my humble opionion.

  • avatar

    To add on my other post, the 3 yr old certified lease return I purchased had 37k miles but was just over $10k less than the new ’05 models at the time. Plus since it was CPO it came with 3.9% financing and the factory warranty was extended from 4 yrs to 6yrs 100k miles.

    Now I do like to buy new but for this particular model the body style from 2002 to 2005 model years are almost identical. Several reasons it made sense to me to go with the used one.

  • avatar

    When I was young and needed good cheap cars I always had really good luck buying them from really rich people.

    I would also differ on factory buybacks, while I realize it is a specialty case, I bought several buyback Harleys with very low mileage, usually around 1k miles, at very low prices and there was absolutely nothing wrong with them.

    Factories sometimes buy vehicles back because people are a huge PITA not worth dealing with even if there is nothing wrong with the vehicle.

  • avatar

    My nightmare story… In Dec. of 2000 I bought a used ’99 Accord from a Honda dealer in Denver. I asked and was told it had never been in an accident (the Carfax report was clean). Good thing I insisted that they put that guarantee in writing! A few months later, when my trunk filled up with water, another Honda dealer told me that it had obviously been in a serious accident because every body panel on the car had been replaced except for two, and structurally, it had not been repaired properly. The dealer refused to do anything for me until I had an investigative reporter from a local T.V. station call him, and I threatened to sue (I was in law school at the time). Eventually, he gave me every penny back and paid for my books that were damaged in the trunk, even though I had put 9,000 miles on the car in three months, and damaged the front right fender. I learned two key lessons 1) make sure all VIN numbers on all panels match, and 2) don’t trust Carfax reports.

  • avatar

    “Can you tell me … if there’s anything else I’ll need to do in the next year or so?”

    That’s a good one. Imagine a used car salesman saying, “Well, probably within the next year you’ll need new tires, exhaust, and brakes. Also I noticed the sunroof is a little leaky, so set aside some cash to deal with that.”

    You would be surprised. I used to sell one or two used Harleys a year and often when asked that question I told them exactly what I would do to the bike as far as maintenance. Tell them up front, better to lose the sale then have someone whining on the phone all day. If one wanted to mess with it then one would do the work and keep it. :-)

  • avatar

    Technology empowers the buyer / customer in the same fashion that it empowers the seller / dealer. Often its a question of how the technology is used by the buyer and seller.

    There are extensive databases of used vehicles from Auto Trader – – ebay – Craigslist and many more.

    The average buyer does not have a desire to pay strong money for a “recent model used vehicle” the offers on the comparable new is the biggest competitor.

    Auto Trader shows the “average asking price” for a specific model and year, both the buyer and seller know this. Presumably the car below avarage asking would have something wrong, how valid is this statement?

    Another aspect of technology is its ability to “dilute the equity position” in any vehicle very quickly. The “expiry date” of a recent model used vehicle is 30 to 45 days after its offered for sale.

    The average buyer is not prepared to pay market price, or market average, he is looking for a better deal, a better price. The seller knows this too.

  • avatar

    MUch needed and greatly appreciated… Thank you.

  • avatar

    Anyone have advice on where to take said car for an “inspection?.” You can’t really take it to a normal dealer can you? Is it a matter of just having a private small-shop mechanic that you trust? (I certainly don’t… I’ve had pretty good luck at my local Volkswagon dealer, a place I’ve spent FAR too much time at unfortunately)

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    A lot of good insights. Although the realities of this business are a lot different than you would expect.

    Most fleet lease and finance companie sell their vehicles on an open sale at the auctions. There has been some testing with online vehicle exchanges and with Ebay. But by and large, the highest prices for their vehicles takes place at the open wholesale auctions.

    Test driving vehicles in a blind fashion, or just by relying on a Carfax or Autocheck, is often VERY expensive for a lot of the reasons already stated. First off, you don’t really know the background of the person who actually owned the vehicle. This is extremely important because a dealership can easily cover up most mechanical and cosmetic issues. I just came from a luxury car dealer this afternoon and there was a fellow busy putting some cheap cover-up on the seats of $40,000+ vehicles. Keep in mind that many of the minor issues that are usually indicative of a rough life (tires, fluids, exterior and interior cosmetics) are quickly taken care of at the dealerships. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m not a fan of
    dealerships in general.

    Another has to do with overhead costs. You are paying for everything when buying at a dealership. All the salaried personnel, the marble floors, the five-figured monthly advertising budgets, all get thrown into the bottom line price with plenty of opportunity for more profit. All of that extra cost can be more than made up for by an evening’s worth of research and a willingness to buy as close to the source as possible.

