The Risk-Free Used Car

Should you even consider buying a used car that’s not “warranted” or “certified/pre-owned” (CPO)?

Many people won’t because we live at a time when people have been conditioned to dread risk, however remote, and it’s not an accident because it’s very profitable to sell “warranted” and “certified pre-owned” (CPO) cars.

There is no free lunch.

People who buy “warranted” and “CPO” cars are paying for the warranty and CPO certification, which doesn’t eliminate the risk of paying for repairs, either. These warranties and certifications will cover some things for some time, but not all things and not forever.

The actuaries behind the warranties and certifications aren’t innumerate. They run the numbers. The warranties and certifications and the price of the warranted and certified cars are based in part on the likelihood of having to pay out for a “covered” repair.

It is not a high likelihood. The odds always favor the house.

Of course, a compounding problem is that cars have become so forbiddingly complicated that most people are out of their depth dealing with anything beyond basic fluid and filter changes. And repairs can be expensive, especially if they involve major items like the transmission or HVAC system or anything electronic.

That said, a little due diligence goes a long way. You do not need to be a mechanical engineer or even a professional mechanic to get a good intuitive sense of a vehicle’s general condition. The same rules of evaluation apply today that applied 30 or even 50 years ago:

Does It Start Easily and Run/Drive Smoothly?

The engine should not make “funny” noises. No clicking, clattering, or knocking sounds. No visible smoke at start-up and especially during off-throttle deceleration. Have a friend in another car drive behind you to check for this. Find a downhill stretch and abruptly let off the gas; if your friend behind you sees blue smoke coming out of the exhaust, the car has problems.

Check the operation of all gauges and lights at start-up. Note any light, especially the “check engine” light, that doesn’t come on or doesn’t go off. It comes on and stays on, there is a trouble code stored in the computer, and you need to find out what it is and what it cost to deal with it before money changes hands. If the “check engine” light doesn’t come on at start-up, it may have been disabled to hide a problem.

The engine should reach normal operating temperature within a few minutes of start-up. Engine temperature and oil pressure should stabilize in the middle area of the gauges. Be wary of any gauge reading that is high or low or fluctuating. It might be a bad sending unit or the gauge itself.

It might be something worse.

The transmission should engage quietly and shift smoothly through all gears (don’t forget reverse). Any sensation of “slipping” is a bad sensation.

The car should track smoothly; you should not have to keep a death grip on the wheel to keep it pointed straight ahead on a straight section of the road. If it pulls in either direction, something isn’t right. It could just need an alignment, but it might have more severe problems such as accident/frame damage.

The same goes for the suspension. Ride quality varies, but unless you’re buying a very high-performance car, the ride should have some give. But it shouldn’t give out when you hit a pothole. And it should not wallow fore-aft like a ’78 Chrysler Cordoba unless it is a ’78 Chrysler Cordoba.

The brakes should stop the car smoothly, not abruptly, and without screeching. Brake issues are actually less to be feared than many other things that might be wrong with a prospective car because brakes wear; it’s normal to need new pads or even new rotors/calipers, and if the vehicle does need them, it’s a haggling point.

The same goes for items like tires, windshield wiper blades, and shock absorbers/struts.

What you want to avoid is buying a car that needs things replaced that ought to last the life of the car—like the transmission.

After a test drive of at least half an hour, which will betray things like an overheating issue or some other mechanical malady, the seller may be trying to hide, pop the hood and check all fluids.

And the dipsticks.

Fresh oil, which will look honey-colored, is a good sign. A bad sign is a dipstick that doesn’t look shiny after you wipe it off. If it’s a burnt-on brownish color, the car probably had its oil changed not often — or was run very hard.

Automatic transmission fluid is usually reddish. If it’s blackish, watch out. Many new cars don’t have automatic transmission dipsticks at all, unfortunately, so you might not be able to do this check.

You will be able, though, to check the brake fluid in the master cylinder reservoir. If it’s not black or dark brown, it’s a sign the owner gave a damn about maintaining the car.

The overall theme here is: Does the car run and drive well and seem to be basically okay, functionally speaking.

People get hung up on appearances. “Warranted” and “certified” cars usually look great because the dealers and stores that sell them have professional detailers on staff to make sure they do. Cloudy plastic headlights are polished to bright and shiny new. The interior is vacuumed, the seats shampooed, and the whole shebang made to look as much like new as possible.

You’re paying for that, too.

But you might also be paying for something else later if you let looks blind you to what might be under the skin.


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