How to Buy a Used Car

Today’s terminology referencing vehicles which are not factory fresh from the dealer has led to calling them not used but “pre-owned” or possibly even “pre-loved.”

A used car could be a leased vehicle, owned by a fleet or owned by an individual. An advantage is that someone else has taken the initial depreciation which occurs the moment it is first driven off the dealer’s lot.

Shopping for a vehicle begins with the realization a replacement means of transportation is desired. It may be the addition of another set of wheels for the family or a change in needs. As we age needs change and a sedan is no longer the best choice. A small SUV (sport utility vehicle) or a mini-van might be more compatible with the addition of a walker or wheelchair to our daily routine. What we call an SUV today was once known as a station wagon. The Jeep Cherokee station wagon was once officially known by the manufacturer as an MPV or “multi-purpose vehicle.”

Sources for the purchase used vehicles range from automobile dealerships, used car lots or private individuals. Rental agencies dispose of near new vehicles as well. It may be more expensive to buy from a franchised dealer who sells new cars, used car lots exist solely on the profits gleaned from used car sales. There is an expectation of performance when making a purchase from either place.

Money can be saved when buying from a private party but such a seller has no obligation to provide you with any warranty or assistance in securing financing. Other than freedom from fraud, a private seller owes nothing to the buyer. Once the seller is paid, the transaction is completed.

Many vehicles with a multitude of options exist, locating one with specific options may entail a lengthy hunt. Most used vehicles today are equipped with air-conditioning, AM/FM radio and many encountered have four wheel drive in northern parts of the country. Four wheel drive vehicles are usually more expensive and some may have been used for plowing which may have generated serious wear.

If four wheel drive is a new experience for you, it is best to have instruction from someone knowledgeable. Repair of a four wheel drive mechanism can be expensive. Many four wheel drive vehicles can be fitted with plowing equipment. This is handy if you have a long driveway, and intend to plow it yourself, but the cost of installation of plow equipment can take your breath away. It also does increase resale value of the vehicle. If the use of a plow is anticipated, it is prudent to contact a plow installer to determine if the vehicle in question can be fitted with a plow.

With any unfamiliar used vehicle it is always best to have it checked over by a mechanic who will be servicing it. Obvious deficiencies such as the need to replace worn tires, or the presence of body damage, or need for undercarriage welding deflates the value of the vehicle. Unseen problems like needed repairs to the frame or exhaust system can be spotted during a mechanic’s examination. Within reason a private seller should be willing to accompany the buyer to a nearby mechanic of the buyer’s choice for the evaluation.

Be wary of the seller who insists the inspection be done by his mechanic. A thorough mechanical inspection should take place with the understanding that the potential buyer will pay for the inspection regardless of whether he buys the car or not. This is money well spent either way. One obvious question is whether the car qualifies to pass the current state inspection or what would it take to earn an inspection certificate.

The innards of the motor and transmission remain a mystery without a complete and prohibitively costly teardown. Pulling the old dipstick usually indicates nothing, as I always change the oil before selling a used car. If, however, the oil is like road tar this may indicate lack of care by the owner.

Whenever a used car is purchased it is wise to set aside a dedicated fund of about $500 for unanticipated repairs. Failure to have this fund is a big mistake. The wise motorist should maintain this reserve for at least a year to eighteen months to cushion unforeseen eventualities. Beyond that time anything which happens to a car should be considered normal maintenance.

Prior to the purchase of any used car, investigation into its history should take place. Computers make this easy. The modern seventeen digit VIN number, which is found on the dashboard and the paperwork can reveal a great deal about the vehicle. Internet sources can decode many details about the vehicle, while other websites can reveal whether the vehicle has ever been in an accident.

The VIN has details about the vehicle as manufactured and if the VIN indicates a different model, or if it indicates an engine different from what is in the car, decline the purchase immediately as disparity indicates serious alterations to the vehicle or installation of a VIN plate from a different vehicle, possibly indicating a stolen car.

Some owners opt for etching the VIN into each piece of glass in the vehicle. Why all vehicles don’t come from the factory with VIN etched glass is a puzzle to me. Changing all the glass to disguise a stolen vehicle is very costly and time consuming. Some states offer insurance discounts for vehicles with VINs etched into the glass.

Once the used car is officially yours it’s wise to have the oil and filter changed and a complete servicing done. This way the buyer knows what’s been done and when. Keeping a permanent log book allows the new owner to quickly spot recurring problems as well a detailed maintenance log enhances vehicle resale value.

Steve Sevits spent a portion of his career as a retail dealership automobile salesman for one of the Big Three automobile manufacturers.

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