Monday, January 9, 2017

Inspecting a Used Car

Buying a late model used car is a good deal.  But what should you look for when buying a used car?

Late model used cars are a great deal, if you buy them from the owner, not a dealer.  Dealers "mark-up" the price of a used car, to the point where it is really no longer a bargain.  New car dealers usually keep their best trade-ins and then wholesale the rest.  Used car dealers buy these wholesaled cars and polish them up - they are often not very good bargains.

The best deals are from individual owners, but they are not easy to find.  And not all deals from individual owners are good deals!  There are plenty of dreamers out there, as well as "curbstoners" who are buying and flipping cars, as well as assholes who think they are too clever by half.   You have to be astute.

Many people are afraid of used cars.  What if I get a "lemon?"   Well, there are ways to ameliorate this risk.  And the best way to do this is to take the car to a trusted mechanic, who, for a hundred dollars or so, will inspect it and tell you if it has any obvious defects.   And it pays to have a trusted mechanic.  It amazes me that so many people who are clueless about cars, do not have a regular mechanic they go to, but instead visit a plethora of chain stores.  These can be bargains for oil changes and tire mounting, but are not very good for realistic advice about more serious car repairs. Find a good mechanic and keep him (or her)!

But, supposing you do all that, which used car do you take to the mechanic for inspection?   You may first want to triage your selection by kicking out the more obvious lemons.

When looking at a used car, there are a number of things to check out that can steer you away from the real clunkers:

1.  Owner:  Who is the owner?  Buying a car from the original owner is the best deal, as you can talk to them and figure out whether they took care of the car.  Mystery cars on a used car lot are just that - a mystery.  But oddly enough, a lot of people prefer an "anonymous" car, as they can kid themselves that no one drove it before.  A lot of people are idiots.

When you meet the owner, figure out what kind of car owner he is.  If he lives in a shack with a number of cars parked in the yard, some junked, this is not a good sign.  If he lives in a nice house and keeps the car in a garage, so much the better.  A garaged car is worth so much more than a car left outside.  And if you have a garage, your car should be in it - not boxes of crap.

Does he have all the original papers, receipts, service records?  Someone who cares about their car keeps these, often in a binder or folder.  A car-neglecter tosses them away or wads them up in the glovebox.

Does the guy seem honest and sincere, or a shyster with a "story"?  Some folks try to eke out a living or extra cash by acting as unlicensed car dealers - buying and selling cars that they pass off as their own. They call them "curbstoners" as they often sell the car from the curb.  Generally it is a good idea to avoid curbstoners, and they are not hard to spot.

Is the car clean, inside and out? Or did the previous owner treat is as a pair of used underwear?  Just walk away from cars with garbage in them (McDonald's wrappers, coke cans, etc.).  The person isn't interested in selling, most likely, but rather just put an ad in the paper to "see what would happen."  Or, they are just slobs, and treat their cars poorly.

And walk away from a car with an ashtray full of butts, or a car that the owner says "was never smoked in" but yet reeks of cigarettes. It goes without saying that if the owner lies to you once, he is likely lying about a lot of things.

You will find honest owners - people like you and me - who just want to sell their car.  The trick is, to walk away from the crappy owners, rather than try to make a good deal from a bad situation.

2. Body:  How does the car look?  A conscientious owner will wash and wax his car regularly, and there should be a minimum of dents and scratches.  Yes, sometimes "shit happens" and an honest owner will point out any defects, if not in fact show them in their advertisement.  If they fail to mention a prominent defect, ask yourself why not?  Again, anyone who lies to you from the get-go is not going to get more honest as times goes on.

(I should note that we have looked at cars, trucks, RVs and Boats advertised online with fantastic pictures showing the item in great shape. When we drive an hour to go look at the item, we discover the photos were taken when the owner bought the item new.  Needless to say, the condition today is far worse.  The only thing you can do, is get back in your car, drive away, and go have a beer somewhere.  You are not going to make a good deal from a bad one.   And trying to deal with liars is just a loser's game.)

A car with a lot of scratches and dents should be avoided.  Not only is it worth less, but it speaks volumes how the owner treated the car (poorly).  Yet some people think it is "normal" to scrape the car against a parking lot wall, or to door-job the edges into a post, or throw cinderblocks into the truck bed.   Just walk away from car-abusers like that.

