I have "SUCKER" written on my forehead.
August 2, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for me to find and buy a used car, given that I know what I want, have cash to buy it outright, don't want to spend lots of time and mileage and money "shopping", and don't know anything about how to tell a lemon from a peach?

I want to buy a used Honda Odyssey first generation (from the years 1994-1998). I have up to $5k in cash to spend but of course less is better. I don't care about the interior condition of the car but do need it to be sound and have life left in it mechanically. I also don't care about colors, options, etc. I'm not in a hurry, but I live in a remote area and getting into the "City" (Seattle) to look at cars gets expensive and time consuming. Also, I am an ignorant yokel and don't know how to tell if a car is worth buying or not; I can get a mechanic's inspection but this gets expensive if I have to do it for several cars; I'd rather find a trustworthy source to buy from rather than have to 'check' a dozen cars from Craigslist. Is there some kind of 'agent' I could hire who could do the legwork, knows what to look for and who to trust, who could find me the car and say "here, buy this one"?
posted by The otter lady to Shopping (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would start by reading Don't Get Taken Every Time, recommended here on MetaFilter. It is excellent. It includes a checklist of things to look at before deciding whether you need to have a mechanic look at the car.
posted by grouse at 9:19 PM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might try mechanic shops: many of them fix up used cars, put them up for sale, and give you a guarantee for a certain number of miles.

If you are buying from an individual, look for a log of oil changes; that's probably the surest way to know if you're dealing with someone who took meticulous care of their vehicle or not.

Ask to drive the car. Jerk the wheel all the way over to the left or right, then put it in reverse. Does is move smoothly, or jerk around? Do the same going forward: a CV joint is not fun to replace.

Check the tailpipe. A smutty tailpipe might indicate some bad things happening in the engine.

Have a friend with you, and have them drive the car away while you watch from behind. If there are any problems with the frame, you will notice a regular shudder.

Good luck!
posted by Gilbert at 9:46 PM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

An "agent" could also be a trustworthy dealer representative...perhaps reach out to your social network for recommendations from folks who have had positive buying experiences...
posted by Exchequer at 10:03 PM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sure, they're called auto brokers (link is to a pretty good article that goes over the pros and cons).

I had a great experience with mine, but YMMV (he was a poker buddy of my father--I would definitely suggest asking around to see if anyone knows anyone in the field!).

The whole process was so low stress: here's my price (in my case, $6000), here's what I'm looking for (small, foreign, low-mileage car), please find it within the next two weeks (I had a tighter deadline than most). Two days later, he called with a sweetheart deal on a Corolla that I'm still driving nearly a decade later. Awesome experience, and I'd recommend him (were he not retired and were he in your area) wholeheartedly.

You may have a little bit of a problem finding one in your rural area, but please do feel free to look to Seattle. It's worth the hassle of going to 'the city.'
posted by librarylis at 10:29 PM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would like to 2nd Don't Get Taken Every Time. I actually have a signed copy, as I met the author in person.

After reading the book you will be so aware of the process you will become desensitized from car salesmen and their ways. The "loan value" section for used cars is eye opening.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 7:01 AM on August 3, 2011

I'm a big fan of buying vehicles from friends and family, but, in other car-buying-related questions, I've noticed that many people seem to have had positive experiences with CarMax.
posted by box at 7:56 AM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not sure about your area, but my credit union has joined up with other credit unions to form an auto buying service. The brokers charge a flat fee, and will tell you up front what the cost will be. I have used this service to purchase both new and used cars, with good results. Usually they carry fleet cars in the used section, but will do a search to find a specific vehicle you might want.. So, you might check with your local credit unions to see if they offer a similar service. Good luck!
posted by annsunny at 10:20 AM on August 3, 2011

If you want a painless process and a no-lemon guarantee, go to CarMax.
posted by desjardins at 12:07 PM on August 3, 2011

Buying a 13 to 17 year old vehicle, that has probably been used in a region with real winters, is something of a crap shoot, at best. Nearly all rubber and plastic parts like hoses, belts, suspension bushings, motor mounts, grommets, etc. that haven't been replaced, will be showing some oxidation and probable breakdown from UV light, road salt, ozone, and other environmental sources of degradation. It's a long time to maintain legible, intelligible maintenance records. It's a long, long time to keep up regular maintenance, even at moderate mileage per year. The only way you can possibly come out on such a deal is to scrutinize the vehicles you turn up, for the qualities that are important to you.

And it is really, really hard to find a vehicle of that age that has had excellent mechanical maintenance, and no cosmetic care. People that don't wash and wax their cars, or take care of the interior, or let their dogs or kids trash them, typically aren't going to spend the money it takes to keep timing belts changed on schedule, or worry much about leaking valve cover gaskets, transmission pan seals, slow coolant leaks etc, at least in my experience. They just "top up the fluids" whenever they feel guilty enough to get an oil change, and cross their fingers as to where the missing fluids went. Cosmetic condition is one of the biggest determinants of resale value in the early years of a vehicle's life, and once a vehicle has had significant loss of resale value through cosmetic problems, people just aren't that interested in spending money on mechanical maintenance.

