[Drive] Mr. K's Used-Car Primer

JUne 26, 2003

For someone that Ms. D claims is obsessed with cars, I'm not all wrapped up in the lore and legend of sports cars or racing cars like many aficionados—rather, I'm obsessed with transportation. I like to see a good, functional, efficient, handy, inexpensive car. One I could afford and appreciate and be proud of. For instance, I repeatedly eyed a little Honda Civic four door that's for sale by its owner down the street from me in Belhaven. It's a little five-speed with 147,000 miles (I peered in the window). The paint is a little sun worn, but the five-speed looks shifty, and it would be good, practical transportation—if the AC works. It's a good image car for the struggling entrepreneur—efficient, practical, devil-may-care styling—plus it would look great in the Co-Op parking lot with a few "granola head" bumper stickers sprouting on its hind quarters.

A late-model used car is almost always a good purchase. Today's cars run better—they stay on the road longer and require slightly less finicky maintenance. Plus, a car with 10,000 or more miles on it has already depreciated beyond those magical few thousand dollars that the new-car smell costs, while it's still got some warranty left on it. As long as you can get financing (if you need it), a slightly used car is a good idea.

"Certified" used cars can sometimes be an even more attractive option, although I recommend you read the dealer's materials carefully to see (a) what they mean by "certified" and (b) whether it seems to add any value. Most dealers will clean and prep a car before they put it on their car lot, and they should give you a nice test drive of the car before you sign something. If their "certified" program doesn't come with warranties or guarantees, it might just be an excuse to sell a used car for a few extra bucks.

And then there's the older, wiser auto. The best used cars are bought from Ms. D's brother, Mr. K, who is some sort of car charmer who can actually lay hands on a car and heal it. Our 1986 Toyota Tercel 4WD was such a purchase. If you can't manage to buy a car from Mr. K, you can at least take some of his advice with you when you're buying from a third party.

• One of his key suggestions is to know the car as well as your automotive curiosity will allow you—before really examining and test driving a car, Mr. K has been known to procure that car's owner's or shop manual and get a sense of the maintenance requirements it suggests. Often you can get such manuals for a few bucks on eBay.

• Next, check the car's listing on kbb.com or a similar pricing service, but hedge your bets on the pricing that you get, particularly if the car is many years old. A car that's 10 years old or has more than 100,000 miles on it may be worth something between the third-party and retail prices that Kelly Blue Book quotes, particularly if the car is in good shape.

• While you're on the Internet, run the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) through a search at a place like Autocheck.com. (You can do this after test driving, if you don't yet know the VIN.) The search tells you if a salvage title has ever been issued or if the odometer has ever been, uh, misreported.

• If you're looking at multiple models, don't just compare their asking prices. Call a dealer's parts department and get the retail prices for a timing belt, radiator hoses, the starter and the water pump for the make and model you're considering. (These are all parts you're likely to replace at some point.) If you're weighing a few different makes or models, you might be surprised at the price differences.

• When you get near the car, look under it at all the metal, and the bottom of doors and at the floor and firewall, if you can get the carpet up. Look for rust, signs of abnormal wear or lines that don't match up. Also, look under the car for any leaks.

• Open the hood and look at how it lines up with the car's body. With the hood raised, note the serial numbers on the fenders—if they don't match, something's been replaced. Look for any bends in the frame.

• Look over the engine compartment. Check near the radiator cap for peeling or discolored paint—that's a sign that the car has overheated and boiled over. Check the seams on the engine block for oily residue—that could mean a worrisome head gasket or worse.

• Check the oil and see if it looks fresh. If it looks dull, thick or metallic, that's a sign of a lack of care.

• Check the tires for uneven wear. If they look like Indy 500 slicks, question the seller's sanity and take the price of a new set into consideration when negotiating.

• Take the car on a good long test drive. Test it in traffic, over bumps or potholes and for acceleration. Does it track straight? Test the AC well—air conditioning is expensive to service, and an older AC is expensive to upgrade to the environmentally friendly R-134.

• If you can, see how the car reacts when the engine has gotten hot. Does it sound any different; does the acceleration seem affected? Do the gauges register anything out of the ordinary?

Ideally, you'll want to take the car to a trusted mechanic to get it looked over. If you know the mechanic, then he or she will hopefully do a good job, trusting that you'll be back in for regular service. (Always a good idea to take your small problems to a local mechanic that you can get to know.) Ask around for a shop that specifically offers used car inspections and opinions.

For a car over 100,000 miles, Mr. K suggests that immediately after purchase you change the timing chain or belt, all other belts, the water pump and at least check all hoses and other consumables—spark plugs, air filter. (If the seller has a receipt from a recent tune-up, you can skip some of this.) Immediately drain and replace the transmission fluid in an older car, as most drivers don't pay attention to their service interval requirements for transmission fluid. Cost? $500 or more if you don't to the work yourself. Build that into the price when you're buying used, and remember that the make and model you choose could affect how much more than $500 that bill will be.


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