A late model car should have no rust on it at all.  Even if you are looking at an older car, walk away from any rust.  Modern cars hardly rust - and if you see any, just walk away.  If you live in a rust-prone region, consider buying a car the next time you are on vacation in Florida.  You can bring a rust-free car back up North, and pay a lot less.

Remember the Rule of Thumb about Rust:  If you see any rust, chances are the actual amount is about 10 times as much as you see.   So even a "little rust" is a very bad thing.  And rust is very, very hard to repair properly.   Like cancer, it can go into "remission" with some bondo and paint, only to erupt again within a few short years - worse than before!

Look at the nose of the car.  Is it covered with rock chips?  If so, the owner was a tailgater, the type of angry and aggressive driver who follows too closely and is on the brakes and accelerator all the time.   Expect the brakes to be shot and the engine more worn.  Rock chip damage extends beyond just the damage to the paint!

Look for fading on the paint, particularly on the roof or hood.  A late-model garage-kept car should have none.   Also look for leaf stains and the like - a sign the car was parked under a tree.  Open the hood and trunk - are there wads of leaves in the crevices?  Or green algae or mildew or mold?  These can cause water to back up from the drain tubes and leak into the car.  They are also a sign of car neglect.

3.  Mods:  Again, knowing the owner is key.  And it never pays to buy a car from a kid (anyone under 30) who hopped it up as a race-car.  Bolting on an air cleaner or mufflers does not add anything to the value of the car - and the types of people who do this are convinced it makes the car priceless.  So, often, it is best to just walk away from dreamers like that.  Just because he wasted $5000 on mods doesn't mean you have to as well.

Mods actually detract from the value, and I would just say "NO" to any modded car, unless it is something that can be easily removed, like a cone air filter (and the original parts come with the car).

And it goes without saying, never pay extra for "Mods".  If the seller thinks they are worth something, then ask them to take them off.

But in general, just walk away from cars like this - they are likely to be trouble down the road, as they have been beaten on.  Road cars (general transportation sold to the public - in other words, all cars) are meant for road use, not racing.  You cannot make a "race car" from a road car by bolting crap to it.   Mostly this junk just makes the car louder and get worse mileage and not last as long.  Kids who do this stuff usually beat on their cars (doing burnouts, etc.) and they reason they are getting rid of the car is they know a lot of stuff is going to break in short order as a result of their abuse.

4. Accident Damage:  Again, your mechanic may have an easier time spotting this than you can.  But an honest seller will tell you if there was any accident damage.  And if you spot it and catch him in a lie, walk away.

Accident Damage is not a deal-killer, depending on the type and amount, and how it was repaired.  It does lower the price of the car somewhat, though.   It pays to run a CarFax on the car before you visit it.  Ask the seller for the VIN number and run a CarFax and print it out, before you go to look at it.

If the seller won't tell you the VIN number and gives you some song-and-dance about "privacy concerns" just walk away.  The VIN number on any car is visible though the windshield, to anyone walking by a car.  If the seller won't give you this data, he is being deceptive, and we know how that works.

A minor fender-bender shouldn't be of too much concern, but again have your mechanic check the car out.  Look for odd, uneven wear on the tires - it could be an indication that the alignment was knocked out of whack by the impact.  In some cars, this could alter the camber or even caster - which may not be adjustable on some modern cars.

A serious wreck - where two cars are welded together to make a frankencar - is usually a walk-away deal.  These are getting harder to come by - although the third-rate used car dealers may still push these loads.  If the work was done right, it could be a bargain car - at a bargain price.  But most are sold deceptively to unsophisticated people who don't realize the car was wrecked.   Sadly, a "salvage title" car is marked for life, so if you end up with one, the resale value is drastically reduced.

5.  Mileage:   Mileage is a tricky one.  A higher mileage car is usually worth less, but often not much less than a low-mileage one.  But a car driven a lot of highway miles may have less wear than a lower mileage car driven in city traffic.

Ask the owner (which is why it is key to buy from him) what his driving habits are.  Offer less for a higher mileage car, of course, but don't just spike it on mileage alone.

Odometer fraud is largely a thing of the past these days, and computerized cars are much harder to hack.   Usually the engine computer and the instrument cluster computer are synched at the factory, so that if one reads a different mileage than the other, a "fraud alert" symbol is activated.   Sometimes this may happen if someone replaced the engine computer without having it synced by a factory technician.   I would walk away from cars with "stories" about broken odometers or whatnot.

