You can save a lot of time and fuel by making a list of questions to ask when buying a used car, and phoning around before you try and drive. In part three of my used car buying tips article series, I covered the topics of organized note taking during phone interviews, rust awareness, and problems the owner may have knowledge of concerning their own car. In this part I’ll go over some specific mechanical aspects which are typical problem areas with used cars.
How is the engine? Does it burn oil? This is a good thing to know because an engine that burns oil is worn out to some degree. When a car is burning oil it means that the oil in the engine, which is there for lubrication and cooling purposes, is escaping into the combustion chamber somehow, and going out the tailpipe as blue stinky smoke. That means that the car is excessively polluting the air, and more oil must be added to replace what has been lost. These things can be expensive to fix.
Similarly, oil leaking from the seals of the engine will land on the ground and end up polluting the streams, rivers and oceans in your area. Like the increased air pollution from an oil burning car, the oil leaking car is an environmental menace. Repair of oil burning problems usually requires a major overhaul of the engine. Oil leaks may require similarly complex repairs, or they may be much simpler. A leaking valve cover gasket is a very common oil leak affecting many cars which can be repaired with a $6 gasket and an hour of labor.
Ask the owner if the transmission shifts without any grinding. If not, this can be expensive to fix. Ask them about the clutch, when it was last replaced, and if they have the bill for it. If it has never been replaced, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may indicate that the car has been driven gently. It could be a $500+ job if it needs one though, which is ok if the asking price reflects that needed work.
Tires and Wheels, Glass and Exhaust:
Ask them about the tires. New tires cost around $100 each and up, depending on the car. Are the wheels steel or aluminum? Aluminum ones cost more when the car was new, and are generally more valuable, and nicer looking. Is the windshield cracked or pitted? New ones start at around $200 and go up from there. How about the muffler? Is it quiet? When was it last replaced? A new one of decent quality will cost a few hundred bucks minimum.
Brakes need to be done every couple of years on any car. When were they last done? Both front and rear? You can expect to pay $100 per wheel to have them done at least. You will need to have the brakes up to standard to insure your newly purchased used car, as a vehicle inspection is usually required by insurance companies. This is a good thing since it can save your life and the lives of others.
What color is the car? How does the paint look? Like the rust question, this is a matter of perceptions, but its worth asking. Has the car ever been painted? If so, when? New paint may indicate that the car was rusted, or in an accident. New paint can be a good thing, especially if the paint has been there for a few years and still looks good. Original paint is the best though, because then you can see that there’s no rust or accidents, and they do paint right at the factory!
How is the interior? The condition of the upholstery is easy to see, and may reflect the level of care that has been taken in looking after the rest of the car. Find out what color the interior is too. Do you like that color? Asking if the car has ever been smoked in is a good idea if you like things that are clean. The difference in cleanliness between the interiors of a smoker’s car and a non-smoker’s car is quite remarkable.
What is the asking price? It says in the ad, but ask anyway and make sure you are both on the same page about this important detail. Are they flexible on the price? See what they say.
Find out where the car can be seen, and when. If they don’t want to meet you at their home, that should be a red flag. They may have lots of cars there, and try to meet you somewhere, anywhere but their place! Seeing where they live and the condition of their home will give you greater insight into how they take care of their lives, and therefore their cars. I like to go to their place to see what it looks like, so I can get a feel for how they take care of their stuff.
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