By on November 26, 2010

What makes a vehicle valuable? Most folks chose to invest in the myth. A given brand a ‘Supername’ alone can save them from a Kryptonite’s worth of expenses and maintenance issues. I work backwards. The name alone doesn’t tell me very much. The owners do. When I find an owner who has been a good steward of their vehicle, I take the plunge regardless of the name involved. Does this always work?

Not always. In the real world it’s only about 90% successful… give or take a few percent. Car buyers of all stripes should always start with ‘owner reviews’. That new car review from days of yore won’t tell you that the tranny won’t last, or that the car has more operational issues than Zimbabwe. Hundreds of owners will. Truedelta, Carsurvey, Edmunds, MSN, even enthusiast sites provide all of us with an infinitely better wealth of information as to the long-term qualities of a vehicle.

From there… be a sucker when it comes to ownership records and quality parts. If the owner spent money keeping the vehicle in tip-top shape, you will have a much easier time making it a long-term keeper. At the auctions I generally pay 20% to 30% more for a vehicle that has been kept up. It can go even higher than that if the vehicle in question is rare or valuable. Shopping based on price will yield most folks a ‘cheap’ car instead of a good car… and most cheap used cars on Craigslist and the classifieds are cheap for a reason.

On the flip side, a lot of absolutely wonderful vehicles are given a ‘stigma’ based on the brand involved. Mitsubishi’s still suffer from their mind numbingly dumb finance policies of the Y2K era (0% down, $0 a month, until 2003-4-5). A lot of Mits went to people who barely had a pulse and a paycheck back in the day. They are the sub-prime properties of the modern era along with many dying and defunct GM, Ford and Chrysler models.

Do most of those cars, even the good cars, offer a lot to the enthusiast? Mostly no. But I see a surprising number of them with high miles at the auctions. The chosen few were driven conservatively and maintained well which is why I try to heavily target those vehicles.

Yes, it’s true. The resale values of the ‘stigma car’ tends to be far worse than most models that are known for being reliable or ‘fashionable’. No surprise there. But that thick paint brush of media driven ignorance can quickly be overcome by relying instead on the real-world advice of owners and ‘keepers’. For those folks here who have to deal with constant questions from friends and family about cars, the answer to the question, “What car to buy?” shouldn’t really be a ‘what’. It should be a ‘who’ and a strong consideration of ‘where’ to find the real story. Like the X-files, the truth is out there… or you can ask me.

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25 Comments on “Hammer Time: Value...”

  • avatar

    Yep. It even works for particular models and/or option packages for the acknowledged “dogs”. Not everything is a lemon, but you need a fairly good sample size to weed the consistent winners out of the pack.

  • avatar

    Online reviews can often falsely color a car though. If I go to a Benz forum, for the most part people will be pretty enthusiastic. But if I go on ‘’ I’ll be inundated w/tales of horrible quality. Consumer Reports’ reliability reporting methodologies are flawed, and of course the owners themselves will only tell you about problems the car has at the moment that they don’t want to fix.
    In my experiences, there’s 3 ways to go:
    – Buy a stock car from an older owner- I’ve bought 2 modded cars from strangers and for the most part they were trashed. If one is an enthusiast looking to build on a platform, start from scratch with a good donor car.
    – Buy a modded car from someone you “know” and trust- mods are always cheaper when bundled into the cost of a car, so  if one wants to save on mods they would ahve got anyway, it’s OK to get them from someone who’s not a total cheapass or not knowledgeable. Mechanics and long time enthusiasts are a good bet.
    – Buy a stock car from a dealership of good quality that honors its warranties- I bought a Maxima a while back with a SES light… the dealership I bought it from performed the work (replacing all the ignition packs)- hundreds of dollars in parts and labor- for free, as part of the included warranty. The car was a little overpriced, but that work made it worth it.
    I think those methods + researching typical problems in the car you want are good ways to make a solid purchase. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons

    • 0 avatar

      @sporty: I’ll agree that fan sites do not reflect the average joe’s experience with their car. I’ve been looking at a replacement for my daily driver, and after reading not so good reviews on various sites for two out of the three cars I was considering, I may have to rethink what to purchase.
      And +1 on buying a modded car, basically, just forget about it.

    • 0 avatar

      As for the enthusiast sites: Some actually make a problem seem worse than it is. For example, Explorers are known to have transmission issues.  If you read the explorer forum is seems like EVERYONE has replaced their transmission at one point or another.  In reality, the number of people who have been driving for 150,000+ miles with no issues far outweigh the ones who have had issues.  I believe most people seek out enthusiast sites initially when they have a big problem with their 5 year old car and want to try to diagnose it without ever seeing a mechanic.  They post about their issues, comment on 10 others with the same issue, then disappear and are never to be hard from again.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Honestly Lang, you could publish either an actual yearly “used car buying guide” or an “underrated/overrated” used car guide and I’d buy it.

