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I need help with used car shopping
May 25, 2012 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Suggestions or help on how to buy a used car when you know nothing about cars

I'll be attending a new school in the Fall. I live in Chicago and this new school is on the North side of the city, while I'm on the West side. I currently do not have a car and do not find myself in need of one often (although grocery shopping would be much easier). To get to this school without a car involves about an hour, a train, a bus and a little walking. No thank you. OR I could just buy myself a cheap little car to get me through the next two to three years and make my commuting life much easier.

So, I have about $3500 saved up for this purpose. Ideally I would even keep it under that amount if I can find something nice and reliable. I need a car that's going to run consistently for the next two to three years and let's face it, I'd like to have a little vanity about how it looks. I would be driving it to school and back 5 days a week, about 25-30 miles per week. Not much. If it's a great car, I'd love to be able to drive it to Ohio to visit family once in a while, too. My problem is that I know jack about cars. Unless there's an obvious noise or it's on fire, I have no idea that there's something wrong with it. I wouldn't even know how to look.

I've been scouring Craig's list and doing a lot of online searches. I see cars that look really good for their age and are cheap when I compare the price on the KBB site. I assume there's something that needs a serious repair on the car and I don't think I want to take on a car that needs a lot of work right off the bat. Safe assumption, right? I also see a lot of auto auctions around Chicago. I've heard negative things about them. They also make me nervous as you are usually not able to test drive these cars first. I want to be thorough first. I'm not here to gamble on a car. Auction is out.

Alright, here are my many questions:
1) Are sellers going to blatantly lie to me about a car? Is this terribly common? (I've never had to buy a car by myself before. I'm nervous.)

2) I know that I can take a car for an inspection to a mechanic before I buy it. How much does this generally cost? Do you make an appointment for something like this?

3) In your experience, are there certain makes and models that last a really long time? I've always heard Toyota and Honda run forever. Are there other brands I should look at?

4) I did see an adorable VW Cabrio on CL today from a dealer. It's priced way below the KBB value (well below a "fair" conditioned private seller price, even) so I'm going to pass. However, are VW and other foreign cars more costly to repair? What cars offer the least expensive repairs? I really hope I don't have to deal with too many repairs, but with an older car I'm sure something is bound to go wrong.

5) That said, how do I best maintain a car? I know I should change the oil and keep the tire pressure up. That's seriously all I know. What else can I do to prevent expensive repairs?

6) I know there are some major milestones for cars. Timing belts, new clutches. When do these things usually happen? And if an older car hasn't had these done yet, that makes it an expensive ticking time bomb, right? Are there other major repairs to look out for in older cars?

7) A great mechanic. I don't have one. If you're familiar with the Near West side of Chicago, could you recommend one?

Thanks so much in advance for your help guys. I really appreciate your advice always.
posted by smeater44 to Shopping (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't have much experience buying used cars but I learnt a lot from this book which has been repeatedly mentioned in Ask Metafilter. The book is: Don't Get Taken Every Time: The Ultimate Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car in the Showroom or on the Internet. If you're not buying from a dealer, some of the techniques for maximizing your bargaining power may not be useful, but I found the checklists at the back of the book for you and your mechanic to be worth the price of the (used) book.
posted by peacheater at 1:22 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Suggestions or help on how to buy a used car when you know nothing about cars

Buy a Honda. Look up the "milestone" maintenance schedule (eg, what to do every 15k, 30k, 60k miles) at the back of the service book and follow that guide, telling your mechanic what maintenance to do at those times.

You don't have enough money to maintain a used VW.
posted by deanc at 1:37 PM on May 25, 2012


1. Sometimes there are blatant lies. More often, sellers will shade the truth a bit to make the car sound better than it is.

2. Different places have different rules. Call around and ask what their preference is. Usually, making an appointment is going to be the way to go.

3. I've had two Nissans that lasted well over 300,000 miles. No car, though, will last long without regular maintenance. Hondas are not immune to breaking down if you never change the oil.

4. NO!!!! A mkIV VW is not what you want for your first car. There is no such thing as a "clean" mkIV. It will bleed you dry with repairs. Walk away!

5. As you said, regular oil changes (including filter). Rotate the tires regularly. Change the air filter once or twice a year. New wipers once a year. Keep it clean, inside and out. That's really about it.

6. The owner's manual of whatever car you get will have these maintenance milestones charted-out for you, like belts, plugs, brake pads, fluids. If an older car has never had any of them performed, yes, you are buying a timebomb.