Usually you can tell if a car's odometer is inaccurate - and not by looking at the odometer.  When I was a kid, the local dealer used to let his wife drive a brand-new car for a year - with the odometer cable disconnected.   He would then wax and polish the car, re-connect the odometer, and then try to sell it as new.   It is, of course, fraud - act shocked.  

One way to tell if a car has been hacked like this is that there are signs of wear that a brand-new car will never have.   For example, if the brake pedal shows wear, you can be sure the car has been driven more than  few miles.

6. Basic Wear Items:    With any car, things wear out over time.  You should plan on replacing certain items every so many miles - and inspect the car in question accordingly.  A lot of people buy new cars and then drive them until they need a number of things, rather than keeping them up.  As a result, when you buy the car used, you will have to immediately repair these things, which may not have been in your budget.

A car needs new tires every 30,000 to 50,000 miles - although today tires are lasting longer and longer.  Inspect the tires, do they all match (same brand and wear?).  If they are nearly worn out, factor that into the price (and ask yourself why the seller did not reshod the car before selling it).

Brakes can last 25,000 to 50,000 miles, and your mechanic should be able to tell you if they need replacement or will need it soon.  If the owner is a careful driver, the brakes may last far longer than that!   Shitty drivers slam on the brakes at the last minute and warp the rotors and go through brake pads regularly.

Batteries can last 5 years or so (sometimes as much as 10, but don't count on it).  How old is the battery in this car?  Original or replaced?  Usually there is a date sticker on the battery or the owner has the receipt from when it was replaced.

For older cars, bear in mind that most modern cars require new spark plugs and oxygen sensors at about 100,000 miles.

In some cars (mostly Japanese) the timing belt should be replaced every 70,000 miles.  Has this been replaced, or not?    Ask, and ask to see a receipt, if it has.

7. You Can Fix That!   Walk away from a car with items broken where the seller helpfully says, "Well, you can fix that for not a lot of money!"  If it was so easy and inexpensive to fix, why didn't the owner do that?

I helped a friend look for cars once, and one we went to see had coffee stains on the seats and fast-food wrappers on the floor.  The "ABS" light was on, and the seller said, "Oh, that's just a sensor, you can fix that".   We walked away. 

Why?  Because it could have been a sensor, or a new ABS module ($1000 plus installation) and moreover, the car would not pass safety inspection in Virginia as it sat.  The brakes squeaked and the serpentine belt chirped, and he clearly was a lazy person who never took care of his cars.

Walk away from "You can fix that!" - a phrase we hear all the time with clapped-out RVs and boats, in particular.

And walk away from any car with any warning light on that will not go out.  Again, don't listen to stories from sellers that it is "easy to fix" or whatever.  If it was, they would fix it!

(For the astute shade-tree mechanic with a code-reader tool, of course, you might be able to figure out what the problem is, and it indeed may be a simple fix that the seller thinks is hard.  I've bought many a cheap car that was easy to fix this way.  One seller sold me a car with an "incurable electrical problem" that turned out to be a defective turn signal flasher module.  But that is for the more experienced buyers).

8.  Some Basic Tests:   There are a few simple tests you can do to detect problems down the road.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it presents some helpful points.  Also, when you do these tests, it impresses the hell out of the seller, who may think you less a naive fool.
Shock absorbers (or struts):  Push down on each corner of the car and see if the car rebounds once, or whether it bounces up and down. If the latter, it may need new shocks or struts.  Note this while test driving and see if the car goes "boing, boing" when you go over a bump.  Shocks are pretty cheap to replace, but struts (present in most modern cars) can be pricey, as you have to disassemble the suspension to replace them.  Usually this is only an issue on older, higher-mileage cars these days.

Tires:  Very worn shocks usually cause an unusual form of tire wear called cupping and it is very unique and distinguishable.  Other types of unusual tire wear can alert you to poor alignment (wear on the edges) or other suspension problems.  Inspect the tires carefully not just to see if they are worn, but whether there are unusual (uneven) wear patterns which may indicate suspension issues.  Are all four tires the same make and model?  How old are they? Look for signs of dry rot.

