How to Find a Good Used Car and Avoid a Scam

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(Trying to figure out how to find a good used car? Having at one time owned a used car dealership, and having bought and sold hundreds of cars myself, I’m going to give it to you straight.

There is a good chance you are gonna get messed over. 4 out of 5 chances actually. Which is why I chose to leave the world of used cars.

But, if you are willing and able, I will tell you how to have a higher chance of success at a shot in the dark in this fun little game called “Finding a good used car in a haystack of garbage.”)

Tips For Buying a Used Car

Since you are still reading this, I take it “old faithful,” isn’t being all that faithful anymore and is leaving you stranded, greasy, smelly, embarrassed, and even walking a lot and making you ask really scary strangers things like, “So, hi bearded scary guy. You have beautiful, bloodshot, beady little eyes, and that “Satan for President” tattoo on your bicep is extremely intricate, but I was wondering if you could, not hurt me maybe, and just let me borrow those jumper cables in the back of your 1970’s van… or maybe a quick ride to the nearest repair station?  Um, you know what? On second thought, I’ll just walk. I need the exercise.”

(FYI: Not all men with long beards are friendly, family-oriented, duck-hunters.)

Caucasian Man With Long Hair Looking Angry

Face it. Old faithful definitely needs to be retired.

So, that means its time to either get an annual city bus pass, which may help you meet all the nice revoked-license friends of the bearded, scary guy, (he did have a fantastic mullet), or it’s time to get some new wheels.

And you might ask:
But, how do I find a good used car that’s not a piece of freaking hud?

Listen up! Before you run out full speed with arms wide open and adopt someone else’s nightmare, let me explain a few tips for buying a used car: 

There are really only 5 reasons a car is for sell.

1. (The Clunker) It’s a cheap, mechanically abused, and/or cosmetically challenged piece of garbage and has caused family member’s faces to end up on the back of milk jugs from asking sweet strangers for help when it broke down.

2. (The Closet clunker) It was owned by a “honest” person who could not live with themselves if they lied to a perfectly good stranger about its issues, and knew they would never sell it if they told the truth about how it won’t start when it’s above 87 degrees outside, so they kept it a secret.  Then, on a cool, breezy 86 degree day, they traded it in to a dealer without mentioning anything about the magic that happens when the shady spot they parked the jalopy in disappears. Then, the dealer, who knows nothing about the history of the car, ends up selling it to some innocent, yet ignorant person like yourself. Now, he gets the blame of being a dishonest, dirt-bag,  piece-of-crap dealer when it won’t start on a dark warm night in an enchanting Las Vegas underground parking garage, causing you to, again, meet nice strangers with beautiful and thought provoking tattoos.

3. (The Repo Special) The bearded guy’s brother could not make the payment on it and stripped it of every valuable part, including the cup holders and those impossible to find sun visor clips that always break, before the bank repossessed the leftover cannibalized shell, and advertised it for your buying pleasure.

4. (The Flipper’s New Ride) The dude with the mullet beat you to a sweet deal and then put it up for sale 20 minutes later for only $3,000 more. (Hey- he has to be compensated for that 20 minutes.) Capitalism at it’s finest.

5. (The Holy Grail) Someone needed to get a bigger car, smaller car, better mpg car, a truck instead of a car, a motorcycle instead of a truck. Someone got bored, retired, died– you get the idea. These are the diamonds in the rough that are harder to find, but they are out there to be found if you are persistent.

There are obviously other reasons a car is for sale, but for the most part, these 5 things cover the overwhelming majority.

So, let’s start with some quick, basic advice. Do some freaking research first. Don’t be like a total moron and pick a car because “My friend said they like this one and it’s cool looking and stuff, and it has “shiny” things and there is lots of room for big speakers and…most important….it has iPod hookups.” If that is the extent of mental energy you can muster, then when your “sweet” ride breaks down and you need to be rescued, enjoy discovering what the inside of helpful, creepy, bearded man’s ’83 Chevy panel van looks like.

