I’m asked about how to buy used cars, often, and I try to give good answers to these questions. Most of the questions revolve around how to buy, where, from who and what to expect in a used car. Buying a used care is a little on the scary side; there is a usually a lot of money involved, at least from the perspective of the buyer and it is a transaction loaded with a great deal of long term risk.
On the sell side, I’m asked about valuation, but the risk issue is pretty much over when the seller is counting their money and the title is transferred to the new owner. So I’m going to focus on the buyer and their issues, that is where I see the most angst.
Before you shop the market for a car or truck, it is important to actually know what it is you want in a car. Seems simple, but some people don’t give much thought to which metal box with four wheels and seats is the right vehicle fit for their needs. How many passengers, economy and performance, comfort level and how easily is the car entered and exited? These are just a few criteria to set for the purchase and then there is the driving issue of cost. Associated with cost is repair and maintenance. How expensive will your dream car be to maintain or fix? I have penned out my dream set of wheels many times up to the cost and maintainability. What I can afford or want to pay changes the nature of what I can plan for. Cost drives much of the problem and how you are going to solve it. Price is the number one issue. Get that out front first and then have some understanding of how easy or hard it may be to maintain and repair.
After the reality of what is financially possible you’re ready to start the vetting and shopping process. Are you buying domestic, Japanese, Korean or European? Within this decision matrix of where your car is manufactured there are more specific decisions about brand. The old Ford vs Chevy vs Dodge vs BMW vs Mercedes vs Honda vs Toyota and so on. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but now I’ll get flamed for not listing Volvo (I do like Volvo). All manufacturers have their superstars and their “problem child.” That is a good question to ask and sometimes we have some good shop data or industry information on what we know to be more reliable models within a manufacturer’s lineup. Engine and transmission combinations within a model series may be relevant as well. Year groups will have different reliability statistics as well. Much of this information is available through numerous sources on the internet. Let your fingers do some searching on the net. There is a lot of information available, so much, that it is wise to cross check for different sources of information.
Once you have year make and model settled, don’t forget color and trim levels. Sounds a little ridiculous, but in my case, there are some colors that I won’t drive at any price. Some of the battleship low visibility gray colors are just too hard for me to look at. I’m a retired Navy Pilot and the low visibility color scheme is great for combat aircraft, but I’d have a hard time with it in front of my house or in my garage. To each his own, I know there are those who love the muted visual. Recently visiting family in Santa Cruz, I saw a Ferrari GT4 Lusso sporting a dull combat gray and I’m sure the owner loves his car and its color. Just not for me, but if he was gifting it to me, I’d drive it.
Who do you buy from? Private party or a dealer? There is money to be saved buying from a private party, as much as $1,500 dollars, possibly more. But there are reasons for that and there are different kinds of dealerships. Although there are some fine used car dealers, I tend to prefer dealers who are affiliated with a new car dealership. The new car dealership has a reputation to protect, more so than a used lot dealer. Again, that does not mean that there are no reputable used lot dealers, there are some very fine dealers. Most of the new car dealerships with a used car inventory have some confidence in there cars and have most likely have run them through an inspection process. Ask for that inspection report, the salesman will be happy to provide it. If there is no inspection report, ask the dealer to permit you to have the car independently inspected, they should have no problem with that. Some dealerships offer a limited warranty on their cars, read the fine print. Regardless of written or implied warranty, if you buy a car from a dealer and it stops running the next day, they will usually work with you to solve the problem. This is not available in any way shape or form with a private party, hence, the extra cost.
If you find the right car at the right price with a private party. Ask for service records. Get a Carfax report. Have a pre-purchase inspection done at a reputable independent auto repair shop. Private party purchases can be a great deal, especially if it is the original owner with complete service and repair records. Just keep in mind, there is no after purchase support or recourse after the title has been transferred. Once a private party has sold you a car, they don’t have to answer your phone calls or respond to your emails. Private party means just that, it’s private.
We have had a couple disasters come into the shop. Very nice people found a great looking car, low miles, but not be running properly. They thought they got a fantastic deal, amazing deal. They drank the car infatuation lemonade. But, it couldn’t’ve been cheap enough to make a good deal. Unless you have a documented evaluation of the issue, of which, you are certain of the cost to repair… you may assume the best value of the car is salvage, scrap, junk. Don’t buy cars that don’t run for anything more than scrap value, unless, you can absolutely nail down exactly what all the issues are and exactly what the repair cost are to justify a price over scrap. You may still be paying too much, even a dime over scrap value is too much if you can’t make it run. Some deals are not worth making at any price.
Lemon laws will not do anything for you here in Washington. Our lemon law applies to vehicles within 2 years of manufacture and less than 24,000 miles. In other words, the lemon law applies to new cars leased or purchased. With used cars, the only laws that protect you are the law of common sense and buyer beware. I can’t remember how many people have asked about the lemon law as it pertains to used cars. Sadly, I have to tell my customers that there is no such thing as a lemon law that applies to used vehicles in the state of Washington.
Buying a used car, take your time. Be methodical and keep in mind that any car, no matter how nice it looks, is only as good as it will run. If a car fails the good running condition test, run away. Don’t fall in love, there will be one just like it, maybe better coming onto the market that will run and satisfy your transportation needs. Be practical, don’t get infatuated with a particular car and drink the lemonade.
If you have questions about cars, drop into the shop and ask for Frank. He is the fountain of wisdom here at Bryan’s and always the purveyor of good car sense.