The One Thing to Know About Used Cars…

Want to know the single most important thing about shopping for a used car?

It’s not the make or the model or the year or the mileage.

A given used car is an individual — distinct from the thousands of others of the same make/model that rolled off the line that year. It was driven differently — and maintained differently. It may have been cared for like a Faberge egg… or abused like a rented mule. No two examples of a given make/model/year used car will ever be the same as far as their mechanical and cosmetic condition, the miles on the clock, the stains on the seats or the intervals at which necessary service (such as oil and filter changes) was performed.

This makes shopping used more challenging.

With new cars, your main concern is the price of the thing.

But how do you determine whether the used vehicle you’re looking at is a keeper?

Used car dealers (and private sellers) can cover up the ugly stuff better than Lady Gaga’s make-up people.

And once you’ve handed over your dollars, any problems with the car are now your problems. In most states, there is no warranty implied unless it is specifically stated. Used car sales are generally considered “as is” — unless there’s something in writing asserting or promising otherwise.

Telling the small claims court that the seller told you there were no problems with the car will usually cut no ice. And, to be fair to the seller, he may not have known about the problem that cropped up after the sale. It’s a used car. Wear and tear. Bad luck. Stuff can — and does — go wrong. It’s not necessarily the seller’s fault.

That’s why the standard in court for pursuing a successful claim against a seller is usually pretty high. In most cases, you’d have to substantiate willful, knowing misrepresentation. Absent that, it’s on you.

Scared yet?

That’s a good state of mind to be in when shopping used cars.

All right. So, how about some practical used car buying advice?

* Shop popular models.

This may seem counterintuitive, because popular often means pricey. Sure. And, often, for good reason.

Popular also tends to mean good. As in, reliable.

If lots of people are buying a given make/model/year vehicle — and prices are strong — it strongly suggests that make/model/year vehicle is a good vehicle. Also: If it’s popular, it’s likely there’ll be lots of candidates in your area to choose from.

Parts will usually be easier to find, too.

* Be extra cautious about used luxury cars.

Luxury cars tend to be equipped with more complex systems and features.

For example, automatic ride control or an adjustable suspension system. The more complexity, the more likely something’s going to go wrong, eventually. This is not a big issue when the car is new — and under warranty (most people who buy high-end luxury cars trade them in before the warranty runs out; or, they lease them). But buying one used — and out of warranty — can be a risky proposition.

It may be tempting to think about treating yourself to a used luxury car that’s selling for a third of its price when new. But there’s a reason why used luxury cars are often put up for sale at bargain prices.

* Educate yourself about high-dollar routine service.

For instance, timing belt changes. Not all cars have them, but many do. If the car you’re interested in has one, be aware that it may need a new belt sooner rather than later. Find out whether it’s ever been done — and if the seller can’t produce a receipt for the work, assume it hasn’t been done. Find out what it’s going to cost you — and haggle down the price accordingly.

Same goes for brake work — which can be very expensive since more than just pads (and shoes) may be needed. Verify potential repair costs before you settle on the sales price.

Beware: Some late-model cars are equipped with automated manual/dual-clutch automatic transmissions. Some of these are problem prone and some of them are not serviceable. You have to replace them when they fail — and the cost involved can be more than the car itself is worth. My advice would be to stay away from any car with such a transmission unless you have deep pockets and a very Zen mindset.

Related: Be wary about “lifetime” items such as spark plugs and engine coolant. “Lifetime” doesn’t mean forever. If you buy a high-miles used vehicle, try to determine whether “lifetime” items have ever been replaced. Because if they haven’t been at some point, it’s likely going to be up to you to take care of it.

* Check that all turn signals, brake lights and so on operate properly. That every dashboard warning light (ABS, TCS, “check engine”) comes on when the ignition key is inserted — and goes off once the engine’s running.

The “check engine” light is something you particularly want to pay attention to because it’s telling you whether the car’s emissions controls are working properly — and whether there’s an emissions system problem that will have to be fixed. The light comes on if the system detects a fault — a “trouble code” is stored in the system’s memory and the light will stay on until the problem is fixed — and the code “cleared” by a scan tool. However anyone can buy a scan tool — and clear the code. The light will stay off… for awhile. Drive the car for at least 15 minutes to avoid that scam. If the light doesn’t light during your test drive, you’re probably ok.

Just be sure it does light up (and then goes out) when you first start the car. If not, the seller may have removed the bulb that lights the light. Do not buy the car until you know it will pass emissions — which in many states/counties is a requirement before a new registration card will be issued.

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