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How To Buy A Used Car


1. DO YOUR RESEARCH, DECIDE ON THE CAR OR CARS YOU WANT. Too many folks scan the classifieds with only a vague idea of what they want, focusing primarily on the price. This creates problems when it’s time to make a deal; furiously researching a vehicle while the clock is ticking induces a sense of panic, and prevents you from making a calm, cool decision. It is also wise to have more than one make or model to choose from, as it increases the pool from which to choose.

2. SHOP THE CAR, NOT THE PRICE. It seems to be the norm that folks decide on the vehicle they want, then scan the classifieds for the cheapest vehicle of that type. In typical American fashion, value is equated with price. This equation is wrong, here’s why: with the advent of the Internet, it is too easy to valuate a vehicle; the days of grandma offing her classic for a steal are gone. It is also the case that a person who maintains his or her car properly is very aware of the fact, therefore wants maximum return on the sale. So, when a car is priced on the cheap end of the spectrum, it is usually priced so for a reason. In other words, you should expect to get what you pay for.

3. SHOP THE OWNER, NOT THE CAR. Shopping for a car should be thought of as a filtering process. You should expect to spend 95% of your time making phone calls, and 5% of your time test-driving cars. Of the cars you test-drive, you should not assume that you will drive one of them home. This may sound time-consuming, but it takes far more time to get to a car and test-drive it than it does to screen the prospect on the phone. So, we say shop the owner, because you can glean a lot of information about the person you are talking to, and if you can form an opinion about the person, you can also form an opinion about the car. So have your questions ready, but pay extra attention to the person’s personality. If someone gives you sensible answers to your questions, seems patient and mild-mannered, in other words treats you well, it’s a strong indicator that they treat their car well, and that they will work with you to ensure the process goes smoothly. So the two parts to this formula are 1. Profile The Owner, and 2. Ask The Right Questions.

Profile points: Are they selling multiple cars? Brokers (or worse, shade-tree brokers) are a bad bet, which we’ll elaborate on later. Our opinion is you should move to the next prospect if they appear to be a broker, unless you specifically intended to call one. Are they selling the car for someone else? All too often you’ll hear the ‘it’s my cousin’s car, but he had to leave the country, so I’m selling it for him’ (or something like that) routine. This is an excuse to not answer questions truthfully or not disclose known problems. Do they have a good reason for selling the car? The ones we like are ‘I just got a new car’ or ‘my daughter just moved off to college, so we don’t need it anymore’. Having a good reason to sell a car means it’s less likely they’re selling the car for an unethical reason, such as a major flaw, etc. Do they communicate clearly? This is an open-ended implication, but the fact is it is easy to get lax in the details; poor communication can lead to honest mistakes, and can be an excuse for blatant deception. Seen it many times, trust me. So, we call these ‘Red Flags’; there are too many to fully itemize, but you get the idea, and you need to watch out for them.

Questions to ask: Are you the original owner? Original or secondary owners are the best, for obvious reasons. Is the car modified? Modified cars are almost always worse than stock cars; stay away from them unless you specifically want one. Certain cars have a greater tendency to be modified, so doing your research helps. Does the car have a salvaged title? This, too, we will discuss in better detail, but you should not even consider a car with a salvaged title. Has the car been in an accident? This is not always a major problem, but you want to know in advance, and should consider it one of those Red Flags we talked about earlier. Also ask if the car has had paint work. Poor quality paint work can be a problem, and it doesn’t have to be resultant from an accident. How often do you change the oil? Every 3-5k miles is imperative. Yes, this may be debated, but we feel strongly about this. Do you have service records? I want to say this, too, is imperative, but the fact is many people are lousy about keeping records. Let’s say this is another Red Flag. Why are you selling the car? This was mentioned previously, but applies to both topics. Again, there should be a good reason for the car being sold.

4. BE PATIENT. 95% of the problem cars people buy were bought in haste. If you resign yourself to following the formula, the odds are good you will end up making a smart purchase. Patience cannot be stressed enough.

5. RED FLAGS. I wish I could apply a formula to this, like a certain number of Red Flags means you walk away, but it’s not that simple. Suffice it to say, the fewer Red Flags the better, because we’re filtering here

6. BROKERS. Stay away from them. This may not seem fair to all those poor souls flipping cars for a profit, but here’s the logic: First, you pay a premium off the top, as there is a pricing matrix called Retail Price, which is the price you pay the broker; it is usually at least $2,000 more than Private Party Price. Second, the formula works against you: brokers buy low, sell high; they usually do not know the vehicle history; they usually do not look for problems, as it is not in their interest to find them; they are in it for profit, nothing more. By and large, these cars tend to have the most problems, coupled with the highest price tags. Anecdotally, the Dealer Certified cars actually seem to be OK, but you still pay a premium.

We give this its own category to make sure it stands out. Stay away from salvaged cars! A car is salvaged when an insurance company determines that the cost of repairing it meets or exceeds the value of the vehicle. So, by definition, salvaged vehicles are NEVER repaired properly, because a proper repair makes no sense economically.