    Cases in point, the neighbors who live diagonally from me wanted to have a silver Cadillac SLS as their retirement vehicle. They went to a very large used car superstore that is known nationally, and were offered a 2001 Seville SLS for $17,600 with a five day warranty.

    After a couple of weeks of diligence, I was able to find them a 2002 Seville SLS, same color and with Cadillac’s 5 year /100k mile warranty for $12,500. It also had 27k miles vs. 39k for the other one. I found out the ownership history from a nearby dealer, had a post-sale inspection performed to check for frame damage, and had the condition report from the dealer auction as well.

    Another good example is the 2000 Volvo my wife driving at the moment. It had 15 pages worth of records (called a Volvo dealer to find out it’s history) and, at the time, had a recall from Volvo NA. It also had very slight damage (rear bumper) that was repaired properly at the dealership. The NICB report confirmed the repair. I still paid a fair price for it at the sale, but it’s been the perfect car for my family. All the options, 30+ mpg, and a powertrain that’s been given OEM parts for it’s entire life.

    That brings me to what I really think is the hidden issue with car buying. A lot of folks are focused foremost on price when it’s really the quality and condition of the vehicle that is most important. That’s why I encourage car buyers to figure out the ownership history AND get it inspected by an independent third party.

    When it comes to a used car, it’s really not the name or model of the car that will determine your long-term satisfaction. It’s the owner who drove it. They are the proverbial pitcher who had that ball before you got to the mound. If the vehicle was conservatively driven and well-maintained, you will be all the better for it.

  • avatar

    Anyone have advice on where to take said car for an “inspection?.” You can’t really take it to a normal dealer can you? Is it a matter of just having a private small-shop mechanic that you trust? (I certainly don’t… I’ve had pretty good luck at my local Volkswagon dealer, a place I’ve spent FAR too much time at unfortunately)

    An independant mechanic is usually the best bet for this, but dealer service shops will do this as well. You’ll just pay more for the inspection. If you use a dealer, try to use one that sells the brand of car you’re looking to buy. A few years back I was checking out a 97 Merc Tracer with low miles. My usual indy mechanic couldn’t look at it then, so I took it to a Ford dealer. When I was back in the bay with the tech he pointed out several things that were replaced due to recalls or due to early reliability issues.

    Which brings up another point, always insist on going back into the service bay while the car is up on the lift to have a look. The tech will often point things out to you while you’re there, and it’s always nice to have an idea of what the bottom side looks like.

    Regarding the point of the article, another good source for used cars is to check out dealers that are trying to sell stuff that is outside of their normal market. We picked up our GMC Yukon for a serious discount from a VW dealer that had been sitting on it for a year and just couldn’t sell it. This was before the Toureg came out, so people were not in the habit of popping by their friendly VW dealer to look at SUV’s. Other possible mismatches are Toyota and Honda dealers trying to sell used Chevys and Fords, passenger cars are Hummer or Jeep dealers, etc.

  • avatar

    Another red flag is multiple registrations from different states. Guy buys a used car in Jersey then registers it in New York claiming the title was “lost.” Of course the new title has 80k fewer miles.

  • avatar

    I know this isn’t quite what you had in mind with this article, but it is somewhat relevant. I always keep an eye out for interesting older cars, and am still amazed at what comes up. Some are desirable (a 911 Targa, in storage for 18 years…$1,500) and others are mere curiosities (a mint condition Mustang II).

    In any event I stopped to check out two old cars recently. One was a 70 Vette 454 that has been sitting under a drop sheet for years. My friendly inquiry yielded ‘F*** off’. No dice there. Then I looked at a 64 Mercury Parklane in need of complete restoration. It could have had a 427 FE, so I thought it was worth looking at. I popped the hood and sadly, all I saw was a 390. Still, could come in handy for a project and it looked pretty good. I left a number on the car and waited for a call back. That same evening, the owner called back…’You wanna buy my car?’ Me ‘Maybe, it depends on what you are asking. How much?’ Him ‘$18,000’ Me ‘Ha ha ha ha.’

    You never know what people are going to think their cars are worth.

  • avatar
    Rick Korallus

    There is a lot of great advice here, but it’s worthless if you do not apply it, and too many people do not. If you do not know the reputation of the seller – private party, independant or franchised dealer, and if you think you found something you like, at a price you can afford, get it inspected by a service facility you trust if you are not mechanically inclined. Any more than one hour of labor is dishonest for a thorough top to bottom inspection. Any less and I would start to question how in depth the inspection is. One upside to buying vehicles at reputable dealers (franchised or not) is we stand behind what we sell. No one with a good reputation and a clear conscience will knowingly put a roach out on the lot that will come back to haunt them, it is simply not worth it.

