By on October 19, 2018

car repair

Christopher writes:


I have a ’96 BMW Z3 (1.9, manual) that I bought several years ago from a friend who was moving away. This is my “weekend car,” but I haven’t been driving it much lately since my two young kids require a back seat. This means our Highlander now sees more weekend action than the Bimmer. I love the car, but am thinking of selling it and getting something fun that can hold more passengers (E30?).

My problem is that the car now has 191k miles on it and needs some work done to “make it right” before selling it. Mechanically, it needs new rear struts, sway bar bushings, ABS sensors (only about $3 each on eBay), an AC recharge, new tires (old ones have lots of tread but are getting really old) and a noisy tensioner pulley that needs replacement. Oh, and the aftermarket radio/CD player is awful.

Cosmetically, it looks good but the leather upholstery on the seats bottoms is shot (have covers on now) and a broken fog light from hitting a branch in the road.

It still runs and drives great and I feel there’s a lot of life left in it for someone looking for a cheap and fun ride. And aside from reupholstering the seats, I can do all the work myself, saving on the shop labor. But it will be a giant, time-consuming pain in the ass and those parts aren’t going to be cheap. Normally, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but free time has been in short supply lately.

Now that these cars are now fully depreciated and not worth much (especially with close to 200k miles), I’m wondering if it’s worth putting the time and money into it OR if I should just sell it dirt cheap and with full disclosure of the issues to someone looking for a weekend project car?

What would you do? I appreciate that feedback!

Sajeev answers:

Reconditioning a car for sale always means maximizing the sale price via addressing lowest hanging fruit in your spare time.

But also consider learning something new in the process, beyond the usual oil change, tune up, brake job, etc. Every car I’ve sold was a learning experience in improving the user experience: there was the almost-new Cadillac that taught me under hood detailing, the acid-etched Mustang needing re-dyed floor mats, the cracked dash (installing a dash cap) on a Town Car, etc. Which also, and always, provides a story when reminiscing with others. Can’t put a price on that!

Considering market value, I recommend these in your meager spare time, adding value to your soul and the Z3.

  • Change ABS sensors, if they are that cheap and if it’ll turn off a dashboard warning light.
  • A/C recharge, assuming there isn’t a leak, as the gauge/filling tool is reusable and will come in handy again.
  • Change the pulley (not the assembly) is cheap-ish, eliminating a value-killing noise.
  • New, high quality radios (i.e. Kenwood Excelon, not the Kenwoods at Walmart) are a great addition for the next owner because of their smartphone integration and superior signal processing. They’re cheap as a factory refurbished unit on eBay/Amazon/Crutchfield.
  • Poor description of “shot” leather aside, it’s amazing what a few cups of Leatherique (or similar) does if they aren’t ripped up. And local folks that re-connolise leather aren’t gonna break the bank.
  • Clean interior, shampoo carpets/floor mats, detail the engine, trunk and polish the bodywork. It’s amazing how far that goes for a private seller: shows you really care!

And don’t forget to save the receipts for the next owner!

What say you, Best and Brightest?

[Image: Shutterstock user Standret]

Send your queries to [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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43 Comments on “Piston Slap: Pre-Sale Reconditioning, To What Extent?...”

