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I’ll admit that I have a real problem with those who consider knowing about cars a “manly” pursuit. So you’ll have to forgive the name of the blog (“The Art of Manliness”) over at which I found this great article. But it’s a great article indeed, outlining and even explaining a lot of concepts dear to those of us who’ve owned and self-repaired more than one heavily used vehicle. Best of all it doesn’t make blanket recommendations, but rather offers advantages and disadvantages to most of the actions involved in the whole used car purchase process.

My favorite bit, though, is the part most people skip entirely when buying a used car: the inspection. The folks over at Manliness recommend you at least look under the car for rust, check tire wear (which can uncover alignment and suspension problems), look for body damage, and avoid cars with jacked up interiors. After all, anyone who doesn’t give a damn about the part of the car they sit in for three or four years probably gives less of a damn about maintenance or avoiding curbs.

They also recommend paying attention to the controls, transmission, brakes, and alignment on the test drive, selecting at least one bumpy road to identify busted-ass shocks. Listening doesn’t hurt either.

Some other great advice: After nine years of patching my old ’88 Honda CRX together, I can identify hundreds of ailments by ear alone. So If you know someone who’s owned the same make and model you’re considering, bring ’em with you. And don’t assume that driving a lot car over to some local garage for a paid “inspection” will accomplish much. Unless you’ve been working with the mechanic for years, he (or she, of course) will likely never see the car again, and therefore has no real motivation to ferret out difficult issues.

So what do you think? If a Toolmonger buddy called you up and said “I’m buying a Trans Am. Wanna come along?” what would you look for?

(Thanks, KB35, for the great CC-licensed photo.)

[The Art of Manliness]


14 Responses to How To Buy A Used Car

  1. jc says:

    If I had a friend buying a Trans Am, I’d ditch them and find a higher class of friend. Like someone who wants a Yugo or a Travant.

  2. Matt says:

    Find a good web forum (example: VWVortex for just about any VW, and TDIClub for diesel VWs). Read everything. Try to find a local expert wrench and ask if he/she will check it out for you.

  3. Ben says:

    I used to buy and sell a lot of used cars (beaters) on craigslist. I learned a LOT about cars and even made a little bit of money fixing them up and selling them. My advice:

    #1 try not to buy anything the first time you look at it.

    #2 figure out what the cars are going for in your area – Kelly blue book, Craigslist, Autotrader and e-bay can help give you an idea of what these cars are going for

    #3 Make sure the paper work is in order even if you are buying a car for a project. You might never be able to get the thing smogged or even put in your name because of something that happened ten years ago. Or the vehicle might have $1,000 in back tickets. Carfax is cheap insurance.

    #4 read up on the auto forums but take that with a grain of salt there are alot of armchair racers/restorers out there that are just bitter their project didn’t work out and will talk you out of buying something that is not cherry.


    PS Trans Ams are awesome!

  4. Toolhearty says:

    When you do buy that new or used car, keep a logbook. It makes a difference when you go to sell it. People figure that if you were responsible enough to keep a running log of what was serviced/repaired and when, then you must have taken pretty good care of the vehicle.

    Also, when buying a used vehicle, try to keep things in perspective: “OMG! It has a broken shock absorber! It was just what I was looking for, but… Guess I’ll have to keep looking. Sigh.” 🙂

    The one thing that bothers me about buying used is that I have almost no ability to spot bodywork. I once had a Toyota Corolla that I bought from a dealer with really low miles. Had a fender-bender and took it to a local one-man shop for repairs. He popped open the hood, took a look inside and said “Wait, this isn’t right” then after crawling around underneath for a minute or so asked me “You did know the whole front end on this thing has been replaced, right?”

    Ah, well. It still served me reliably for many years.

  5. G says:

    Regarding manliness and buying a car…

    Yes, apparently my boobs mean that I can’t possibly know anything about a vehicle. I had the hardest time getting through to car salesmen when my poor Jimmy took a dive and I went to replace it. I said I had 3 requirements: a Vortec engine, a towing package, and an SUV-type body (for carrying my tools and supplies enclosed). The idiots kept trying to get me to look at Navigators and Explorers (etc), pointing to all the lovely luxury components, while I was explaining that I don’t care if it has SEATS, much less all-leather interior.