8. GET A PROFESSIONAL INSPECTION. Can’t stress this enough. We could talk about how to inspect a car yourself, but that would read like a novel, and introduces so much subjectivity that it may cause more problems than it solves. So, regardless of your level of confidence in your own abilities, we feel it is critical that a professional who specializes in your vehicle performs an inspection. Aside from simply a second set of eyes and ears, a specialist knows what to look for. Of course, there is no way a mechanic can ascertain every nuance in the hour he spends with the vehicle, but he can surely tilt the odds in favor of your purchase being a smart one

9. FINAL NOTES. The vehicle must be Smogged in order to transfer title. There are many ways this can work, but the best thing to do is get the Smog Check before money changes hands. Also, something that is often overlooked is the Release Of Liability. This is a document attached to the Pink Slip. This document protects the seller, which is also you if you are getting rid of your old car. This document must be filled out and mailed to the DMV. We also recommend that the seller photo-copies it and saves it somewhere safe. This may seem a minor detail, but can save you from major complications in the future. As for where to shop, we like Craigslist online, Auto Trader online, the Buggy Bank in Berkeley and any and all classified ads in local periodicals. The basic idea is to cast your net as wide as possible; do not limit your resources to one or two venues.

Happy Shopping! -Art’s


The Art’s Automotive guide to buying a used car CONTINUED

Buying a used car is often a stressful process that raises many questions —

* Which makes and models match my preferences?
* Which makes and models will hold up well?
* How can I tell if a car was well maintained and if it’s in good condition?
* How can I tell if a car is fairly priced?

It can also be very time consuming. Before you can start driving your new used car you’ll need to —

* Research the makes and models you’d like.
* Call sellers for interviews and to set up a time to see the car.
* Arrange to have the car inspected.
* Negotiate the price.
* Get a smog inspection.
* Register the car at the DMV.
* Call your insurance company.

Buying a used car can be a pain. However, it’s a lot less painful than shelling out $25K+ for a new car, assuming, of course, you have that much liquid cash to spare. If not, you’ll have to add in another $5100 for interest for a total investment of $31K, not including the mandatory full coverage insurance. On the other hand, if you buy a 4 year old used car someone’s just finished paying $31K for, you’re likely to pay only $10,000 and still be able to put 10 years / 150,000 miles on it. This is why so many people put up with the hassle of buying a used car.

Here’s the method we suggest for finding you’re new-to-you ride

1. Choose at least two model generations you are willing to buy (e.g. 1993-1997 Toyota Corolla and 1992-1995 Honda Civic). If you have your heart set on only one model, you may have more trouble finding one in good shape at a reasonable price. If you choose 2 or more models to look for, you will have a larger pool to choose from and are more likely to find a good deal. Pick your models carefully, with used cars, there are no “backsies”. If you find out you don’t have enough leg room after you’ve bought the car, you’ll have to learn to like being cramped, or go through the hassle of selling the car and finding another.

2. Decide whether you want to buy from a used car dealer or a private party.

Used car dealers make their living buying cars and selling them for more than they paid for them. They have overhead in the form of rent, inventory, and pre-sale repairs. You will almost always pay more for a car bought from a used car dealer than you you would buying the same car from a private party. Why would you want to go to a used car dealer? Convenience. There are lots of cars to peruse in one location. Why wouldn’t you want to go to a dealer? Well, many of them use high pressure sales techniques and some of them try to sell cars in very poor condition by masking their defects.

Private party sellers are just as varied as the general population. Some people are nice. Some people are mean. Some people are quirky. Some people are frightening. If you choose to buy your used car from a private party, you’ll have a chance to pay less and meet some of your fellow citizens.

3. Find people selling the type of car you want in the free classified papers, Craig’s list, and in the on-line classifieds of the your local papers. Write down a list of questions for sellers such as:
* Does the car have a salvaged title (don’t buy salvaged cars, they were totaled for a good reason!)?
* Are there any dents or cosmetic problems?
* Are there any mechanical problems you know about?
* Do you have service records?
* Have you passed a smog check in the last 2 months?
* If I am interested in the car, may I, or will you, bring the car to my mechanic for an inspection.
* Add any questions that are important to you and ask about any information missing from the ad.
* If it all sounds good, set up a time and get an address (or agree to meet at a public place).

After you’ve written your list, copy or print it several times, and use it as a guide for your phone calls. Write the name, number, car, and ad source on the top of the sheet and write the answers to the questions under the questions. After you’ve made 20 calls or so, everything will start to blur together and you won’t be able to remember all the details. You’ll need your notes to sort out who said what. If you’ve made plans to see the car, you might want to print your MapQuest directions and staple it to the back of your notes, especially if you are going to see several cars.

4. Do a basic inspection yourself, before bringing the car to your mechanic. Here’s what to check:

* Check for signs of previous body work such as
— a change in paint color or texture from panel to panel
— overspray in the wheel wells.
— most newer cars have VIN (a 17 digit identifying number) tags on most body parts. Check that they are all there and that they match (you can use the last 3 digits).
— paint on the edges of weather stripping from poor masking.
— sight down the side of the car and look for ripples.