  • avatar

    I agree with Sajeev’s list. You will be repaid in full by making your car really stand out in the used market place. I’m always amazed by a) how lazy other sellers can be with taking photos of filthy cars and also saying stuff like “just needs a cheap sensor.” A car without any dash light errors, a clean interior and exterior and without any odd noises in the engine bay (even squeaks and squeals can really spook lay-people) will look head and shoulders above the rest of the detritus on your local CL/facebook marketplace. Plus, I just find it very satisfying to breathe new life into a tired older car with fairly simple reconditioning. I’m doing that exact thing with my new ’01 A4. A few examples: replaced the sand blasted and missing mesh grille inserts with new black plastic gutter guard material. Bought new center caps and bolt covers on Amazon (cost like $20 for everything) and polished up the factory alloys. Aside from a smidge of curb rash they look like new. I’m repainting the bottom of the aftermarket bumper which had aqua colored polyurethane peeking out from chipped black paint. Just simple rattle-can primer and then gloss top coat. The driver’s floormat had a hole worn in it, I shampooed the floor mat and then glued on a universal color-matched (grey) rubber heel pad. Much better and cheaper than buying generic floor mats. I splurged a bit and bought a DA-polisher from harbor Freight for $65 to address the horrible brillo-pad marks all over the paint from an ill-fated attempt to remove tree sap by the PO. It’s really been transforming the appearance of the car, I’ve been finishing the polishing with some T-cut Color Restore (black dye imbedded into the polish), it’s my favorite new product. Finally for now I threw some generic grey leatherette covers on the torn seats and bought the cheapest $10 ‘Boss’ brand speakers on amazon to replace the blown out factory Bose units, the sound is much better now. It’s like a poor man’s “Wheeler Dealers” project :)

    • 0 avatar
      The Ghost of Buckshot Jones

      It’s a 22 year old 200k mile 1.9 4 banger Z4. It’s a $1500 car on craigslist. “Make your car really stand out on the used marketplace”, dude, gtfo.

      • 0 avatar

        “ask the man that flips them” I’m talking about perhaps $50 in materials and a saturday’s worth of time to a) easily add $500 to the selling price and b) help sell the car faster.

        • 0 avatar

          To my mind, there’s only two people who are going to be buying a car like this – the mid-life crisis weekend warrior and the track day special weekend warrior.

          The first case is going to care more about how the car looks and sounds so I’d do the ABS sensors, the pulley, give it a general cleaning then just disclose the rest and let the price reflect it. The second case can do their own wrenching so, if going after that customer, I’d just list it as is.

      • 0 avatar

        $1500 is steep for something which sounds this rough.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ll admit that I entirely missed that this thing was close too 200k miles… that definitely changes the math on it. I’d say it will take this car being recon’d as prescribed to even get that $1500. Depending on where he is in the country, now is not the time to be selling a convertible. If you have a place to store it, wait until spring when people have tax returns burning a hole in their pocket and the first sunny warm spring weekend rolls around (same advice as for selling a motorcycle for a premium).

    • 0 avatar

      I like the A4 project updates, gtem. Keep ’em coming. Though if you starting referring to it as “a build” and link slo-mo footage of throwing sparks with a grinder, I’m changing the channel.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks featherston! On the short list before winter hits is finding some replacement inner fender liners (or zip tie in some plastic/rubber material), some dope trimmed the stock ones out to fit big wheels (I’m assuming) so there is a big gaping hole right in front of my crusty K&N cone filter just waiting to suck some filth up. I’m hoping to scoop up some cheap steel wheels or OE 15″ alloys from a passat in a junkyard to throw some inexpensive Hankook snow tires on and that’ll probably be it before winter. I’ve got a clunk in the passenger side front which I’ve inspected the control arm bushings and balljoints etc and suspect is a worn strut mount, but I don’t want to mess with it now, it’ll have to hold until spring. The reman power steering pump doesnt build enough pressure once hot, the cool weather has mitigated this somewhat, but I have the old pump that was noisy ready to swap back on, I’m hoping it was just a leak at a line (since been replaced) that was introducing air into the old pump. I also need to do some diagnosing of the fan clutch, feels like its awful noisy a lot of the time, a replacement OE-Hella unit is $70 and a quick installation.

        The bad news about the car overall is that it is indeed a rebuilt title, which instantly dashes any hopes of ending up even slightly “in the black” on this one. In a roundabout way it could actually motivate me to hang onto the car for a bit for once and just drive it. 23mpg on premium is not ideal I suppose, but not the end of the world.