7. Sorry. Can't help you with this one.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:39 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


1) Sellers will often understate the problems a car has. Or they might not be aware of the problem or how extensive it is.
2) Usually getting a mechanic to check things out runs about $200-300. Best money you'll spend.
posted by Mercaptan at 1:40 PM on May 25, 2012


I have a 2000 VW Golf, bought new, which has substantially lower miles than that Cabrio you saw on CL. Beginning last year, it started requiring expensive repairs, ranging from $500 to $750 (just last week!). Before that, it had been relatively trouble-free. It just seemed that in the past year it hit the point where everything started to go. So I'd be wary of older VWs.

On preview, what deanc said.
posted by research monkey at 1:41 PM on May 25, 2012


Old VWs tend to be much more expensive to maintain than old Hondas.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:48 PM on May 25, 2012


Subscribe to Consumer Reports online for 1 month for $7 and scour their used car reliability records. I think most of CR's reviews are crap, but the used car reliability stuff is just empirical data collected by an annual survey of their members. Then figure out which cars in your price range have clean reliability records and focus on looking for those cars. When you think you have found one have a trusted mechanic (ask a friend since you probably don't have one) check out the car for you. They may charge about $100 for their time. It's a worthwhile investment. Also, negotiate the selling price prior to taking it to the mechanic. If it comes back clean the seller will have the advantage at that point. If you are buying from a dealer they will let you borrow the car for a day to get it checked out. If it's a private seller you'll probably have to arrange to meet them.

This might all seem like a PITA, but it is far less of a pain than a $2000 transmission rebuild after 2 months.
posted by COD at 1:49 PM on May 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) Are sellers going to blatantly lie to me about a car? Is this terribly common? (I've never had to buy a car by myself before. I'm nervous.)

It could happen, sure. I've only bought one car (new), and I wasn't lied to, but I was definitely SOLD to. I guess they're SORT OF different. I would expect that, at a minimum, if you buy from a dealer or used lot. I think it'd be up to your intuition as to whether someone is lying to you about the history of a car- there are services that check VIN numbers to make sure it hasn't been in an accident, etc. If you're buying private party, buy from the folks that make you comfortable.


2) I know that I can take a car for an inspection to a mechanic before I buy it. How much does this generally cost? Do you make an appointment for something like this?

Don't know about cost but I'd definitely make an appointment. You better believe they will find stuff, and I guess it's how much they need to fix minus how much the seller will come down. I'd go to an independent shop for the make you're interested in, not a chain place or a dealer.


3) In your experience, are there certain makes and models that last a really long time? I've always heard Toyota and Honda run forever. Are there other brands I should look at?

They run forever AND are economical. Mercedes-Benz, old Saabs and Volvos run forever too but cost an arm and a freaking leg to repair when needed, custom order parts, etc. Just like anything else, there are dud models across all makes out there. American cars have the most readily available and affordable parts but can just suck. It was always cheap to repair my Dodge Intrepid, but it was also always in the shop after a while. I had a Saturn before that which was basically a disaster on wheels. Toyota was the best car I've ever had, personally.


4) I did see an adorable VW Cabrio on CL today from a dealer. It's priced way below the KBB value (well below a "fair" conditioned private seller price, even) so I'm going to pass. However, are VW and other foreign cars more costly to repair? What cars offer the least expensive repairs? I really hope I don't have to deal with too many repairs, but with an older car I'm sure something is bound to go wrong.


Absolutely VWs are expensive to repair, and IMO, are an unwise bet if money is short. I've known countless people with messed up, perpetually unfixable VWs they eventually dump. It's hard to generalize on what car is the least expensive to fix because the ones that are (American makes) are less reliable (IMO).


5) That said, how do I best maintain a car? I know I should change the oil and keep the tire pressure up. That's seriously all I know. What else can I do to prevent expensive repairs?

Don't let things go. Bring it in at the first sign of trouble. Drive sensibly. Besides pressure, check tread wear. Check brake pads.

You can be the best owner in the world, but you're still at the mercy of the previous owner(s), especially on cars up there in mileage. That's why sellers with 'all the reciepts' will get the highest prices when they sell.
posted by tremspeed at 2:19 PM on May 25, 2012


Good answers for your questions. I'll add this comment I left in a similar thread for a few extra things it will help to be aware of.

Also, there are a lot of suggestions for Japanese cars here, which is fine, but don't discount Korean makers (especially if you buy something made from around 2005 or newer). These are arguably cheaper to maintain (and fix, if necessary) than Japanese cars. They typically have long warranties, too, so you may still be covered under factory warranty if you buy new enough. Also, US makers get a bad rap for quality issues, but even they have made major strides in quality over the last half decade.