* Check for blue smoke from the tail pipe. Some white steam is normal, but thick blue / gray smoke with an acrid smell is a sign the engine is past it’s prime. Checking for smoke when the car is started with a cold engine is the best time.

* Check all of the fluid levels. If the seller won’t bother to top them before a buyer comes to look at the car, what must their normal habits be? Please note that the car must be on level ground (the side of the street usually isn’t) and you should be familiar with how to properly check a given fluid so you don’t jump to any erroneous conclusions. BTW, never open a radiator when hot, you could be badly burned.

* Remove the oil cap and check the color of the metal on the inside of the engine. It should be silver or tan. Dark brown or black is a sign the motor oil has been neglected. Be sure to put the oil cap back on!!

* If the car you are looking at is an automatic, check the transmission fluid condition by pulling the dipstick and dabbing some of the fluid onto a white piece of paper. The fluid should be a bright red / pink color. Purple is still OK too. But if the fluid is dark brown or black, the fluid has been neglected. Be sure to put the dipstick back!!

* Drive the car and make notes on anything that seems odd, so you can relay that information to your mechanic when you have the car checked out.

5. Once you know you like the car, and it’s passed your initial inspection, and the price seems like it’s somewhere near right, it’s time to bring the car in for inspection. Many buyers skip this step, and I’ve seen it lead to disaster. We’ve had customers buy literally worthless cars without inspection. At Art’s, you will need to make an appointment in advance to have the car checked out, and we realize that this can be inconvenient. Sorry. A couple suggestions — You can make an appointment on a day you will be looking at a car, and cancel it if it doesn’t pan out. Please call to let us know though. You can also call in on the day you are looking at cars and see if we’ve had any cancellations (10:00 AM is a good time to do this. If a customer has not come in by 10:00, we figure they are not coming and give their spot to someone else).

6. Check the seller’s maintenance and repair records for gaps in service and looming service events. If you bring the records with you, we can help you with this. If this is not possible, we can give you a list of service items to find out if the seller has done.

7. If we inspect the car and you are satisfied with the results of the inspection and you and the seller can agree on a price, you’re almost done. Get a smog check before trading your money for the pink slip. In California, the seller is responsible for selling a car that will pass the smog check, not necessarily for paying for or procuring the smog check (although some do to make their car more attractive to potential buyers). However, if the car does not pass the smog check after you’ve paid for the car, and the seller refuses to take responsibility for the repairs necessary to make the car pass smog, you’d have to take the seller to small claims court to collect, and even then you might have trouble collecting on you’re judgment. It’s much easier to deal with this before the money has changed hands.

8. You have 10 days to register the car with DMV after purchase.

9. Insurance will normally cover you (liability only) for a short “between cars” period, but why take chances, call them ASAP and add your new car.

10. Congratulations, you’re done! Don’t forget about any maintenance or repair issues brought to light during the inspection though.

Useful links

The Kelly Blue Book site. Be sure to use the private party value if you are buying from a private party and the retail value if you are buying from a dealer. Read the condition descriptions carefully. It’s also a good idea to check the average price in local classified ads too.
Feel free to e-mail questions about cars you are considering. You can send a message to us all with this link.



Q: How can I tell if a car has a salvaged title?
A: It will say salvaged on the pink slip in California.

Q: Where can I find the body VIN tags?
A: On the driver’s side of the dashboard, near where the dash meets the windshield. On the driver’s door pillar. On all four doors, usually near the strikers. On the inside of the front fenders, the area visible with the hood up. On the underside of the hood. On the front transverse crossmember (the metal part that runs above/parallel to the radiator). On the firewall. On the top of the rear bumper (usually visible with the trunk open). On the underside of the trunk lid. And maybe elsewhere.

Q: I can’t find all of the VIN tags, does that mean the car’s been wrecked?
A: Maybe, maybe not. Not all cars have all of the above mentioned VIN tags. It seems like the body part tags became more common around 1996, earlier cars may have only the dash, firewall, and drivers door or door pillar tag. The tags should be fairly symmetrical though. For instance, if the right side door have tags and the left don’t, that would be suspicious.

Q: What’s wrong with buying a salvaged car?
A: A car is salvaged car is a car that an insurance company has assessed as un-fixable for less than the value of the car. When a claim is filed, the insurance company would like to pay as little as possible. Of course they would rather fix the car than pay the insured the full value of the car. If the insurance company totals the car, it’s with good reason. Sometimes used car brokers will buy salvaged car and repair them, cutting as many corners as possible in order to make a profit. You don’t want own a car like this as the duct tape and bailing wire repairs start to fail.

Q: But the seller says that the car was totaled because the seats were stolen. The list price on the seats is over $6000. That’s why the car was totaled. When the seller bought it back from the insurance company, he just bought a set of used seats from a wrecking yard for $600, and now the car is fine again.
A: This is a very common story, we hear it or a variation once every couple months. Insurance companies have heard of wrecking yards. In fact, most insurance policy contracts specify that the insurance company can use used part to repair the car in the event of a claim. If the insurance company totals a car, there’s a very good chance they knew what they were doing.