    Apparently there’s some kind of interference between my mouth and their ears, because they didn’t hear a damned word I said. Boobs are such a hindrance when trying to accomplish some things.

    Now, I can forget important details when I’m trying to focus, so before going to look at a car I go web-searching to make sure I’ve got everything covered. I make up a checklist. The checklist consists of things like:
    * Does everything work (listing everything the car is supposed to have from lights to cruise control to A/C)?
    * How does it drive? does it sound normal, does it shift smoothly, does anything seem off?
    * Can it accelerate enough to save my butt if I end up in a bad situation? Likewise brake?
    * How are the brakes? how are the tires?
    * Is there paint overspray under the hood?
    * Does the seller seem like he’s being straightforward? Sometimes people can lie with a straight face, of course, but if there *is* anything about the seller that seems off, no deal.
    * and all kinds of other stuff you can find if you go looking.

    I also run the title to make sure it’s clean, although I’ve learned that may not be entirely accurate. The dealer who sold a friend a car some years ago called her up wanting to buy it back, saying he was looking for cars that had known clean in-state titles. He said after some major weather a few years ago, people were taking cars across state lines to get them new titles; a new title issued in a new state conceals flood damage done in the previous state. Erk. So I also now look for not just a clean title, but a car with a title that’s been in the same state since bought.

    I’ve owned four vehicles now. I’ve managed to pay less than dealer trade-in each time, and got good, solid value out of all of them. If you have time to look and know the value of what you’re looking for, you can find a really good deal.

  6. russ says:

    Using multiple resources is the best. The ideas listed above are great. Some cars will have clubs, official or unofficial, that can guide you. The Miata has a good one on how to check out used cars and for which generation – at least the first 3 of them.

    Another example with the forums is that you can find out that on the six cylinder version of the car the manufacturer states that the lifters should be adjusted after 90k miles and that it costs money (4 figures) to do so — of course nobody tells you that when you are buying the car (new or used). And you may find others you haven’t had it done after 120k and have no problems.

    Taking a friend on the first or second time to look at the car helps. He/she can be more critical of things you may overlook.

    Taking it to a mechanic that you can trust is a big help. Finding one is another story.

    Always check about the timing belt (if it has one) and the mileage. If it hasn’t been done yet and the time is near or overdue find out how much it costs because that will have to be done. If it has been done you want to see proof and compare the VIN numbers.

    Finally, I’d go to check out the TransAM or even a Firebird if it was from the 70s. I wanted to buy this 74 Firebird and was a little short of cash. It was a nice looking car.

  7. Mike47 says:

    At the risk of sounding like a commercial, my guide for purchasing used cars is now one word: CARMAX. I do nearly all my own mechanical work, and I research the heck out of any thing before purchasing. I’ve purchased many used cars, pickups and motorcycles over 42+ years, and this is by far the fastest, easiest, least painful and most reliable method I’ve come across. Admittedly, there are multitudes of specialty vehicles and classics that Carmax doesn’t handle, so it isn’t for everyone. If it’s late-model transportation for family or sport that you are looking for, I recommend it.

  8. Mark says:

    Here’s a source for good mechanics in your area thanks to the guys at NPR’s Car Talk:


  9. Jim says:

    I have a couple car buying strategies that have served me very well, but are not for everyone.

    1) Let someone else take the depreciation hit. Cars depreciate most the first couple years. Instead of buying a new car, buy one a couple years old that have taken the most depreciation decrease. Often, the model is very similar to the current model and it is still under factory warranty.

    2) Buy private. Buy from private buyer. They are the ultimate decision maker and there are not multiple layers of people trying to make money. Plus, in many states, you do not have to pay sales tax.

    3) Only consider loan free cars. Finding a loan free late model car is difficult, but offers significant advantage. Since, there is no loan payout, the person does not have a target floor prices. Many sellers will be reluctant to sell a car for less than their loan value because they will have to put cash into the deal to pay off the bank and release the title. Often, people with late model loan free cars need cash quickly….which leads to….