Select at least 5 different cars that will suit your needs, and study them to find out what their reliability history is, ratings, consumer, etc. It really only takes a small fraction of time. This car you want to buy is suppose to haul your butt to everything important in your life, and even protect your life if you hit, or get hit by something. Do some study on your potential best friend. This will keep you from accidentally meriting a 26.2 bumper sticker after walking an unplanned marathon to the nearest civilization because you bought a lemon known to everyone else on the planet that broke down. Yes, that is a long, rude way of saying  BUY THE CARFAX REPORT. It’s cheaper than a freaking happy meal for your kid. Which is much happier and cheaper than a tow-truck fee. And then maybe you can avoid the delightful tow truck driver hitting on you when he drives you to the repair shop.

Once you decide on the vehicles that will work for you, find out what is available in your area via classifieds, dealers, private owners etc. Call and ask about maintenance records, mileage when the timing belt was changed, oil changes etc. Be brave. Ask the tough question. Or wish you had later.

Avoid known clunkers. Most Ford Taurus cars should have come with a baker’s dozen worth of spare trannies. Because they suck.  Most Dodge Stratus cars have the little engine that couldn’t, wouldn’t, and won’t ever get you over the hill before blowing a head gasket, or slipping a timing chain. There is a reason that a brand new Dodge Intrepid is only worth $2,700 when it’s two days old. No one wants one– even the kidney foundation won’t take donations that worthless. Don’t even get me started on Land Rover…hmmm….mom said if I can’t say anything nice… And find out in your research which year model has been the most reliable.  Not all Honda Odysseys are the same.

Don’t be a closet clunker. Deal with your life, and embrace it. Don’t vicariously screw someone over. The only place to do that is at the auction because they expect to get screwed, but even they have limits. Tell the dealer what you at least “know” is wrong, and make a fair deal. It’s funny how everyone wants to be treated fairly when they are buying something, but when they have to sell something, Bill Clinton is all of a sudden the new “Honest Abe” Lincoln. “I did not have…any…reason to believe anything was wrong with that car…”

If you go to buy a closet clunker from a dealer and the dealer does not know anything about the car, and it’s in the “back” lot, there is a good chance it will come with a curbside warranty. As in…when it leaves the curbside, warranty is over.  Avoid mystery dealer cars that have dead batteries, smell like coolant, or curdled milk and still have the previous owners belongings in it. Dead giveaway no one gives a flying crap about it, so why should you? If the previous owner ran away from it so fast they forgot their puppy in the back, chances are, the puppy might be worth more than the vehicle. (Don’t worry. No puppies were harmed in the writing of this article.)

Repos can be alright some of the time, just probably a good idea to stay away from car models that younger teenage brats get into and trash before the first oil change is due. Tow companies often have impound auctions that sometimes have a decent car, but usually if the people who owned it didn’t think it was worth $250 to get it out of impound, you probably shouldn’t waste your time.

Never buy a car that was a repo from a buy here, pay here dealership. Risks at these kinds of places are like cheap orange juice. Full concentrate. They tend to make money getting non-refundable down payments on older beat up salvaged cars that they know will break down, at which point the customer either fixes it on their own dime, or what typically happens is the customer has no money to fix it and stops paying. Then the dealer repossesses the car, keeps the non-refundable down-payment, band-aids the car’s problem, and sells it to another victim. It’s a sweeeeeet  merry-go-round cycle of awesome! Some of these clowns don’t even seem to try and dilute down or deny any of their vicious deeds. They are the dealers that usually have the tattoo shop in back that the creepy, bearded guy likes to frequent. Just sayin…

car used salesperson selling old car as brand new

Flippers are an interesting bunch. Some of these people are absolute losers, who feed cheap garbage cars to the buy here, pay here dealers, but most are just average people trying to make a buck or two and know how to fix or deal with specific cars. There are a rare few who are awesome and can outperform almost any dealer and get you what you need if you get to know them. But, most of the time, if they don’t have a business, what they do is considered illegal in most states if they buy and sell more than 2-3 cars a year. Which makes them act strange and shifty sometimes.

You can usually spot a flipper the easiest by there being no license plate on the car that is for sale. That is because a flipper does not want to pay for registration on a car they will not own long, and they don’t want their name on more than 2-3 cars a year, for obvious paper-trail legal reasons. If you think you are dealing with these people, check the title with the DMV records to make sure the correct information is being represented. Check the Carfax and maintenance history.  Any story that does not match up means it’s time to walk away. Underneath that fresh coat of Armorall there might be a lemon. They usually won’t help you once cash is in their hand. Make them pay for emission and safety before you buy the car. If they are trying to hussle you, and  if the story seems to good to be true, it usually is.