  • avatar

    There are always cars that are out of fashion.  This is where to shop for value.  After the Taurus/Sable came out, nobody wanted the Fox body LTDs or Marquis’.  These were solid cars and sold for dirt cheap.  I owned one and enjoyed it at very low cost.
    Today, a Grand Marquis is a great choice.  Lots of older owners who keep their cars in the garage and keep it maintained properly.  Almost every good used car I have bought from the owner has been from an older person of upper-middle income.  I am sure there are a lot of exceptions, but as a rule, these people keep their stuff up well and do not have an inflated sense of what their 10 yr old 100K car is worth.  They want to do better than the dealer trade-in ripoff, but also want to get the car out of the driveway.  The converse rule – if the ad shows a car photographed in an alley, forget it.  Every car I have ever looked at in an alley was not in the condition I was looking for.
    Other than Panthers and Buicks, well kept Mopars can be a real value.  The minivans will last a really long time and are comparatively inexpensive to buy.  Same rule – look for the grandparents who have not beat it up with kids, towing or hauling.

    • 0 avatar

      From my first old junker forty years ago, to the present day, I’ve always kept my cars clean and well maintained. I also keep accurate records.

      I have been aproached at the  car wash,the beer store, and my own driveway. People will say something like “if your thinking of selling that car/truck here’s my number” I’ve sold a few privatly,but mostly I trade them in. The last two I traded in,never saw the used car lot. The 2001 Grand AM was gone the day I dropped it off. The used car manager was grinning ear to ear. “We don’t even have to wash it”

        look after your car, and your car will look after you 


  • avatar

    Steven, what’s been your experience with well-kept 1991-95 FWD 4.9L Cadillacs (non-Northstar)?

  • avatar

    I remember being struck by a comment on value by one of the B&B in no hurry to buy was casually cross shopped luxury cars, minivans, and sports cars before he found a great deal. That’s almost the perfect way to shop: look for desperation in the seller and rob him. Arbitrage at its finest.
    To me, value is finding the right car and babying it to the end of its life expectancy, whether that’s 20 years or a million miles. The right car to me is one that resists the 7 year itch when most people are ready to flip their ride. Know thyself is probably my best advice.

  • avatar

    Value comes in reliability.  And, the best measure of reliability is Consumer Reports.  I know many of the Detroit cheerleaders hate Consumer Reports because every brand from Detroit ranks poorly when compared to Toyota and Honda.  But, I think Consumer Reports is truth.  From my own experience, from stories from my friends, and from the freeways.  In Southern California, Ford was a big seller until recently.  But, very few old Fords remain on the Southern California freeways.  However, many Toyota and Honda vehicles from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s are everywhere.  Where are the old GM and Ford vehicles?  In the scrap yard.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      I live in the west.  CR hates domestics.  How does that explain the sheer number of ford/Chevy/Dodge pick up with 150k or better still motoring on our highways?  Most with minimal issues; ussually a tranny.  But looking at the trailers they pull I am certain the original tranny gave them everything it had and then some.

  • avatar

    I really havn’t got much use for CR. I don’t own a bird cage, and I prefer plastic garbage bags,and my wife makes me buy Charmin.

    BTW Up here in the frozen north most of the older Asian and German stuff has long since rusted away. I see twenty year old Fords and GMs every day.

  • avatar

    I am one anal owner.
    Change all oils.
    Hand polish twice a year.
    And keep a file on each car showing every tire rotation, repair and change.
    The few cars I have sold to a non-relative had its files sent along with it to the new owners.

    Even the Caravan given to my nephew had its own paperwork from its purchase in 1999.

    Not bragging, just kinda thought most did this.

  • avatar

    Owners’ reviews can be somewhat mitigated by an individual owner’s attention to proper maintenance. That bad transmission the reviews lambasted may have been replaced with another, more reliable model, or an updated factory issue that addressed the problems.
    A lot of assembly problems and even some poor manufacturer’s choices may have been addressed by that conscientious owner. A friend had a Ford with the infamous burning out alternator, and found out from his mechanic that the 90 amp was inadequate. He replaced his 90 amp warranty replacement with a 120 amp alternator at his own expense and had no further problems.
    Favoring those who keep good maintenance records allows youto see if upgrades have been done, not just in-kind replacements. 90%, plus or minus?  Them’s good odds.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I understand the points you guys are making, but speaking from your own experience (any of the members of the B&B who are car dealers or have bought a significant number of used cars); “How many cars actually come with service records?”

    • 0 avatar

      I am actually shopping for a used car from a private seller right now and I’ve come across all sorts of situations without actually finding something I would buy.  The last vehicle I looked at was a very clean, garaged late 90’s 4Runner.  It was being sold by an older retired guy living in a nice gated community.  Truck was clean, no rust, had low miles, and had all paperwork for all services.  The only paperwork missing was for the repairs from two accidents that the owner failed to mention (one with airbag deployment).  Good thing I got the Carfax report.  Even in this seemingly perfect scenario, I still almost struck out.

