Used Car Newbie
February 22, 2011 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in a used car I saw on the side of the road, and I have a test drive scheduled this afternoon. If I decide to go through with it, this will be my first time buying a used car from a private seller that wasn't a friend or family member. What should I know, ask, or do to protect myself and get the information I need?

So yeah, first time used car buyer. Well, at least it's the first time I didn't know the history of the car. Obviously I should get the VIN and get a Carfax report, but what else should I do?

From previous posts, I keep reading that I should have it checked out by an independent mechanic, but how does one go about doing so? Do I just ask if I can drive it away for a couple days?

If the seller discloses a minor mechanical problem, do I make an offer based on "good" condition minus the cost of the repair, or go ahead and offer "fair" condition value?

Is it kosher to ask for a bill of sale that has some protection for me in it? Something like "if any undisclosed mechanical defects are found within 30 days, something something"?

This is all very confusing and I don't want to end up with a lemon! There are a few recent posts about buying a used car but they didn't address the questions above. Help me Hive Mind!
posted by Willie0248 to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This recent thread may be of use.

Oh, and if it's a "fair" car, then it's a "fair" car, not a "good" car with some problems.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2011

We've sold a few cars in the past few years (the last one was to someone whose situation seems to be similar to yours). This was our experience:

If you want to have an independent mechanic check it out, that's fine, but make it easy for the seller, since the seller is going to be the one driving it out to the mechanic and back. (You will *not* be driving it away for a couple days.) Perhaps give the seller your mechanic's name and number and let the seller arrange the time/date.

The bill of sale will most likely be "as-is". One car we sold, we did a "if any undisclosed mechanical defect is found within X days, something something", but that was only because we really wanted to sell the car and we didn't have any other potential buyers.

Basically, that's what it comes down to - if the seller has a lot of interested buyers, he/she will pick the buyer with the fewest strings attached - all cash, as-is, no independent inspection. The more contingencies you place on your offer, the higher the possibility that you'll be passed over.
posted by Lucinda at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2011

There isn't a single correct way to go about this, so don't feel you're at risk of breaking any rules. Your goal is to determine whether the car will meet your needs and to negotiate a fair price if it does. You can skin that cat in a variety of ways.

I suggest you talk to the seller, ask about the car's history, why they're selling it, etc. Take it for a substantial test drive -- not just around the block. Listen for odd noises. Sniff for odd smells. See whether it performs as you'd expect.

If you're interested, then you can move on to dealing with the independent inspection. Explain to the seller, "I'm interested, but I really don't know much about cars so I want to have my mechanic take a look at it. How can we work that out? If I schedule an inspection, will you drive the car to my mechanic's garage, or can I leave some collateral and drive it there myself?" Arrive at some arrangement that works for both of you. If the seller resists independent inspection, run.

It's probably good to make a tentative offer that's contingent on the inspection not turning up problems. Many sellers imagine that their old cars are worth more than they actually are; if this seller is unwilling to accept a price you're comfortable with, then it's better to find out before you waste time and money on the inspection.

You can ask for a guarantee, but it would be very unusual for the seller to agree.
posted by jon1270 at 10:24 AM on February 22, 2011

If you're not very mechanically inclined, you need to tread very carefully here. The main thing is to not get emotionally involved in the purchase of said car. If you want the car so bad you can taste it, you're going to make bad decisions and live to regret it. Don't hesitate to turn the car down if something doesn't pass the sniff test. You'll find another car that you like better, guaranteed.

There are a few easy indicators of how a car has been taken care of that anyone can pick up on. Is the car clean inside and out? Do all four tires match (as in, are they the same brand and have the same general wear)? Some things I like to look out for are cheap aftermarket radios, air filters, exhaust tips, hub caps or wheels, and other such nonsense. Any modification to the car is a red flag. Size up the owner too. A lot can be gleaned from what kind of person has been driving the car. Ask questions about where he/she got the car, how long they've had it, why they're getting rid of it, etc.

That said, you really need to have someone look at the car that has some experience and knows what to look for. I've personally never had a mechanic check out a car, but I would just call a shop that is close to the car is and ask them if they'd be willing to come out for a few minutes and look at it, or you could talk to the owner and see if they'll hop in with you and drive to the shop.
posted by Capa at 10:34 AM on February 22, 2011

The last two cars I bought were used (like 6-10 year used). This is what I usually do: 1. meet the owner and have a test drive. Take note of anything weird, get past receipts for repairs, etc. If the owner has no receipts at all, I'd be worried. You can look online to learn what repairs are normal for the car and mileage. Then I negociate a price for the car "in good order". Finally I get the car verified at a garage I trust and if there's something major, my offer goes down accordingly. Just like buying a house.
posted by ddaavviidd at 10:58 AM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks guys!