Transmission:  If the car is an automatic, when you put it in gear, does it "clunk"?  If so, you might have transmission or U-joint (or CV joint) problems.   Monitor the shifting through all the gears and see if it is smooth or whether it clunks or revs.  Any slipping at all is simply not acceptable.   Transmissions are incredibly complex today and staggeringly expensive to replace.  This is one area of the car where there should be "no excuses".  And quite frankly, even though they are becoming more and more popular, I am not sure I would buy a used car with a CVT transmission - just yet.

If you can check the transmission fluid (impossible to do on some more modern cars) check to see that it is bright red and clean and translucent.  An opaque dark red or brown, particularly with a 'burnt' smell to it, spells trouble.

Note that in America, most cars are automatics these days.  While a manual is more fun to drive, it may have been "beat on" by a poor driver or a boy-racer.  Generally speaking, automatic transmission cars are easier on the engine and driveline as there is less driveline shock.

Driveline:  For cars with CV joints (nearly all today) crawl under the car and inspect the boots.  When they tear, they let dirt in (and grease out) and destroy the CV joint in short order.  The labor to install boots is the same as to replace the joint.  If you see grease all over the underside of the body (or inside a wheel), flung off the CV joint, ask the owner whether they replaced the joint, or just the boot.

Engine:  Start the engine and let it warm up.  If you put a dollar bill by the tailpipe, it should blow backwards in a nice steady stream of air pulses. If it sucks back in on occasion, the car likely has a burnt exhaust valve, and will always run rough and eventually need a valve job.  It won't be the last dollar that car sucks up.

The engine should be quiet with no ticking and especially no knocking.  Check the rear bumper for telltale signs of smoke deposits from burning oil.  Even a well-running diesel shouldn't smoke very much.  Run away from any large volumes of white smoke - it usually means a blown head gasket or other internal coolant leak.

(However, even new cars will make some thin white smoke on startup, particularly on a cold day, as moisture comes out the tailpipe - even water may come out as condensate.   But clouds of thick smoke?  Bad.)

Listen for any noises with the hood open (keeping hands clear of the engine, though!).   Check to make sure the serpentine belt is not squeaking or chirping - this usually means the tensioner is shot, a simple repair and typical after 50,000 miles. Ask the owner if he has changed the belt, as they do not last forever.

Checking coolant is tricky in newer cars, as the cap on the radiator (if any) should not be removed.  Most cars today have a sealed system, and the radiator may be lower than the engine head.  As such, if you take the "radiator cap" off, you may let air in the system.  Check the fluid from the "overflow" bottle (actually an expansion tank) and it should be translucent and clean (not cloudy or, especially, oily!).   Coolant changes were once a big deal, but more and more car makers are advising to leave well enough alone, as a sealed system shouldn't have any need for regular fluid changes, or at the very least, such changes are much further apart today than in the past.

Engine oil can tell you a lot about the car and the way it was treated.  A smart seller may change it before selling the car, so you might not learn much.  But there are some real tell-tale signs.   Oil that looks white and milky is a real danger sign, as this usually means a blown head gasket - and water in the crankcase.  Jet-black oil is usually not good either, as it suggests a long time between oil changes.  Of course, ask for all oil change receipts or records - they are the key to long engine life.   It is rare, but if you see any metallic powder in the oil, just walk away.

Again, some modern cars no longer have a dipstick, so you cannot check the oil at all - making it harder to diagnose engine health.

* * *

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I would also suggest you search online for other suggestions.   But you can winnow down a selection of used cars to look at pretty quickly this way - weed out the obvious clunkers - before you have it inspected by a qualified mechanic.

Also- and this is key - go onto some discussion forums for that make and model car and look for a thread (or start one) on "what problems should I look for" for that make, year, and model car.   And it goes without saying, that if you are shopping for a car, pick one make and model to shop for rather than comparing apples to oranges. 

Comparing a Honda to a Toyota to a Dodge to a BMW is just going to leave you confused and introduce too many variables into the equation.  Pick one make and model and a narrow range of model years (a single production generation) and look at several examples of that car.  Odds are, after the first three, you'll have a good idea of what is a "good" car and what is a clunker.   

Sadly, cars today are complex machines, and oftentimes even an experience shade-tree mechanic is smart to have a specialist look at a modern car before buying it.  Find the best example you can, and have it checked over before buying.

The good news is, as complex as modern cars are today, they are far more reliable than in the past, and anyone who tells you the "good old days" were better has their head up their ass.