The One Thing to Know About Used Cars

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

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 pics

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?car_salesman_sleezy

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.used cars 3

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 repair

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.warning lights

* 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. depends on you to keep the wheels turning! The control freaks (Clovers) hate us. Goo-guhl blackballed us.

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  1. Also, learn to “feel up” a used car. Gently run your fingers across the seams of the hood, trunk and doors. Any accident damage will be immediately evident.

    Non-accident cars will still have the smooth factory feel from painting the entire body piece at the factory.

    Repaint will feel like a slightly bumpy rough surface because no auto repair shop in the world will take the time and expense to completely submerge the part and “electrocoat” it as they do in the factory.

    CarFax and other reporting agencies do not report all accidents. Many dealers (new and used) ding their cars on the lot or in test drives. They fix the car on site and never report the accident to the insurance company or CarFax.

    A used car salesman told me this technique years ago and it is foolproof.

  2. Good article, especially about making sure the check engine light and other warning lights are present as a bulb check in ‘key on’ position. I come across that issue all the time in pre-purchase inspections. I have 2 things to say regarding used luxury cars, if you can’t afford it new, you definitely can’t afford it used. The other thing is the old adage “the most expensive used car is a cheap luxury car.”

    • Yep. There’s a reason why cars like the S Class and 7 Series drop in value like a stone. A $90,000 car has repair bills like a $90,000 car, even if it’s currently valued at $20,000.

      I’m guilty of this, btw. I bought a used Lexus GX, and it really hurt to get the transfer case leak fixed. But it’s a Toyota product — so now that I’ve fixed all the previous owner’s amateur repairs [1], I expect to get a long and trouble-free life out of it.

      [1] A speaker blew in the driver’s door. Rather than fix it, or just unplug it, they cut the wire (about 2″ away from the connector). Un-be-lieve-able.

    • Newer cars like my 2004 Honda Civic doesn’t have light bulbs. They have LEDs soldered to the circuit board. When an LED blows a replacement PCB is required in most cases as all the components are SMT. Unless you have very steady hands, like a surgeon, it is not advisable to try a repair on SMT PCBs.

      David Ward
      Memphis, Tennessee

      • David, I doubt it’s soldered these days since the circuit on the board is rarely barely visible, made out of dielectric something or other. I think most now use some sort of adhesive to stick the parts on. Why not give it a shot? It’s a new board anyway.

        • Solder is still used. surface mount through a reflow oven. As far as repair it’s about how tiny. Cell phones very difficult but the bigger cheap stuff in cars should be doable.

          • A friend help set up a pcb board manufacturing facility a few years back. IIRC they used something other than solder, some sort of epoxy that conducted electricity. You could remove parts with a special solvent that didn’t affect the PC board. I’ve looked at those boards they use on the dashes of big trucks and don’t see solder. Bulbs just push in or twist in with their contacts on the outside that contact a tiny gold colored path of whatever it is that makes the circuit. I do hate that crap too. It’s the reason all the switches that perform specific chores such as the sliding fifth wheel, the locking differentials and the inflate/deflate on the air bag suspensions are supposed to be seen right in front of you instead of a big light right beside the switch like they used to be. Of course they all don’t work and the translucent plastic gets so dark you can’t see them when they do work. I realize PCB’s are the nads for much stuff but they suck the big one in lots of equipment. Is the 4WD engaged on the backhoe? No worry, you’ll find out when you’re using the hoe and the bucket to get that sumbitch unstuck. Luckily you can hear the engine go WOT on a new Cat dozer when you push that little lighted….or not lighted button……..excuse me, pad. A Dozer operates with weight. Not enough weight and you won’t do shit with it. So why try to save weight? Well, they aren’t saving weight, they’re saving costs……maybe a hundred or two hundred dollars figuring in labor on a half million dollar machine. BULLSHIT!!! Cat’s in a big slump. They deserve it.

            I get on a rant about this crap, and crap is what it is. You can tell the “engineers” grew up playing video games. Get on a new loader or some sort of tracked machine. Insert the key, a tiny light on a numberic touchpad glows. Touch 4 keys in the right order and a larger key pad glows “Start” so you touch it…..and wait. Then the computer takes over and checks everything and if it likes everything or it doesn’t because a 20 gallon cooling system is a gallon low, it doesn’t come on and doesn’t tell you why. No problem though, just pull out your $30K scanner and, oh wait, I just happen to not have one. So you spend hours going over everything and finally find the coolant might be a tiny bit low. You put as much in as it will hold, disconnect the batteries and wait a while then reconnect batteries and see if it allows it to start. Never mind that machine never operated the tiniest bit hotter than normal.

            Earlier I started the wife’s car, low coolant….bs once again, it’s right on the money so I ignore it. Hey, it’s not showing “check engine” so I run it about half an hour and get up on the highway and hit the cruise and “check engine” light comes on. At least the airbag light didn’t start flashing…..but I already know that has nothing to do with the airbags, it’s an alternator problem. God, I hate electronics on cars……or anything else.

            • Wife’s Highlander has the low pressure light on yet all 4 tires are at the correct pressure. Owner’s manual says to reset that system by cycling ignition and pressing the reset button, but there is no reset button as pictured in the manual!

              Google search says to check pressure in the spare and the system will reset itself. Sure enough, the spare was 5 lbs low, that job is a 20 minute exercise because of the undercarriage mounted spare. It’s an especially bad idea to perform it right after a big snow storm. Still waiting for that stupid light to reset.