    Even if a private party seller is perfectly legit, there is no gaurantee they did not get taken for a ride unwittingly. We had one customer bring us their Civic after a shoddy bop fixed accident damage. (The insurance company should have totaled the car in our opinion.) Their complaint was the ABS light could not be turned off. As soon as we put the car in the air we saw why: the shoddy bop had welded the rear half of a LX onto the back of an EX Civic (drum brakes were a dead give away), which at the time meant EX (the customer’s car) came with ABS and LX did not…oops!

    If you buy from any dealer, ask friends and relatives for a referral. Don’t keep the crooks in business, they give the rest of the industry a black eye.

  • avatar

    Great piece – sound advice. Although you seem to be a bit too focused on model. A buyer willing to generalize a bit regarding makes/models will get a better buy.

    RE Martin Albright’s take
    …in terms of overall quality and reliability, a 2-year-old, 20k or 30k car is equal in every way to a brand new one, except that it costs thousands of $$ less… I can’t enjoy my new-to-me ride until someone else buys it, drives it off the lot, takes that massive depreciation hit, and then trades it in.

    That’s sound advice, to certain Acuras points…

    If you’d like to drive a TSX for 7 or 8 good years, buying new can make sense. Depreciation is minimal, and the ‘purchased-new’ car at the 7/8 year mark will be in better shape than the 9/10 year old ‘purchased-used’.

  • avatar
    Rick Korallus

    I should also add, the federal government (yes folks, our elected officials who protect the interests of “the little guy”) are royally dragging their asses passing legislation that requires the insurance companies to report the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of every totaled vehicle. The language in the legislation proposed by the National Automobile Dealers’ Assc is very simple, create a national data base for totaled cars, flooded cars etc, . Even after hurricane Katrina, nothing has been done to close the gaping holes created by the individual states’ ability to title vehicles.

  • avatar

    Many people here are complaining that hunting for a good used car takes time, and their time is worth too much. If you are on this site, odds are, you have a few minutes to spend looking up a used car. If it takes you days, even weeks to accomplish this task because information is scarce then the car in question may be questionable. What I mean to say is- your time is worth less than you think. If you have the money to pay more than a car is worth then that is your choice, but you can’t make the arguement that your time is worth too much while posting to an online car forum. Clearly you’re interested in the topic otherwise you wouldn’t be around these parts.

  • avatar

    And the #1 thing to watch?
    Never buy a Ford, even used and at a low price.

    Look who practically owns the top 10 POS list

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Actually, buyers of older cars may get more benefit from what I wrote. There’s more variability over the quality of older models than there is for late model vehicles.

    Buying old cars is actually one of my favorite hobbies. In the last 6 months, I’ve bought…

    89 Volvo 240 Wagon: $750… excellent history and extremely well taken care of. I actually drove that more frequently than a 95′ BMW 5-series wagon. I actually talked to the prior owner for over an hour before buying it at an auction in North Georgia. To me at least, it was a lot more fun to drive.

    88 Isuzu Trooper: $650… Only 120k miles, 4WD, 5-speed, 4 cylinder that is absolutely perfect for light hauling. It came with brand new tires and has remained in non-rust areas for it’s entire life. All it needed was a shot of freon.

    Others I’ve bought with an enthusiast’s orientation…

    92 Subaru SVX: Owned by a Subaru dealer for a long time. Everything worked perfectly and Subaru parts were used throughout it’s entire history.

    79 RX7: Bought for $100 at a Carmax sale. All it needed was carbureator cleaner.

    88 MR2’s: Bought two of them. One for $225 that just needed a fuel pump. Sold it on Ebay for $2700 (that happened a few years back?). The more recent one was bought for $500. Remained in N. Georgia for it’s entire life. The cheap steering wheel wrapper and loose dashboard made it seem to be a roach. Both were easy fixes.

    93 Eclipse: Bought for $500. It was the FWD 190hp version and came with a sunroof. Replaced the driver’s side mouldings and that was that. Interior looked brand new.

    I like the challenge of finding good older vehicles. Part of it’s the fact that I frequent more enthusast sites than anyone should ever see in their lives… and part of it’s nostalgia. Like a lot of folks in the auction business, I started out with one vehicle at a time and many of the old metal was new in my early days.

  • avatar

    I feel sorry for people that are looking in the range you look in Peter L. but who have little or no automotive knowledge or acumen. A friend who works as a mechanic part time has horror stories of 100,000 plus mile cars that are brought in by their owners for a makeover prior to selling used. Original oil, original trans fluid, original coolant, etc. etc. They replace what is cheap and obvious, get it detailed, and I have no doubt they can find a sucker. I think this is the primary driving force behind lease plans for even cheap cars like the Aveo.