    4) Pay cash. Wave money in their face and lowball the deal. Not many people have cash in hand to buy a late model car. In many cases they are selling it privately because they are not using the equity to buy a new car. They need cash. They may have went to a dealer and the dealer lowball them with a below wholesale price. So, they try to sell it privately thinking they can do better. You may even offer below wholesale, but because you have cash in hand and the deal can be completely quickly, they accept you offer.

    5) Buy Luxury. Using the above strategy, you can get much more for your money. Plus, the more expensive the car, the less a dealer will be willing to pay for it, especially in this market.

    I have bought many cars using this strategy, most recently purchasing a MBenz S600 AMG from a homebuilder going through a divorce that needed cash fast. I got the deal of a lifetime! Although, I am paying for it in insurance.

    Alternate Strategy. Let the car come to you. Often a good deal comes your way. A neighbor has a car sitting that is not on the market. They bought a new car and save there old car because the trade-in was too low. The decided to use it as an additional car and it does not get used as often as expected. It may be a relative, a friend. Ask. Make them and offer. Even if they say no, they could come back weeks later and accept you offer.


  10. Chris W says:

    Consider buying from a major car rental company. They get rid of their cars before they get beat up, and they have at least had regular oil changes. One negligent owner can do more harm than 100 different drivers.

  11. Mike B. says:

    Everyone here seems to be talkin about buying from a Private Seller. Which makes sense, since this is ToolMonger. However I think a lot of people are better served by buying a Certified Pre-Owned. I’ve known folks who wouldn’t even know how to change a flat tire or jump start a battery! Needless to say these kind of folks tend to not be great about maintenance or repair in which case the kind of Warranty that CPO cars can offer is almost a necessity. Even if it requires financing. I know a fella who got a good deal on a Hyundai with a 10 year Bumper to Bumper warranty and figures he’ll pay it off in 4 years. So that’s 6 years he’s covered after fully owning the car…Of course I don’t know much about the specific details of such a warranty as I’d never look at somethin like that for myself.

    On the Other Hand I know a guy who’d doesn’t know a thing about cars, probably isn’t going to ever learn, and yet insists on buying something used for as cheap as possible and then running it into the ground. Of course he’s going to repeat this every couple years!

  12. Blair says:

    And then there’s guys like me wanted a Jeep(CJ type) or pickup, in trade for an 85 Harley Sportster. Ended up with a beautiful 79 Bronco that just suits me fine(if you want to see the pics, email me @ mustang1954@yahoo.com),but the moral of that story is, know what you are looking for/getting, be it in return for your cash, or trade.

    The car/truck business is all about what YOU need, or desire, and I agree with the above comments, if you’re not a mechanic, have it checked out by a knowledgeable person

  13. DanS says:

    Dont buy on an impulse!

    I made that mistake once. I got it for about $8k less than what it was worth. And it turned out to be a great car, after I spent $3000 cutting the rust out. Still a good deal, but it was in the body shop for 2 months.

  14. kif says:

    I don’t know if Mike47 meant Carfax or Carmax. I’ve used both. Carmax is an alright used car dealer, I suppose, but I think Carfax is much more valuable to the used car buyer. If you are shopping, you can get 5 reports for $45, and if you find a car and have some left over, do what I did and find out what happened to some of your favorite cars of the past.

    Granted, there are some ways problems can be kept out of the database, but overall you are better off for knowing the history of the car you are considering. I was ready to buy a Subaru in Denver when I found out that it was originally registered in New York City and had been in an accident.

    I do suggest you have a mechanic look at it as well. He or she might not be able to forsee some small to moderate repairs, but the major stuff jumps right out at the trained eye. That’s the stuff that truly makes you regret buying the car.

    Also, I strongly advise against buying rental cars. It is the goal of rental fleet managers to have a very high percent of their cars out at any given time and will adjust the size of their fleet accordingly, moving cars to other outlets. This is why rental cars often see 20K miles in the first 6 months on the road. Keeping these small margins of idle cars is a deterrent to proper maintenance. Maintenance keeps cars off the lot for a day, and if a fleet manager will not hesitate to postpone service if the car can be rented. I once saw a Pontiac Bonneville rental car with 18K miles on the original oil.

    Keep in mind that lease cars and other types of fleet cars are another matter entirely. If you want a fleet car that was actually maintained, get one from a Government Services Administration auction.

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