What to look for when buying a used ride.
By: Pete Rudloff
People throw away the best stuff. Talk to any trash hauler and they will tell you stories about perfect condition TVs, furniture, tools and, yes, even cars that they scored in someone’s trash pile. In today’s day and age automobiles can easily last 300,000-400,000 miles with proper maintenance and repairs, but it remains common place for people to discard, trade or sell a vehicle that otherwise would have lots of life left in it just because it needed $1,500.00 in repairs; (see my previously published article on the economics of keeping a car for the long haul).
Buying a pre-owned car is kind of like buying someone else’s discarded trash. Used cars are the ultimate -pig in a poke- or – Caveat emptor- scenario; sometimes a treasure, sometimes pure trash. Often times, the new owner will not know if they got a good deal for several weeks at least. The worst of case scenarios are often avoidable, but how does a non-auto mechanic person avoid being burned? Pre-purchase inspections can help mitigate a disastrous purchase.
First, do not sign any paperwork OR fork over more than a small deposit until you have had the car inspected, either by a professional or by yourself. Once you sign the papers or pay a deposit, you start to get locked in, possibly to a bad contract that you can’t easily get out of. This advice holds true for a used car lot and for buying from a private owner. You want a minimum commitment to purchase and one hinged on the results of the inspection.
The best advice is to take the car to a trusted auto shop and pay for a pre-purchase vehicle inspection. Depending on your market, and the relationship you have with your shop, the cost to have a used car inspected could run anywhere from free to $200 or more, but the expense of an inspection is secondary to the costs of major and immediate repairs that you would be on the hook for once you sign the papers. Ideally, your shop will have a standard used car inspection process that probably takes them close to an hour to perform.
Before you take it to your trusted mechanic, make sure you drive the car and determine it meets your minimum aesthetic and cleanliness standards. It doesn’t make sense to take a car that smells like death to your auto mechanic for a check out unless you are OK with the death smell. Likewise, make sure when you drive the vehicle it seems to perform normally before you take it to your trusted mechanic.
So, what if you are unable to find a mechanic you trust? Or maybe you are your own mechanic keeping your cars running, but do not have a process in place to check a car over. These simple steps will help you accomplish a pretty decent, non-professional inspection on your own.
Remember, the point of a vehicle inspection is to find major and expensive problems. A dirty air filter should not make or break a used car purchase, but it doesn’t hurt to check the little things too. I coach my clients to expect an average of $1,500.00 in initial repairs on a good used vehicle when buying a vehicle 5 years or older and/or 60,000 miles or more. The goal of a pre-purchase inspection is to find big money issues. Issues that would break the bank.
Step one should be to pop the hood and use your rag to check as many fluids as you can: oil, transmission, brake fluid, making sure these are topped up will allow you to drive the car without being too worried it will blow up on you. Use your flashlight to poke around at the serpentine belt to make sure it is not shredded and ready to fall off.
Next, jack the driver side of the car up (place a jack stand under for safety) and place your hands on the driver front tire in the 6 and 12 positions try and shake the tire back and forth. If no play is felt, move your hands to 3 and 9 and repeat. If you feel any play, have your helper shake the tire while you crawl under and verify where the play is coming from. Play felt in the 6/12 position could be ball joints, wheel bearing or control arm bushings. Play felt at 3/9 could be tire rods, wheel bearing or steering rack bushings. Repeat this on the passenger side.
Then, jack the vehicle up as high as you can and slip your jack stands under it. Slide the cardboard under the car and then crawl under with your screwdriver and your flashlight. Look for leaks and the overall condition of the frame (rust and cracks) poke at the frame with your screwdriver. It should not poke through a good condition frame. Inspect the exhaust and suspension components like control arms and springs, mostly looking for severely rusted or cracked components.
Before letting the car down, try and peek through the wheels to see if you can assess the brake condition. If you cannot, I suggest removing one front tire and one rear tire to get a good look at the brakes. This is a good time to assess the tires.
Congrats, you are almost done! Set the vehicle down and close the hood. Plug your code reader in and notate any codes found. Start the engine and let it idle for 5 minutes. Use this time to check HVAC operation (all modes), lights and wipers.
Time to drive. Remember that you are road testing the vehicle, not joy riding. Turn the radio off. Pay attention to noises and watch the gauges in the instrument cluster. Drive at all speeds and make sure to do at least one wide open throttle pull. This means starting from about 5-10MPH you stomp the accelerator pedal to the floor and hold on until you get through a 1-2 shift. Any clunks or bangs? Can you feel all the shifts? Engine powers good? Does it ride smooth with no vibrations at highway speed? How about stopping, any brake pulsations? Any smoke visible out of the exhaust? Engine temperature stays good? Oil pressure usage reads within the good range? Park the car and let it idle for another 10 minutes. Watch for any actively leaking drips and keep an eye on the coolant temperature, does the engine stay at normal operating temperature?
You should have collected tons of data and now you will have to decide if the vehicle is the right investment for you. No one can make that choice but you. Remember that stuff like brakes, tires, minor suspension repairs, wipers, light bulbs are going to be minor cost of ownership issues and because they are wear items, you will replace them at some point anyhow. Engine noises, transmission shifting issues and possibly check engine lights can get costly and probably warrant walking away. Any undercarriage rust that you can poke your screwdriver through should make it a deal breaker.
Also, remember that buying a car is an investment in miles to be traveled and at some point any vehicle you buy is going to need repairs so be realistic and make sure that you account for vehicle repairs and maintenance in your budget. Good luck!