Basically, research the hell out of anything you're considering. Even if it's a Honda or a Toyota.
posted by Kevtaro at 2:44 PM on May 25, 2012


Nthing the book above. A big bookstore may still have the Consumer Reports annual special issue (about $10.95, it is not the monthly magazine) usually in the magazine section, titled something like "Best Used Cars for 2012". It has articles about what models to look for and where, what to check out, and how to pay.

Private sellers and indie used car lots will lie to you.

Indie lots buy cars from auction that new car dealers get rid of. New dealers keep anything good, including trade-ins and repos from new, and send the trash to the auctions. Indie used dealers patch those up enough to drive off the lot and out of their sight. Avoid.

Private sellers may or may not outright lie, and/or they may not have maintained the car well. There can be good ones.

New car dealers with used car lots and service all on the same premises, and Carmax, are pretty OK for used car quality - but you'll pay a little more, and have to get through the dealer experience, which could be a different topic. On the other hand, they give a 30 or 90 day warranty, have service on the premises, and can handle titling/registration + plates/insurance pretty easily.

Take it to a good indie mechanic to have it checked out before buying. A good mechanic will find all kinds of little things that ideally should be fixed, but you can ignore many of them. Check here at that time for comments about what really needs to be fixed up and what can be put off or ignored.

To avoid major troubles, avoid ALL used VWs made before, say, 2013.

Toyota and Honda are reliable and inexpensive to repair and maintain. Nissan too. Hyundai/Kia after 2008 is good, mechanically, too, but out of your price range.

For most models of Toyota and Honda, you can download PDFs of their original owner's manuals. Those will have the recommended service charts for the specific model, by miles and time. Just follow the chart.

Check the oil and tire pressure at least every month. First of the month. Always keep those at the proper level.

At $3500 you can still find a decent car for the needs you list, and I hope you stay under that and pay cash only.

In the $2000-$3000 range, you can find a 1998-2002 Chevrolet Prizm (not Geo Prizm). This is exactly identical to a Toyota Corolla of those years (except the radio!) and made in the same Toyota/GM co-owned factory of those years. It's overlooked or disdained, and lower priced than an identical Toyota Corolla, because of the Chevy name. It might not be sexy but it is decent and reliable, one of the best values in that price range. It can be serviced at any indie or any Chevy or Toyota dealer. Only a suggestion, but you might have avoided a "Chevy" of those years too.

Don't forget taxes and registration and insurance costs.
posted by caclwmr4 at 2:47 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ask why they're getting rid of the car. Unfortunately, this is where you might catch people lying. If they're selling it because the noise makes them sick or because of something else bad about the car, they're likely to say "my cousin is giving me a car" or something like that.

A lot if it will have to be a character judgement on your part. Is the person telling you up-front about the problems? Are they really polished or pushy? If they're too polished, I'd begin to wonder if they know what they're doing a little too much (e.g. milking suckers for all they're worth.)
posted by brenton at 3:13 PM on May 25, 2012


This site is kinda good. the years of models with problems tends to have hundreds of complaints.

http://www.carcomplaints.com/
posted by couchdive at 3:20 PM on May 25, 2012


Once you have test driven cars, dealt with price and almost made your decision, You simply must take the car to an independent mechanic (NOT the dealer's mechanic). for an inspection. $100-200 for the privelege, and they will tell you any problems. It is worth it, not to have a car that will break down or be a money pit. Look up mechanics in the dealer's neighborhood, call them before you intend to go down, tell them the score - that you'll likely have a car for them to inspeca that afternoon, and schedule an appointment. You can always cancel!

If a dealer refuses an inspection, walk away. I repeat, walk away. I don't care how much cheaper the car is - what special offers - what guarantees - there is some bullshit. I spent 2 half days in 2 differe dealerships with them trying to persuade me not to have the car checked out - when I asked them why, they said "oh we do inspections". Well, then they won't be afraid of others looking. This is especially true of cheaper, older cars like the ones you are thinking of buying.
posted by lalochezia at 11:34 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


PS: Save yourself some time at the beginning of the visit to the dealership - ask if they will allow inspection. If they refuse at the beginning, then leave.....
posted by lalochezia at 11:40 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks to all of you for the wonderful advice! I've learned a lot from this, especially not to buy a VW.
posted by smeater44 at 10:24 AM on May 27, 2012


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