Last year I was driving a 3-year-old car with less than 20,000 miles on it. Just about the opposite of the title photo. I bought it for a commute. I wanted something good on gas mileage, a quiet cabin on the highway, and a good speaker system for podcasts and music. I definitely knew the value of research.
My Chevy Cruze had all of the above. It could achieve 50 mpg on the highway and was engineered to limit road noise with an excellent audio system. Sadly, somebody going twice the speed limit crashed into me, and it was totaled. This isn't an advertisement for Chevy; the car just happened to fit my needs.
This was during the coronavirus shutdowns, and work was scarce, so I went without a car for a month. I was searching for the sweet spot of an older car but a well-maintained one, which is so hard to find these days. Eventually, I ran out of time because I was starting a new job. I bought my 2001 Mitsubishi Galant GTZ for $1,000.
It immediately needed rear brakes ($350), valve cover gaskets ($725), and a tune-up. This is an excellent opportunity to define " tune-up " because it can mean many things. It's a blanket term for preventative maintenance.
Essentially you typically get new spark plugs and wires, check the battery and all the fluids, and tire rotation, if needed. This also involves an oil and filter change. Any parts beyond their lifespan should also be replaced.
It's also a good idea to get this work done on a car that has been sitting for a while. And honestly, unless the previous owner has receipts for having this stuff done, it's best to just do it. I quickly learned a different skill set was needed when buying an older car from a private seller. It became less about desired features and more about practicality and detective work.
Questions to ask the seller before making a trip out to see it:
These days, there's a reasonably high chance your first contact with the seller will be online; before you spend the effort to drive out, ask the right questions to ensure it's worthwhile.
- Ask for the maintenance history and the number of owners. Sometimes they are lied to and think they are the second owner when they might be the sixth. Sometimes if they say it's a single-owner car, the CARFAX reports otherwise. Perhaps the seller was trying to make the vehicle more appealing. It's hard to know who is telling the truth, but either way, you know somebody lied along the way. You can call the shops that worked on it and see if they have any records or remember the vehicle or the customer.
- Ask what the vehicle was used for, especially if it's a truck or van. The hauling of heavy loads could mean suspension work ahead. Higher mileage could mean the car was used for long commutes, so an abundance of highway mileage isn't bad.
- Ask for any service work receipts and work orders. Only some will keep these records, but the availability of this information definitely tells you something about their conscientiousness.
- Ask why they are selling it. Gauge their reaction; are they relaxed? Do they appear tense or break eye contact? Typical stories are used to settle this question, such as, "it is my grandma's car, and she doesn't drive anymore but only used it to get groceries." Don't accuse them of lying, but the story might not be true if it has flame decals. They might say they wanted to upgrade or needed a bigger or more practical vehicle for a growing family.
- Run the CARFAX history and review it thoroughly.
After much ado trying to find other options, I advise running the CARFAX. While there are free VIN check websites, the information is minimal. It hurts a little to spend 40 bucks on a report, but it is well worth it because they have a near monopoly on car information associated with VIN numbers.
This is not an endorsement, only my personal opinion based on experience. AutoCheck is supposedly better at tracking auction vehicles, though, so I'm sure other services have their strengths.
You should also make sure the title matches the car's VIN and that the person selling it is the actual owner. There is something called "flipping a title," where backyard " car dealers " will buy a car cheap, do some basic maintenance, then sell it for more. They do this without titling the vehicle in their name to avoid taxes. This is a legal gray area.
These sellers do this to avoid being legally considered a dealer as well. They will often make up stories like it was their grandma's car. 0r, they're selling it for their neighbor or are moving and need to sell it quickly. Heed the warning, buyer beware. If something about the story behind the car seems off, question it, or better yet, move on.
(Image of a shady windowless van to convey a suspicious mentality)
Ask the seller for photos, including pics from under the hood and beneath the car. See if the seller is willing to send a video of starting and running the engine. Assuming all of this checks out, get ready to take a look. Make sure to bring a flashlight. A cushion to lay down on would be helpful as well.
Here is a list of things I recommend you check on your first lookover of the vehicle:
- Inspect the engine air and cabin air filters; these may reflect a careless owner if they are very dirty.
- Check all the fluids; also, learn to look for foreign materials in the oil and search online for what they mean.
- Look for leaks.
- Battery, tires.
- Look for dents and dings that might reveal an unreported accident. Maybe the guy's kid hit a shopping cart and didn't tell him. Use this as an opportunity to negotiate. You should always do this, even if you are friends with the seller or know a lot about cars.
- Look for rust and other signs of neglect; if they keep their car very dirty, it often reflects on their attention to other aspects of the vehicle. Use all your senses, and don't let them rush you.
- Question any bad smells. The car could be owned by a smoker, have an exhaust leak, or suffers from a moldy HVAC system.
- Walk away if the seller gets annoyed or defensive from your questions or tries to rush you. This is a sure sign they are hiding something.
- Test drive it. This should go without saying, but sometimes sellers are nervous about part of the process. Sometimes they will want to hold the cash to make this happen. If you are comfortable with this approach, go for it. That's assuming the car seems good enough to spend the money on and so far passes all the other tests. Otherwise, many sellers will be OK with a photo of your ID.
- Make sure the car accelerates smoothly, brakes properly, and handles well. Check that all the accessories work. Don't play the radio while driving so can more easily listen for any unexpected noises.
- Factor in any needed work into the asking price and walk away if they won't budge.
Even if it is \the exact vehicle you want, heed my dad's advice. "There's always another car." The seller wants you to feel like they have something special. So, don't let on if it is a model you have trouble finding, as this factor raises its apparent value to the seller. They'll only feel more justified about their asking price.
Instead, approach it realistically. Look up the bluebook value, account for any work it needs, know the highest you will go, and don't go higher!
Last bits of advice
Aside from this list, make a point to do a complete vehicle walk-around. Open and close all of the doors and windows and the trunk. Check underneath for rust. Make sure all of the seams line up, and nothing is missing. Look for window cracks, too. You should also press every button and open anything openable. Make sure to test everything.
While checking this stuff visually and testing is very helpful, you should get a pre-purchase inspection done by a trusted mechanic. If the owner is serious about selling, they should be OK with obliging. Sometimes, the seller may be willing to split the cost with you.
Trust me, save yourself the headaches I didn't keep myself from. While on the bright side, I have learned a lot about cars and am making the best of it. It's no fun having your primary form of transportation encounter issues and spending a lot of money.
Consider taking a class or two on automotive technology or make friends with a mechanic and ask them if you can observe and assist them. Yet, the desire to not be stranded by a disabled car and the need to get to work can be a great motivator.
Gather as much information as possible if you are buying a used car. Verify the details, and don't let anyone bully you into making a purchase. This goes for a dealer, not just for a private seller. Yet, buying from a dealer is a whole other article.
If you do your detective work and leave no stone unturned, you'll find the right vehicle and drive away feeling secure in your decision. Happy hunting, and try to enjoy yourself!