  • avatar

    I agree with Sajeeve; you’ve got to consider your return on the investment. Odds are that while the repairs will improve the resale price, you won’t necessarily realize as much improvement as what you put into that repair.

    On the other hand, if you also take it as a learning experience as you do the work, helping you to assess a future purchase, for example, then the value received may be worth more than the money spent.

  • avatar

    You’ve got a Bimmer with a 191K miles on it? Dude, you’ve gotten more out of that car then anyone could imagine. I agree with Sajeev and the others, clean it up, make it presentable and just get what you can for it

  • avatar

    Quick struts and tires will get expensive quick, but aside from a new head unit the rest of those items are cheap. I’d say you ride is worth $500-700 assuming its inspected and unless you’re in one of those regions where anything running is $2K it may not be an easy sell due to age and high miles. My advice is to do the cheap stuff, wash and quick wax it, and take what you can get.

    • 0 avatar

      “Quick struts and tires will get expensive quick” Very true. Cleaning and some minor generic cosmetic stuff or something like a swaybar bushing the quiets down a loud rattle, or throwing on some cheap new pads and rotors if the brakes are shot = high value return. A set of cheap non-Chinese tires is $300 mounted and up (I’ll leave the ethics of Chinese tires to someone else), quick struts that aren’t horrible riding China-made “Detroit axle” or “FCS” are generally $80-120 per corner. On a $1500 car that doesn’t do you much for profit, you’re better off not touching that and selling as is.

  • avatar

    Replacing the tires is a waste of money. If they have legal tread, just apply some stuff to make them black and shiny.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    $500-$700!?! Did you guys miss the part where he says “Cosmetically, it looks good” and “still runs and drives great”? And while the M44 didn’t make a ton of power, it’s a damn good little engine without some of the problems other mid-90’s to mid-00’s BMWs had (VANOS, Nikasil cylinder bores, coolant leaks, timing chain tensioner issues, etc).

    Sell as is, with disclosure. That’s a $2000 car as it sits, if the description is accurate. +$300 if the top is in decent shape. -$500 if it’s metallic turquoise.

    • 0 avatar

      Everyone thinks their car is good cosmetically and runs great. I’m here to tell you a 200K car is not going to be very good cosmetically (average at best) and most likely needs a lot of mechanical maintenance despite the fact it may still be running acceptably (seals, rubber, belts, timing chain/belt, water pump, spark plugs/wires etc). What would you pony up?

      • 0 avatar

        28 cars I agree in that the $500-700 is maybe true in the wholesale world that you’re used to. But anything that runs and drives and is halfway presentable is basically a $1200-1500 car by default in most of the country. A specialized thing like an older BMW convertible (especially with a stick) cuts both ways in terms of value: narrows down the pool of buyers significantly. Someone might want a stick shift roadster and be willing to pay a slight premium, most lay-people considering a cheap weekend convertible will probably be put off by the stick. Cleaned up I think this car could get $2000 in the spring, or $1500 at worst. It might just take a few weeks to find the right buyer. I’d advertise on Z3 forums, nextdoor, facebook marketplace in addition to CL.

        • 0 avatar

          I’m not sure if there was a hardtop in that MY but the post didn’t mention convertible. If it is a soft top, the roof condition becomes tantamount. I argue whomever buys this will be stuck with it and I hope they buy it right. I’d estimate not including roof, this thing is another $1,200+ from being just acceptable (two leather buckets from a junkyard, four quick struts, four tires). This particular example screams car poor to me.

          • 0 avatar

            IIRC the only hard-roof Z3 was the ‘M-Coupe,” all of the lesser 4 cyls were convertibles.

            I think anyone buying this would be looking for a cheap fair weather cruiser just to do some back-road open-air motoring in, like a farmer that has a barn he could store it in, or maybe someone that wants to do some autocross or something. A family friend had an old Celica convertible for just such a purpose, bought cheap, summer-only use.

          • 0 avatar

            For the sake of pedanticism, there were non-M Z3 Coupes, but you’re right that none were four-cylinders.

