In tough times, there’s a huge temptation to compromise on one’s purchases, and buying a used car is one place to save a few bucks. Sure, we’d all like to drive a new BMW as our regular commuter, but, boy, that ’97 Malibu sure is tempting for $700. After all, it’s just for getting back and forth to work, and the woman selling it has to be 106—how much damage could she have done?
There’s nothing wrong with bargain hunting as long as you’re hunting the right game. When it comes to used cars, there are things that are always best to avoid.
Any Car without a Service History
In this age of computerized record keeping, a car without a comprehensive service history is simply a car that hasn’t been serviced. It doesn’t matter if the guy selling it swears he always changed the oil himself; you have to assume that what’s currently in the crankcase has been coagulating in there since the early Pleistocene.
Of course, exceptions might be made for classics, but the truth is that, since the introduction of computerized ignitions and engine-control modules, an ever-increasing number of repairs have been creeping beyond the realm of home-mechanic care. Look for a long service history in any used car, with most of the servicing done by the same mechanic or dealership over time. There are simply too many good used cars out there with such a background to settle for anything less.
Any Car with a Salvage Title
Caution: Salvage titles are not just issued for crashed cars. A car can be totaled for any of a hundred reasons. For example, if it is covered in barnacles and the seller promises to throw in two free seafood dinners with the purchase, there’s a chance it’s never been driven into a tree.
Insurance companies aren’t in the business of losing money. So it’s a good bet that if a car has been written off as a total loss, it’s because it really was a total loss. If it had been worth fixing, the insurance company would have fixed it.
It’s simple: If a car is so badly damaged that it can’t be fixed to an insurance company’s slight standards, to what standards could it have been fixed? Jethro and Cletus might tell you that “all the damage just buffed out,” but what they did was sew the front half of a rear-ended BMW 335i to the back half of a nose-crunched Ford Ranger pickup and then get busy with the Bondo. Salvage titles mean trouble.
Anything with Mismatched Tires
With regular tire rotation and proper inflation, the tires on most cars will wear out at similar rates. There are exceptions to this—the Acura NSX, for example, which was a notorious tire muncher and could consume a set of rear Yokohamas pulling out of the garage—but for the most part, if a car needs a tire, it should need more than one. So generally speaking (and allowing for the exception of cars originally equipped with staggered sizes front and rear), all four tires should match each other in size, make, and model.
But go shopping for a used ride, and it seems some cars are equipped with tires that aren’t all even the same shape. It’s one thing to believe in pyramid power, and it’s something else to drive on a tire shaped like a pyramid—especially when it’s matched with a rhombus, a hendecagon, and a trapezium.
And watch out for the bargain-brand tires that come from China and have names ripped right off the Panda Express menu board. Some have the same tread-wear rating as a chiffon and the grip of a greased beach ball. At least they taste good when served with plum sauce over rice.
Any Car with Brushstrokes in the Paint
House paint is for houses, and car paint is for cars. The moment a car owner forgets that, he’s likely given up on maintaining the rest of the car, too.
There are a few “art cars” floating around out there that name-brand artists have decorated with flourishes at a manufacturer’s behest. The 3.0 CSL that BMW had Alexander Calder decorate back in the early ’70s comes to mind here, and it’s obviously a desirable nugget of history, no matter the brushstrokes. But it’s something altogether different from a car that has had indoor/outdoor latex applied with a thick brush over a mound of Bondo. If a car has been painted with stuff from the Home Depot, it’s possible there are other building materials aboard. Bondo, after all, can be used to sculpt an entire fender.
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I am a professional woman who has always bought used vehicles since 1973 and only have been burned 1x, by a car dealership. I do the basic maintainance on my cars plus some (replace brakes, alternators, etc). I learned basic mechanics at the age of 20 and it has served me well. My best story was the $200 '78 Volvo that was being used as a blackberry arbor that I bought in '89. I threw in a new battery and drove it out, covered in mildew, flushed the fluids, tune up and belts, new tires and a good wax and I put 175k on it over the next ten years. Sold it for 1,500.
If you have common sense and basic car knowledge you can get a great used car. My current car, bought used, is a '85 300ZX with 180k original miles and runs like a champ. Drove it RT from WA to FL last year.