(FYI- a car with no check engine light on does not mean it will pass emissions.)

IMPORTANT: One of the most useful tools you can have is a OBDII hand-held tester. You can buy one for fairly cheap (click on the pic), or borrow one at a local auto parts store during a quick test drive of a car you are considering purchasing. Most cars ’96 and newer are on the system known as OBDII which does not require a smog test in the exhaust pipe. (That was OBDI)  The newer system instead requires the car’s computer to run a series of tests on the car’s running system, and after doing so, it will either pass or fail, the latter causing the “check engine” or “service engine soon” light to illuminate. If the computer has been erased or the battery has been unhooked recently, it could be a test “fail” but may not show the “check engine” light for days or even weeks until it performs it’s complete test. Be wary, and if possible, get your hands on a tester before purchase. This little gadget could save thousands of dollars in unknown repairs to get the check engine light to turn off even though the car runs great.  Know what you are getting into before you purchase.

OBDII Tester

Which finally brings us to our last group– The Holy Grail.  The green meadow of happiness. The fertile field of reliability. The business man who never drove, but detailed the car every Saturday. The yoga instructor who kept the car interior immaculate so she could experience clean and pure meditation.  The older couple who drove only on Sunday to church and to the local Sizzler. (yes, they still exist…the Sizzler I mean.) Nothing gets a buyer excited more than finding “The original owner.” And nothing works better than Viagra than gazing at a big stack of maintenance records in the glove box complete with the original purchase receipt when new and the extra manilla envelope that contains all the extra oil change records that the loyal owner just couldn’t fit in the glove box with the rest of the vehicles medical records.

But alas, those finds are a rarity of the highest order, often only reserved for classic car collectors, estate sells, or the most patient of people determined to find such lore. But in reality, they do exist, more frequent then you know, although in different degrees of loyal dedicated care. The important thing, is to find them. Find the individuals who are moving and needing to sell the extra car, the guy with a nice truck who changed or lost his job and needs a small car now, or the opposite. The constant mind-changer who gets bored easily and never keeps their car for longer than a year or two, or the anal mechanic who keeps everything as perfect as possible. Look for owners who love their cars. Who know their cars…and who can show proof they respect their cars. It is worth the extra money, time and effort to get those cars.

Most important: Have your finances ready. Nothing’s worse than finding the perfect ride, at a steal of a deal, and then getting bested by someone with a mullet because they had cash in hand from the last purse they stole, even though you were there first. Be ready to stomp if the deal of a lifetime lands at your feet.

Three last things. First: Are Salvage or rebuilt cars any good? Sometimes, but stay away from them unless you know how to fix cars or you know the full extent of why the insurance company ran away from fixing it and totaled it instead, and you are comfortable with that report. For example: Would you rather buy a nice dog and keep treating it nice, or buy a dog that’s been abused and try to treat it nice hoping it won’t bite your face off one day out of the blue…cause that usually is what happens. Just remember that the story you are being told about the car’s salvage status, is the same one you will have to divulge when you go to sell it in the future. It never goes away no matter how good a car it is. (That’s when most people feel the sting more acutely.)

Second: Should you pay a mechanic to check out a potential buy? Yes. Yes. Affirmative. Roger that. Absolutely. Don’t be so chock full of self-stupid overconfidence in a car if you don’t even know where the blinker fluid is. Use a repair place you know and have history with, and have them check out the ride. They might even work you a better rate if they know you may be bringing in multiple cars until you find the perfect one. (P.S. Perfect doesn’t exist.)

Third: Google “where do I fill the blinker fluid?”  Trust me, it’s important. You need to know. Here’s a link to help you out:

Hopefully now you feel a little more confident in what to look for when buying a used car, but at the very least maybe you’ll put some more thought into what your mother said about getting that “What would Diablo do?” tattoo while you are still driving her ’87 Dodge furniture delivery van. Just sayin’.

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