One of the toughest things when considering a used car is determining exactly what you should buy. You don’t have the opportunity to custom-order it as you can a new car, and you have to take its reliability into account, especially if the vehicle you’re looking at doesn’t have much or any warranty left on it.
So here are some things to consider when you’re out hunting for that elusive “perfect choice”:
• How many do you see on the road? If there are a lot, especially older ones, they’re standing the test of time. Ask owners about their cars when you’re beside them at the gas station or parking lot. Most people are willing to tell you what problems they’ve had. Watch for ones that pop up over and over again.
• If you have a relationship with a trusted mechanic, ask what repairs he commonly sees on the vehicles you’re considering. (But don’t just call shops out of the phone book to ask them; these guys can’t leave a customer’s job to give you free advice.) When you do pick out a car, take it to your mechanic for a professional once-over before you buy.
• Go online to talk to owners, through websites or forums. Check resources such as Consumer Reports or Lemon-Aid, which gather reliability data on vehicles as they age. Don’t put too much stock into initial quality surveys, such as those by J.D. Power and Associates, which only look at the first few months of ownership. You want to know what types of things may go wrong with your vehicle as its components age and wear.
• Check for recalls on the models you’re considering. Don’t just count the number of recalls, but see exactly what they are. Some are very minor, and many only affect a very small number of vehicles within the year or model range. Again, look for recurring patterns that could foretell frequent trips to the shop. When you do decide on a specific vehicle, check to make sure any applicable recalls have been performed. If they haven’t, get them done — these will be no-charge repairs at a dealer.
• Find out about parts availability. What is the price of commonly needed parts such as brakes or exhaust? If there are generic brands available from auto parts stores, it may help bring down your repair costs. Be cautious with cars that were pricey when new, especially if they’re selling very reasonably as used vehicles, since their parts can be astronomically expensive. You might be better off buying a slightly more expensive mainstream car than a cheaper model of a luxury brand if the brake job or water pump on the exotic is three or four times the price.
• Find out how much the vehicle will cost to insure. As with the cost of parts, it could be a major factor if you’re down to two or three likely candidates.
• Does the car have a common wheel size? It can be very expensive to buy winter or replacement tires for large wheels or unusual sizes.
• Will the vehicle fit into your driveway or garage? Don’t laugh – you wouldn’t be the first person to bring home a purchase that doesn’t clear the garage door opener or squeeze down a narrow driveway.
• Don’t let fancy accessories blind you to any faults the car may have. A killer stereo won’t get you to work when that “iffy” transmission finally gives up the ghost.
• Is the vehicle appropriate for what you need it to do? If you’re planning on always carrying a full house in a minivan or SUV, one with a smaller engine could get worse fuel mileage than one with a larger engine, since it will have to work harder.
• Do all the math when comparing larger and smaller vehicles. Fuel-efficient cars are popular and so may command a higher price, while a larger, thirstier vehicle may be languishing on the back of the lot and “priced to sell.” If it’s enough of a price difference, it could far outweigh the extra fuel costs. Don’t forget to check if the requirement is for regular-grade or premium fuel.
• When you look at a specific car, check the mileage on the odometer. Excessively high mileage can be problematic, but beware of extremely low mileage as well. Is there a reason it wasn’t driven much, such as off the road for long periods waiting for parts or repairs, or poor performance in bad weather?
• If a vehicle is sold “as is,” find out exactly what it needs for certification. It isn’t a bargain if it will cost more to bring it up to standards than you’d pay for a car that’s initially more expensive but already comes certified.
• Does the vehicle seem like value for the money? After you’ve looked objectively with your head, consider your gut feeling. The car’s appearance, the way it drives, the way it’s optioned and its overall performance should give the impression that the price and product are well-matched. You and your car will probably be daily companions for the next few years. Don’t overlook the importance of being satisfied with your ride.