Having been married to a car dealer for many years and also worked a lot in the automotive industry myself, I can offer you a few hints you’ll find quite useful if you want to buy a low-cost used car that should give you decent value for your money.
Don’t go for a flashy model
Flashy cars that have a cool image are likely to have had the guts thrashed out of them by boy racers and other pond life. Choose a make and model that may be uncool and boring, but will probably have been driven well and cared for properly.
How many miles? Think of a number and triple it
Frankly, to look at the number of miles on the clock is an utter waste of time. Much as it’s illegal and everything there can’t be a used car dealer in the world who hasn’t given cars a “haircut:” trade jargon meaning that the mileage readout has been wound backwards. You’re more likely to gauge a car’s age by assessing a combination of factors. (See below)
Mileage: a highish one is not necessarily the end of the world
If the car you’re after has been a company car and driven by members of the sales force, say, there’s a good chance that most of its miles will have been accumulated on motorways (high speed highways), and it will have been serviced regularly. Within reason, such a car may be a better bet than a very low mileage car that’s been driven to the mall and back once a week at high revs in low gear and only serviced when the motor was burning blue smoke.
Condition of interior
Although the interior might have been “spivved” i.e. British slang for being cleaned up nicely, you’ll still be able to see signs of wear and tear on the dashboard, central console, steering wheel, and also whether the seats feel and look like soggy pancakes. That will tell you more about the age of the car than the outside which could have been resprayed (see below).
Condition of interior – foot pedals
Bearing in mind the general look of the interior, check the foot pedals. If they’re as worn as the interior is that’s OK, but if they look very new that means they have been replaced. The pedals, condition of interior and mileage should all agree with each other – if they don’t, be warned.
Bodywork – all-over paint job
Be guided by commonsense. Too bright and new looking and it’s likely to have been resprayed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it has been done properly. Open the doors and see if the colour is the same on the panel ends, and check if the inside of the bonnet (hood) reveals any discrepancies. You may also see evidence when you look inside the engine (motor) bay.
Bodywork – paint job here or there
Especially if the car is red or a metallic colour, it’s usually very easy to see if one part of the bodywork (e.g. a fender) has been resprayed, suggesting some repaired accident damage, because the colours hardly ever match up exactly. The odd panel that’s slightly different shouldn’t be a worry because if it has been hit, one panel suggests a minor collision. More than one panel, though, and you should think twice: boot (trunk)/hatch and both rear quarters suggest a hard rear-end impact, and bonnet (hood) plus both front quarters, front panel etc. suggest a front-ender. See engine (motor), below. Another reason for partial respray is that the panel/panels concerned were badly rusted – avoid. Rust comes back again quickly.
Bodywork – filler
If the paint work looks like it’s suffering from slight cellulite it could be that damage and/or rust has been “pugged up” (slapped over with stuff that’s a little like the products you use before painting your walls) and painted over. This means that, because the metal underneath is damaged, moisture can creep into the cracks and rot the panel underneath the filler. There are two ways to check for filler: 1) tap around the panel with your knuckle or blunt piece of jewellery. The sound will be different on the filled areas. 2) Take a small magnet with you to view the car. It will stick to metal but not to filler.
Bodywork – gaps, creases and wobbly bits
Here’s where you really can freak the salesman out because unless he has fairly in-depth knowledge of post-accident damage repair he won’t know what the heck you’re doing. So smile. Have a slow walk around the car. Stand at one end and look along the roof towards the front. Can you see any dents or slight creases? If you can, it may mean the car has been in a hard collision and the structural integrity could have been compromised. Check the sides of the car for any wavy or wobbly sections which may have been cause by the same thing. Then, look at the gaps between panels – e.g. either side of the bonnet (hood). Are they equal in width? If not, it suggests the bonnet (hood) has been removed. Why? For painting, or because of an accident? Similarly check the gaps either side of the boot (trunk) or tailgate. If they are unequal that suggests a not-too-good repair. Beware of driver and front passenger doors that look saggy on their hinges, especially in a 2 or 3 door car. They’ll drop eventually and it may cost quite a lot to fix them.
Drive behind it if you can
This sounds silly, but if you can talk the salesman into driving it up the road with you following behind in your own car. Be sure you or your passenger has a square view of the used car. If it looks like it’s going along crookedly or in crab fashion, don’t touch it – its chassis may be twisted after a bad collision which could even be dangerous, never mind wearing tyres down at the speed of light. Also, while you’re driving behind the car you’ll see if it’s burning oil (blue smoke, suggesting worn engine/motor) or overheating (white steam) suggesting more mechanical problems.
Engine (motor) bay
Commonsense is key here and you don’t have to be a trained technician to see that an engine (motor) bay (compartment) that’s covered in filthy oil and muck is likely to have been around the block a few times. Get hold of some soft paper, pull out the dipstick and take a look at the oil level. If it’s very low and/or dirty it suggests neglect. Engines (motors) which are run on low and/or dirty oil don’t last very long. While you’re under the bonnet (hood), check along the sides and back of the area for any evidence of buckling or fresh welding – basically, if one part looks different to the rest, beware.
Get a “mechanic” to check it – worth it?
This depends. If you’re only paying a relatively small amount for a used car, one of these all-singing, all-dancing checks by the this-or-that automobile association is going to cost you a lot of money and only really point out all the little niggles that you would expect from a car of that age anyway. If you want to buy the car and you’re in the UK, it’s well worth saying you’ll have it conditional to its passing the UK’s MoT test, even if it still has time to run on its previous one. That will pick up any goofs in its emissions which can be expensive to fix and will check brakes and other safety issues.
Check it’s not on finance or lease
If the car only appears to have one set of keys and (in the UK) the logbook/V5 and other documentation have been “lost,” that could be because it’s either on finance or an unfinished lease. If you buy a car in these circumstances you could find yourself minus the car with no comeback on the dealer. Although it may not be worth spending money checking the mechanicals of the car, if you have any qualms about keys and documentation don’t touch it without first checking with a company like HPI in the UK, who charge about £20 (USD around $32.00), and there are even free services available. Find the best one for you by Googling “how to check if a car is on finance.”
Good luck, and happy motoring!