Am I Buying a Quality Used Car?

If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I should NEVER work on my, or anyone’s, car.  While I know enough to perform most basic maintenance, like changing fluids and replacing brakes, I always end up with a catastrophic mess and an entire day just gone–longer if you count the anger management sessions which follow.

Mistakes aside, I’m glad I spent the time to make them, because it gave me the basic understanding of what to look for when shopping for a car.  And by basic understanding I mean that I now know how little I actually know about cars. Arrogance squashed!

 

How can you tell if you are buying a solid vehicle?

 

Well, a lot of it comes down to being diligent in you car shopping process, and another component is luck–sometimes things can go wrong with no prior warnings.  But, mostly it comes from trust. Yes, I realize trust is not something the used car industry is known for, which is where that due diligence comes in.

An important thing to understand is how complex modern vehicles have become.  Even simple Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics can be equipped with a mind-boggling array of options and technological innovations.  And since just about every component in a vehicle is computer controlled, replacing components–even minor ones–typically requires factory diagnostic software.  The days of simply swapping out the old with the new are long gone.

The growing complexity and abundance of vehicles means that specialized mechanics are needed to properly perform routine service.  But there’s only so many vehicles a technician can stay familiar with. This is why you don’t see people taking their classic and antique cars to new-car dealerships’ service centers.

But that same mentality also applies to vehicles which aren’t that old–young even.  New car dealerships seem like the safest place to buy a used car if it is the same brand, right?  Well, that’s debatable for a number of reasons. Most notably is that while a big dealer certainly has the capability to perform any type of service, the vast majority of their business is in-warranty work.  So, after a vehicle reaches its four to six year mark, the service center sees less and less of that model. And since manufacturers make fairly significant changes every four or so years, the technician’s familiarity with that vehicle can fade.

To make matters more complicated, most service issues aren’t as simple as plugging the car into a computer and getting a precise “replace this.”  Rather, diagnostic computers will show what sensors are being affected by whatever the actual issue is.

This is where specialty shops really shine.  When you focus on a large volume of a limited selection of vehicles, predicting potential issues and performing the proper maintenance becomes much more fluid and efficient.  When it comes to purchasing a used vehicle, I think this is a great place to start.

What about getting a pre-sale inspection?

 

This is never a bad idea, however, there are a few factors to consider.  If you a taking a car from one dealership to be inspected at another (which sells the same cars), what’s the likelihood that the dealership doing the inspection is going to waste a potential chance at selling you a car.  What do they gain in giving the green light on a consumer buying from a competitor?

 

Again, this is where specialty shops come into play.  There are numerous niche service centers which don’t sell cars, and so have nothing to gain other than hoping to potentially earn you as a service customer.

 

At the end of the day, there are a tremendous amount of variables when shopping for a preowned vehicle.  The best advice I can give is to be patient and do some research. Read a dealership’s reviews–not just the star rating.  Hop on a forum and ask what, if any, issues others with the same car have had. And be willing to spend some time in the dealership feeling out the authenticity of the staff.