  • avatar

    No kidding. Reading some of the stories posted here is enough to make me want to go buy a new Yaris or something. It definitely has me thinking a lot harder on where I’ll buy my next car. I need to find a guy like Steven Lang and hire him to find me something nice.

  • avatar

    Used Luxury cars with full dealer histories are probably the safest bets as far as most-reliability and most-depreciation. The further down the ladder you go, the diceyer it gets.

    Best used car deal is still an 04 or 05 phaeton.

    I also find certain types of cars are bought by meticulous people. Your average VW TDI owner is more maticulous than the average camcordima owner. Of course that’s only in general, and you can’t apply that to every car.

  • avatar

    A lot of people say to make sure that it has had proper maintenance, but there isn’t much you have to do for modern cars from what I can tell. Looking in the manual for my Corolla, you’ve got your 7500 mile oil changes, and the rest is just stuff to take a look at (make sure your engine is still there), very minor things (air filter and spark plugs), and coolant flushes every 30k, which is of questionable value. That’s it.

    My greatest fears when buying a used car are getting one that has been wrecked, or one where they were not particularly kind to the manual transmission.

  • avatar

    DO NOT TRUST CARFAX. I know someone else said this already, but I wanted to reiterate it. I know a lady who sold her flood car, and carfax had no record.

    If a car is near new, and one owner, you can often ask where the car was serviced and get a record from the dealer doing the service. Likely, anything not done by the dealer (other than oil changes) was not done. Even jiffy lube keeps a record of maintenance done, so ask the owner, then verify with shop.

  • avatar

    I have bought only 1 used car in my life, a 1992 Mazda MX-3. I needed a cheap commuter car so I didn’t pile miles onto the new car I bought before being transferred. I drove it, everything worked, seemed fine. I did not have it inspected. After purchase I replaced the tires, brakes, shocks, timing belt, valve cover gaskets etc.etc. Spent double on repairs than I did to buy it.

    For some reason I love that car, so I don’t mind, even though I should have had it checked so I knew what I was getting into. BTW, the owner bought it new, and had 10 years worth of maintenance records that she provided. She just sold it to me at the exact right time before the next set of major repairs was to be done……

    Also, thanks for bringing up how inaccurate the NADA, KBB, and Edmunds prices are. At my dealership, we use the MMR and Galves to set trade values, and many customers expect KBB etc for their trade. KBB shows the value of my 06 Honda Element with 15k on it to be HIGHER than the price I paid for it new a year ago. MMR is about $4k less….

  • avatar

    When the majority of newer cars require minimal maintenance, when the majority of owners or lessors of newer cars have no interest or desire to spend money towards maintenance.

    Why is everyone still talking about service history, and how it was maintained?

    With certain makes and models lease penetration can surpass 50% of the business, the average for all vehicles is 30%. All these lease returns are sold at auctions and are “pre conditioned” prior to being sold. They are moved from one location to another to maximise the selling price.

    On a modern car (2 to 5 years old) what will the history really tell you? Is it going to tell you how the future of the car will be (that is what you are buying)- is it going to tell you which electronic box will go “boing”?

  • avatar

    I don’t buy that Dex-Cool is the problem. (mentioned in the link Hippo posted) The gaskets fail on their own due to lousy design/poor assembly. Dex-Cool is a cop out for people who never bothered to check their coolant level, overheated and blew the engine. If they bothered to look under the hood they might have only had to deal with an few hundred dollar repair instead of a fatally wounded engine.

    Grand Am’s and Alero’s are cheap and plentiful, but run far, far away. In addition to the POS 3.4 liter and it’s leaking gaskets, they eat brake rotors and wheel bearings and have a myriad of electrical problems.

  • avatar

    OK, so what IS the best used car?

    This one eats brakes, this one has problems with the ignition lock, this other one has other problems.

    To me, the best advice is to take your prospective purchase to a mechanic you can trust and have him do an extensive check. As we have seen, some cars may have some problems built-in. Your decision should be whether you can live with these foibles.

    I’ve had 3 Ford Focus in my family (A 2001 ZX5, a 2004 SE sedan, and a 2003 SVT). Two are still in use (the SVT is gone) and with over 250,000 of total use, NONE of these cars has exibited any problems.

  • avatar

    And at the risk of being flamed, I believe that a new car purchase can make a lot of sense if financed properly.

  • avatar

    I agree that this is excellent information. I would like to point out that our Chevrolet dealership just west of Detroit, George Matick Chevrolet, uses Corvette Specialists. These individuals have to pass special testing, and have to really be on their game in terms of discussing and demonstrating the Corvette. We do have many customers who do not even want to drive the car until after their purchase, but qualified prospects who wish to drive certainly may do so!

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