          • 0 avatar

            Right on Maymar, learn something new every day!

      • 0 avatar

        …Everyone thinks their car is good cosmetically and runs great. I’m here to tell you a 200K car is not going to be very good cosmetically (average at best) and most likely needs a lot of mechanical maintenance despite the fact it may still be running acceptably (seals, rubber, belts, timing chain/belt, water pump, spark plugs/wires etc). What would you pony up?…

        You’ve never seen my old cars then. Most of the cars I have churned through were, for their age/mileage, well above the average in terms of appearance. If you replace worn arm rests, steering wheel center covers, etc (which I did) the car never looks too worn inside. Some stone chips are inevitable but if the paint is good, and the wheels free of curb rash the outside will stand out. Mechanically, yes there was always some seepage of oil/trans fluid, but all those other items mentioned were always already replaced with premium parts at some time in the past. Most people found it hard to believe the car had 130K on it. They would really be surprised when I said no, that would be 230K. The quality of care the car has had over its life makes a huge difference. Still, sellers have to be realistic: You are selling a car with 200K on it. This BMW will sell to a guy looking for a track car.

  • avatar

    With that car I wouldn’t spend a dime on it. Take whatever you can get and move on and be sure that who buys it knows it is as is all the way.

    For newer cars before you sell them or do a trade in a good professional detail will go a long way. Warning lights should be addressed as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Christopher, RSF has the best answer. Your Z3 is too old with too many miles and requires too much in deferred maintenance to be worth much. You’ll easily spend whatever profit you’d make refurbishing this car. Tires, leather, stereo, lights on the dash… time and money.

      If your time is at a premium, and with kids, your time is at a premium, then have the kids help get the Z3 looking shiny and take a half day detailing it with them. Get them to help you vacuum under the footwell, wash and dry the car, polish up the rims and get it looking as good as it can look.

  • avatar

    That Z3 was the worst utilization of any Bond car. He drove it down a dirt road for about 18 seconds, and then gave it to the guy who landed in the helicopter.

  • avatar

    When it came time to trade in my wife’s 2005 Vibe (in late 2016) with 146,000 miles on it, I took it to Albuquerque to a local car wash and detailing business and paid them roughly $200 to detail it top to bottom inside and out to the level of polishing the paint and shampooing the interior. It was rough inside after carrying my daughter for the first 2 years of her life.

    Maybe I did it because of how I was raised and my Dad who often traded in cars that where in nicer physical shape than when he bought them used.

    Came out looking great and when the dealer refused to budge another $1000-$2000 on the out the door price for her new vehicle I felt confident when he looked at me and asked: “Now what do you have to have for your trade?”

    I asked him for roughly double KBB and he bit on it.

    Was it because it was clean enough to eat off of? Maybe.

  • avatar

    Fix the ABS sensors and hop that is the actual problem. A ABS light that is on will scare a lot of people. Fix the loud pulley as that too will scare many people away. Otherwise clean it up nice and put it up for sale. Money spend on tires, stereo and struts will not increase the value of the car as much as you spend on the parts.

  • avatar

    To quote the write up I got when I traded in my 350Z for my C7 – “presents well”. Despite having 77K in mileage and being used a daily driver plus a track toy the car LOOKED great. It was in 9/10 condition. Mine was mechanically sound as well, but almost nobody in the used market is putting your car on the lift and inspecting it. No squeaks or rattles, everything attached and functional is what matters.

    So out of your list:
    needs new rear struts – do they make noise? If not ignore
    sway bar bushings – same as above
    ABS sensors – light on dash? fix for sure
    AC recharge – must have as everyone checks this
    new tires – not your problem as long as they all match no worries
    noisy tensioner pulley – fix!
    aftermarket radio/CD player – nobody is going to care as long as the convertible top works
    broken fog light – if you can source one cheap do it, if not remove the other one and claim the openings are brake ducts

    Honestly the car has nearly 200K on it so the next owner has got to assume things are broken, this could easily be off loaded “as is” to someone on a Bimmer forum who can handle the greasy bits but needs a straight car (IE: no accident damage, rust, paint work, etc). I would try to sell it as is and see how many bites you get after listing the minor issues.