              Driver’s info display goes into spastic warning mode when the oil change interval approaches. Same thing happens when the washer fluid reservoir is down to one quart. Very annoying, to say the least.

              Nanny state car, I hate it. Should have kept the ’88 Suburban.

            • They use solder paste. It looks like epoxy or glue. It is a mix of solder and various flux materials. For repair work it comes in a syringe:


              In a mass production environment the boards are placed in a jig along with a plastic mask. The mask has holes that let the solder paste come in contact with the board. It is wiped on the mask/board much like a silkscreening process. The board then goes on to a pick-and-place (or North Korean “employee”) for placement of the parts. Once the parts are in place, the board is run through a tunnel oven (like a Dominos pizza oven) and the solder/flux melt. In theory the entire process is run on an automated production line that can churn out hundreds of small circuit boards per hour. In reality there’s still a lot of dirt-cheap labor keeping the operation running.

              • I’ve worked on a couple production lines in my life(briefly). Lots of culls for the most part, sometimes not even good for recycling, just trash but it’s made in such huge quantity a few here or there don’t matter. Like you say though, good operators keep everything running to spec.

      • It’s not really very hard at all, you just need the right tools. I picked up a SMD rework solder station last year, and have done some practice rework on broken remote controls and other circuit boards. (Pro tip: Don’t practice on remote controls if you’re a germaphobe). Lots of how to videos on youtube to show how it’s done.

        Also helps to have young eyes and/or a good magnifier lamp.

        Not something I want to do every day, but I think getting to the circuit board on a dash would be much more difficult than replacing a bad component on one.

        • Eric G, that helps a great deal. As far as dash circuit boards are concerned, the ones I’ve dealt with can be removed via some means of unplugging although breaking something on old ones is easily done too in the removal. Once out it’s easy to see. One thing I have never understood is not using a permanent paint, dye, ink, whatever that can easily be removed with plain water. And that type won’t take anything stronger or different from water either. I suppose it’s a good way to sell another if you try to clean it. I just use compressed air and hope for the best.

        • Takes 30 minutes or less to remove the entire instrument panel from my 2004 Honda Civic. A tested and certified replacement cluster, not just the PCB, is less than a 100 bucks off Ebay.

          Additionally, at 63, I wear glasses which means even with corrective lenses my eyesight isn’t good enough for extremely small component PCB work. On that point Brent is correct. That issue and my hands aren’t steady enough now to do the work either. I am not a surgeon and I don’t play one on TV either! On a side note, my hands also suffer from arthritis to the point that playing music on the guitar and piano are affected (about 5 minutes at a time on the guitar and 10 minutes on the piano). So to repair SMT PCBs, I would need this:

          That system list for 22.5K and they charge 1K shipping as I presume it comes from China. Nope. Even if I had to buy a new oem cluster from the stealership, I’d come out cheaper.

          Now get this. I use to repair PCBs in my younger days! LOL! However, that was when components were still the size of socketed Integrated Circuits and you could tell the size of a resistor by looking at the color bands printed on the housing. Even then there were some SMT components but they were still large enough you could remove them with solder wick and replace them by glob soldering and then using wick to remove the excess. Still tricky but could be done. Today’s stuff? Not without the system I linked to above. At least for me!

          The limit of my repair work on small PCBs now is replacing the display/digitizers on my wife and granddaughters iPhone 6 and 5 when they drop them. When I do that repair, I still have to use a lighted 4 inch 5 power magnifier.

          David Ward

          Memphis, Tennessee

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

    Dude, you come up with some good ones!

  4. Note on timing belt, check to see if the car you’re considering has an interference engine, most Hondas, as a timing belt failure can be extremely costly. Non-interference is usually just a medium size hassle.

    Also, I would stay away from Hertz or other rental agencies…see your “rented mule” comment above.

    • I saw the sign at Enterprise touting their quality cars for rent and also their quality vehicles for sale. I asked about the used vehicles they sell. The staff said they did sell them but it was the pickups that were the real buys. Mostly used for a bit of nothing or simply because somebody just wanted a pickup. They said that’s where the deep discounts are. Good to know since I’ve seen plenty pickups that obvious had had Lady Gaga’s makeup people work long and hard on them. It’s a good idea to carry a magnet when looking for anything but esp. a pickup.

  5. 15 minutes may not be long enough for the MIL (malfunction indicator light) to come on but if there is a problem a cheap scan tool should still show a “pending” code on OBD2 systems (1996 and later) after a short drive. No special tools required for OBD1 (1994 and earlier), a paperclip will get you any stored codes. All of the OBD1 Chrysler/Dodge vehicles I have seen will flash the codes if you simply turn the ignition on and off three times (leaving it on the third time).

    Many vehicles have diagnostics accessible through the climate control though I have yet to find a comprehensive list anywhere …
    The above came in handy for my ’95 which is not accessible with my OBD2 code reader or the paperclip trick/OBD1 scan tool.

    +1 on “One of the best movies ever”

  6. “You are 1973 Buick Centurion. When you take into account gas savings, maintenance, inflation and depreciation, owning a 1973 Buick Centurion makes sense. Plus the pure presige of owning a Buick Centurion cannot be measured in dollars and cents.” Tim Russo – head Salesman, New Deal Used Cars.

    “Take a look at this 1977 Mercedes Benz 450 SL. For $24500? That price is too fucking high. We are blowing away high prices on this over priced mother fucker. Come to New Deal Used Cars. That’s Right. New Deal Used Cars.”

    One of the best movies ever.


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