Rick's Free Auto Repair Advice

How to buy a used car Part I

How to choose the right used car

Knowing how to choosing the right used car can be tricky. It has to be affordable and comfortable. It must run well, drive smoothly, and the body must be in good condition. But some used cars that look great can be hiding expensive problems that will surface shortly after you take ownership. That’s why it’s so important to research a car’s reliability and have it professionally inspected before you buy it.

I’ve assembled a list of buying tips to help you choose the best used car, while avoiding the most common used car buying mistakes. If you follow these tips and do your homework you’ll wind up with a better car that’ll cost less to maintain and repair.

If you’re on a limited income and want to avoid costly repairs Tip #1 is for especially important

Tip #1 Avoid European cars

European cars like Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and VW are classy, comfortable, and fun to drive. But they’re also incredibly expensive to maintain and repair. They’re also more expensive to insure. Parts are harder to find and they’re much more expensive than parts for more common cars. We used the Repair Index at rockauto.com to compare the parts cost of a very common 2000 Ford Taurus to several popular 2000 European cars to see exactly how much more you would pay.

Audi repair cost for parts is 1.94 times more than the parts for a Ford Taurus

audi repair costs, audi parts cost

2000 Audi A6 parts costs compared to 2000 Ford Taurus from Rockauto.com Repair Index




BMW repair cost for parts is 1.67 times more than the parts for a Ford Taurus

BMW repair costs, BMW parts cost

2000 BMW 528i parts costs compared to 2000 Ford Taurus from Rockauto.com Repair Index


Mercedes repair cost for parts is 2.02 times more than the parts for a Ford Taurus

mercedes repair cost, mercedes parts cost

2000 Mercedes E430i parts costs compared to 2000 Ford Taurus
from Rockauto.com Repair Index

Volkswagen Passat repair cost for parts is 1.8 times more than the parts for a Ford Taurus

Passat repair costs, passat parts cost

2000 Volkswagen Passat parts costs compared to 2000 Ford Taurus
from Rockauto.com Repair Index

Volvo repair cost for parts is 1.86 times more than the parts for a Ford Taurus

Volvo repair cost, volvo parts cost

2000 Volvo S70 parts costs compared to 2000 Ford Taurus
from Rockauto.com Repair Index


In addition to the higher parts cost, European cars require special tools that many repair shops don’t own. So you’ll have to take it to the dealer for repairs and those dealers charge a higher hourly labor rate than most independent repair shops. The Lift doesn’t own factory scan tools for European cars, so we don’t fix them.

I’m not saying European cars are bad cars, only that they’re far more costly to insure, maintain, and repair. If you’re on a limited budget, avoid European cars.

Tip #2 Avoid unreliable cars

Certain years, makes, and models are known for engine, transmission, and electrical problems. For example: Most GM cars with 3.1-liter and 3.4-liter engines made from the late-‘90s to the mid-2000s have defective intake manifold gaskets. In some cases, the gaskets can leak coolant into the engine oil and destroy the engine. However, if the leak is caught in time, the gaskets can be replaced with an updated design for about $800.

If you know about a problem like this ahead of time, you can ask the seller if they’ve already made the repair update (ask for the repair receipt) and avoid getting stuck with the repair.

That’s where research comes in. Consumer Reports Magazine, Edmunds.com, tradeinqualityindex.com, and carmd.com provide detailed reliability information and actual owner feedback on most vehicles. So it pays to check out the reliability ratings of cars you’re interested in before you kick the tires. You can access past issues of Consumer Reports for free at any public library.

Tip #3 Avoid luxury cars

In addition to higher parts costs, luxury cars, by their very nature, are packed with complicated electronic systems like automatic climate control, loadleveling air suspensions, memory seats and mirrors, backup cameras, entertainment and navigation systems, and alarm systems. Those systems make driving more fun. But when they break they’re incredibly expensive to repair, even for simple things like battery replacement.

Some luxury used car buyers fool themselves into thinking they’ll just stop using a feature if it breaks. But that’s not how these systems work. If the computerized climate control system fails, for example, it won’t default to a manual backup. You just won’t have heat until you replace the computer! If the memory seat controller module fails, the seat may move all the way to the back and stop. You won’t be able to move it forward until you replace the computer module.

Many luxury cars include an air ride suspension. The shocks and struts in those vehicles wear out. Ordinary struts cost around $150, but air shocks cost almost $1,000 each. When the shock fails, an air line breaks, or the air compressor quits, the body will bottom out, making it impossible to drive the car. Then you’ll have to pay several thousand dollars just to get the car back into drivable condition.

Tip #4 Think twice about buying a car with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four wheel drive (4WD)

Everyone in snow country thinks they need a car with AWD or 4WD. But AWD and 4WD cars are not only more expensive to buy, but they cost more to maintain and repair. Sure, they provide better grip when accelerating in snow than 2WD cars. But AWD and 4WD don’t help at all during stopping and cornering, and those driving maneuvers are just as critical on snow and ice.

More importantly, AWD and some 4WD mechanisms are very sensitive to tire tread depth. In fact, the diameter of all four tires must be within 1/8-in. of each other or you can damage the AWD or 4WD system. That means you must strictly observe the tire rotation schedules in the owner’s manual. And, if you damage a tire beyond repair, you may have to replace all four tires as a matched set. Some specialty tire stores in the Twin Cities area can “shave” the tread on a new tire so it matches the diameter of your old tires, but that’ll cause a delay and cost more.

Instead of spending more on a vehicle with AWD or 4WD, consider buying a 2WD car and spending the difference on a set of winter tires. Independent test show that winter tires accelerate 33% faster on snow and 44% faster on ice than all season tires. In stopping tests, winter tires stopped 30-ft. shorter on snow and 18-ft. shorter on ice than all-season tires. And winter tires also outperform all season tires on AWD and 4WD cars in turns.

Tip #5 Check out the car’s REAL value BEFORE you meet with the dealer or private seller

Car dealers and private sellers usually consult published guides (often called The Blue Book) to set their asking price. You can access those guides for free on your computer or at a public library. The guides list the car’s current retail selling price and its trade-in value based on options, mileage, and vehicle condition. Some guides also list a different retail selling price if the car is being sold by a private party.

It’s important to know the retail selling price upfront because many car dealers list their used cars for more than the published price. That way they have room to “give you a deal” by selling it at its published price. If you know the published retail price, you can often start your negotiation at the lower price and get a better deal.

Private sellers also want to sell their car at full retail. But if you consult the published guides, you’ll find that the suggested price from a private party is about halfway between trade-in and full retail. That’s where you should start your price negotiation with a private seller.

Use these online sources to find the car’s value:

Kelly Blue Book — kbb.com

North American Dealers Association (NADA) — nada.com

Edmunds — Edmunds.com

Truecar — truecar.com

Once you know the brand and model, check out the next article in the series

How to buy a used car Part II
How to get the best price on a used car


© 2015, Rick Muscoplat



Posted on by Rick Muscoplat

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