  • avatar

    Just sell it for $500-$700 as is to the LeMons/ChumpCar folk. They’ll probably find something creative to do with it.

  • avatar

    Reupholstering your seats is not really that tough. I reupholstered the OEM leather seats myself in my ’06 Ram Laramie with Katzkin leather covers (which you normally buy with a professional install, but the kits are out there). It was actually kind of fun even though I had bruised knuckles here and there.

    It took me three weekends to do the front driver, front passenger and the back seats. Everything turned out well. The job is pretty straightforward. You just have to take your time and have the patience. Be sure to disconnect the battery if you do this if your car has any side airbags or restraint mechanisms (like active headrests). This avoids fault codes or any risk of deployment. It’s also pretty helpful to watch tutorials.

    One thing I’ve learned is that car seats are not really all that different between manufactuers and are almost always made by a third party manufacturer (such as Lear). The design makes each seat between makes and models different but the basic engineering is all the same.

  • avatar

    Since time is in short supply, do a basic exterior and interior clean and put it up for sale. The 4 banger and mileage preclude any additional effort.

  • avatar
    Firestorm 500

    I agree. Don’t fix anything. Don’t disclose anything. Don’t get diarrhea of the mouth. 20 year old little bitty German toy car with 200K miles? If you can get a cash buyer for $1,000 shake their hand and wave bye-bye when you see the tail lights. The stick shift will be poison to 95% of the lookers, anyway.

  • avatar

    If the problems weren’t worth fixing for your own use, then they’re definitely not worth doing for someone else. You’d be lucky to get the additional cost of the parts out of the sale.

  • avatar

    whatever you do don’t put new struts on the back… because they are shocks.

    we have a ’00 Z3 2.3 with 70k miles. i wouldn’t do much. you aren’t gonna get much back from what you put in. it might sell quicker with some fixes but it won’t sell for more. just fix any lights that are on. i suspect the person that buys it is figure on it needing fixes anyway.

  • avatar

    Perfect donor car. Fix the suspension pieces. Tear out the the ice and trans. Put in 200hp 200ftlb electric motor(s) and enough battery to go play 100 miles at a time. So what if it takes 20,000 and 5-6 years. It is not worth enough now to bother. Trust me it WILL be fun!

  • avatar

    The ABS sensors might not be the problem. A friend has a ’95 M3 that used to have the ABS light on, and the problem with his car was a flexible printed circuit inside the ABS unit, and the fix was to solder wires to the terminals. Also, about a week ago there was a video on YouTube by Hoovies Garage about how he can’t sell his M3 convertible for $5,000. The car looks great, and he’s fixed a lot of parts, but suddenly there are other problems, and it seems like there are no buyers, despite it being a nice car overall.

  • avatar

    I agree with everything Sajeev suggested except the radio swap. Looking at what he suggested, those units are $500-1000. There is ZERO chance you get anywhere close to that amount in increased selling price. Fix the other things but leave the radio as is given the condition of the rest of the car.

  • avatar

    I’d like the people claiming this is a $700 car to show me a few Craigslist ads. Around Cincinnati anything in similar condition has an ad price around $2300. For a decent fall evening driver that’s not a bad deal. The m44 engine isn’t any weekend warrior’s ideas of fun. Having said that I’d say vacuum shine and full disclosure.

  • avatar

    I’d like the people claiming this is a $700 car to show me a few Craigslist ads. Around Cincinnati anything in similar condition has an ad price around $2300. For a decent fall evening driver that’s not a bad deal. The m44 engine isn’t any weekend warrior’s ideas of fun. Having said that I’d say vacuum shine and full disclosure.

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