As far as the inspection by a mechanic goes, what should I do if I don't really have a mechanic in mind? Are there any "check up" services offered by maintenance shops, like tire store chains?
posted by Willie0248 at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2011

The cost of the car is directly proportional to how careful you want to be. If it is $500 then a test drive, spot check for leaks, oil level, and functional electrical system is fine. When you start getting into the thousands or double K's then yeah, get it checked over by a mechanic, do a title check, etc. Some states give you more protection than others so be familiar with your laws.
posted by JJ86 at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2011

I would check AAA's website for help in finding a decent mechanic to check out your car. It's at least a step-up from picking one at random from the phone book.
posted by uniq at 12:14 PM on February 22, 2011

Car Talk Mechanics Files
posted by jon1270 at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2011

As far as the inspection by a mechanic goes, what should I do if I don't really have a mechanic in mind? Are there any "check up" services offered by maintenance shops, like tire store chains?

The last car we sold (last week), the buyer set up an appointment with one of the chain car maintenance/repair stores.
posted by Lucinda at 12:48 PM on February 22, 2011

Definitely keep emotion out of it.

AAA can help you with car inspection, although I don't know how much it costs.

What car are you looking at? Certain makes have certain nuances.
posted by bodaciousllama at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2011

Bend down and look under it. I once went to a DEALERSHIP to look at a used car (the first time I'd done this, btw), and at my father's advice, I looked under it. It was dripping fluid. I said "no thanks" and moved on to look at other used cars, and I got a good one that lasted me for seven years.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:40 PM on February 22, 2011

I've bought and sold a bunch (relatively) of cars on craigslist for myself, friends and family. Here's my 2 cents (for private owner purchases only, I have no experience with dealers):

Kelly Blue Book is not the "sticker price". What I mean by that is that just because the 2000 Subaru outback with X miles in X condition given a estimated private sale price on KBB of $6k, doesn't mean that that is the exact price that you should expect to pay. In a lot of markets, KBB doesn't even come close to being an accurate representation of value. To determine value, look for similar cars within a couple of hundred miles of you on Edwards and CarBuyer (on a mobile device, forgive the lack of embedded links). Check out all the prices of what is selling, and determine what you're willing to pay from there. As a buyer you can use these online estimators to help you negotiate. Print out the estimate you found (if it is below their price) and haggle away.

Pricing: Feel free to unapologetically but VERY politely make offers that are significantly below their asking price. Be appropriate: if you're suggesting you buy his Mustang for $1k, it isn't just a low-ball price, it is rude. Make an offer that is fair to both of you, and make it in a polite way. I've done very well with this in the past, getting cars well below their advertised prices.

Warrantee: I've never bought or sold a used car on craigslist with any return policy, warrantee, or any other guarantee implied or stated. As a buyer, it is your responsibility to make sure you're comfortable buying the car before you buy it.

Check-up: When I sell used cars, I always provide CARFAX reports for the cars. When I buy them, I ask the sellers to provide them (and if they won't, and I'm very serious about the car, I buy it myself). This is very important because it tells you vital factors about the car's history. I'd also suggest considering getting your favorite hometown mechanic to give it a look-over. Expect to pay at least a hundred bucks for this service, and do your best to accomodate the seller. If a buyer said, "Yes, I'd like my mechanic to inspect your car, can you drive it an hour out of your way and then sit there and wait for her to inspect it?" I'd suggest he go blow up someone else's tailpipe. I think the modest investment you put into have the car checked out by a professional is always wise.

Paying: Cash, cash, cash (or maybe a cashier's check, contingent on verification at the bank). And meet them in a public place. Bring a friend, always protect yourself and don't go anywhere you'd be uncomfortable. Don't embarrass yourself or the seller by offering to pay with a check.

Since you're buying, not selling, I won't get into paperwork, but make sure you know what your local jurisdiction requires you to do when transferring ownership and in what period of time.

Good luck! I've always had great luck buying and selling vehicles on craigslist, you always save a ton of money over other options.
posted by arnicae at 2:53 PM on February 22, 2011

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