    • 0 avatar

      @bobdod04: Yep, it’s important to feel you can trust the seller and that can be a hard situation to find.  Sadly it seems like everyone is working an angle in this economy.  When I was looking for a used truck I was kind of surprised how many “private sellers” turned out to be amateur or illegal dealers trying to pass themselves off as private sellers. You do have to be sharp and pay attention to spot them but you can if you pay attention to detail and  avoid falling in love with their wares.  If anything feels hinky, it most likely is.   I’m much more wary of the “for sale” car parked by the side of the busy road nowadays.
      For example one seller had a very attractive truck at a good price but the title he had didn’t have his name on it, though it had been signed over by the person whose name was on it.  He tried to convince me that he had bought the car from the guy whose name was on the title then lost his job before he got a chance to register the truck in his name and had to sell it.  Uh huh.  No sale.   To no surprise at all on my part, a couple of weeks later the same guy had another truck for sale in the same roadside spot with the same story.  Boy was he mad when I drove by as he was showing it to a mark, stopped and said to the person “hey let me guess, this truck has a title without his name on it, he says he lost his job before he could register it and has to sell it, blah blah blah.”  I saved one mark from him but he still runs his unlicensed dealership from the same spot.

    • 0 avatar

      As long as the title was clean and transferable, and the truck was solid and priced well, why do you care whether the guy was a private seller or an “illegal” dealer?
      Maybe I’m missing something, but I wouldn’t pass on a good deal on a car I wanted just because of a pretend private seller.  Your chance of getting a car with concealed damage is probably a bit higher, but as long as you’re knowledgeable about what to look for that’s easy enough to avoid.
      Sure a seller who is running a scheme like this is obviously untrustworthy, but as a general rule I don’t believe what any seller tells me.

  • avatar

    I’m actually right now in the situation where i seriously consider getting a loan on a decent used car, so this is quite important to me right now. With the car prices in Norway, a really good used car is something that is less than 10 years old, mint condition,and hopefully less than £20K. And this type of market is something I know very little of as all my cars to this day has been bought cash. And I used to try and find the fastest biggest most economical cheap car every time. Which often meant getting the one with the most rust or the worst running problems, and in Norway (and the EU) we have to have the cars ‘checked’ and approved every other year to see if they’re safe, so that used to be something important too. What I did several times was buy a truly sad wreck, for scrap, and then rebuild it do decent safe running condition again, cause then I knew it could be trusted, even if it looked bad. As my economy (and common sense) grew better I got better at reading the seller. If he lives out in the woods in some abandoned barn, with signs of low maintenance, how do you think he threats his car? If he lives in a basement with his parents, and has had the car since he got his license, how do you think it’s been driven? Still buying cars is rarely something you can make money on if you’re also going to use the car as a daily driver.

  • avatar

    Years ago I developed these rules when buying used:
    Think Tripod: engine, transmission, body (rust). Everything else (in those days) could be fixed.
    Look for absolute base models: base models have fewer peripherals to go wrong.
    Judge perceptions: then, 10 years and 100,000 miles was considered “risky”, so many cars of this ilk came on the market with very little actually wrong with them.
    Look for a highly conservative owner: He would be too ornery to let his car “go”.
    Conduct the change test: (not always possible before the fact). The more loose change you find under the seats and carpets, the worse the car has been kept up.
    Above all: avoid all cars owned by young women whose names end in “i”, “ie”, or “y”.

  • avatar

    I buy my cars new, and keep them forever. I still have a 1991 Accord — it’s going strong, though, so Mr. Lang won’t be bidding on it any time soon.

    Steven might not get any of my dad’s cars, either. The last time he traded one in the dealer had a mechanic put it up on the hoist to check it out… and the mechanic bought it. The car before that disappeared off the lot in one day. Like many old guys, dad has both the cash and the inclination to keep his cars maintained. Also, his rides spend their entire stationary lives indoors, parked in his garage. The Caddy is never winter-driven. He asked me recently if I want it, and I politely explained that it’s not my kind of car. It will eventually make someone else very happy, though.

  • avatar

    Norm: that’s how I have bought my new ones:Base models with less junk to go wrong down the line. They have all gotten premium care, even the beat down Citation I bought with the money I saved from quitting cigarettes.
    And that’s what I’ll be looking for when the time comes [many years from now] to buy again, the simpler the better. I have discovered that buying new is a foolish waste of money and since I have done it and experienced that new car feeling I can pass spending 15-25,000 on that rush ever again.

    I’m not getting the loose change thing though…. can you elaborate ? Depending on the pants worn, my change falls out of the pockets…. and my cars are well cared for…. not sure if that means I am falling down on the maintenance schedule or letting things slide on my rigs or just that…… change falls out of my pockets, period.

    I always heard that you should check the radio pre-sets to tell what sort of music the driver listened to and to steer clear of cars whose stations were pre set to hard rock…

    So many rules of thumb and so many thumbs……

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