And that's the main reason that dealers and brokers tend to stick to dealing in vehicles within 5 to 7 model years of age.

So, if you really want a vehicle as old as 13 to 17 years, you have to look carefully in private sale channels, winnow the field to the top 1 or 2 vehicles you find, based on overall condition, mileage, maintenance history presented, title history, etc., and then pay for reliable, thorough pre-sale inspections. Not just a $100, one hour, open-the-hood-and-have-a-general-look kind of thing, but a check that that includes an engine compression check, an electronic engine diagnosis and OBD-II code history check, a charging system check, an air conditioning system check, a transmission check, a look at the U-joints, CV joints, brakes and suspension, and a careful look at the exhaust system, along with a written report of problems noted. That kind of thing will cost $250 to $300, but could save you thousands, and more in convenience and safety, as a person living "out in the boonies."

But generally, you'd be far better served to look for something of half the age of the Honda you're thinking about, even a Korean car like a Kia or Hyundai, before laying down $5K.
posted by paulsc at 3:15 PM on August 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

More stuff to consider when buying old, used vehicles:

When you buy a car/truck of older vintage, you have to remember that you're buying not only the vehicle age and use itself, but the age of the design, vendor, and manufacturer environment of that era, too. For example, suppliers to the automobile industry introduce substantive changes to the industry, via price and other competitive mechanisms, in roughly 10 year cycles (OK, others may successfully argue for shorter or longer vendor cycles, on their personal experience and technology focus, but the automotive innovation cycle isn't much shorter than 2 years for control electronics, or more than 10 years for hydraulics or plastics, aluminum, or steel, which is why I picked 10 years as my cyclical change horizon).

An example of vendor driven change is that, starting about 1999, stainless steel exhaust components, which greatly improve exhaust system life, began to be price competitive with older coated steel components. By 2001, many vehicles sold in North America had all stainless steel exhaust systems as standard equipment. By 2005, you'd be hard pressed to find a vehicle without a stainless steel exhaust system, behind the exhaust headers. When was the last time anyone with a post 2005 model year vehicle sold in North America changed a rusted out muffler, or catalytic converter?

Body steels have been through similar upgrade/price competition cycles. The grades and treatments of auto body steels have improved greatly, both in terms of strength, and corrosion resistance, in the last 20 years. You'd be hard pressed to find a vehicle assembled since 2001 in North America, with rusted out strut towers, or unrepairable body panels, due to simple corrosion. That's because, starting in about 1998, corrosion resistant auto body steels began to be price competitive with older surface treated high carbon steels.

Automotive electronics change as fast, or faster than general consumer electronics, and work on a very similar Moore's Law price curve. In 1999, only a few of the world's most expensive vehicles even tried to provide vehicle stability or automatic traction control functions. By 2005, traction control was a cheap option on many 2WD North American pickup trucks, and by 2009, was standard equipment on most North American assembled vehicles, if it wasn't already subsumed in more comprehensive "vehicle stability" packages, which also automatically correct for driver oversteer in tight corners, etc.

Beyond such vendor/vehicle generation considerations, you have to also consider, as a buyer of an older vehicle, that you're buying into an older design basis. Computer Assisted Design (CAD) systems go through generational upgrades in both hardware and software power on about 3 year cycles. A 15 year old vehicle was designed on CAD systems of 5 or 6 generations ago. Many interfaces to manufacturing tooling that are common now, just didn't exist, then. A lot of sub-vendors to the auto industry weren't at all CAD friendly in 2001, much less earlier. If you're in the market for a vehicle assembled in the '90s, you're missing all the supply chain tech that the CAD revolution has enabled in the auto industry, since that date. And you're likely to pay for that, big time, in dollars and in convenience, when you go into the spare parts market for these vehicles.

One thing that might help you with spare parts, is to become familiar with scrap yards, or auto recyclers, as some now call themselves. Since 2000, many of these businesses have become a lot hipper about inventory management, and about the value of the increasing electronics content of modern vehicles. When your 15 year old vehicle needs an Engine Control Module (ECM), or even a throttle body sensor, your best bet, dollar wise and time wise, may not be the manufacturer/dealer chain, it may be your local salvage yard. You'll never get a newly made ECM anyway; the very best you can hope to get is some ECM made back 15 years ago, as overrun spare parts stock, that has been sitting on manufacturer/dealer/supplier stock shelves, that they are now willing to sell you, at 1995 prices plus 15 years of stock carry markup, because you may not be willing to take a "used," or "recycled" unit. Go see the junkman, really.

Finally, you, as consumer, buying a 15 year old or older vehicle, are buying into a rapidly narrowing "funnel" of repair tech knowledge and vendor capability. Auto technician turnover is a continuing issue for dealerships, independent shops, and service brand chains, alike. Automotive service is a physically tough, price competitive job, and it is very much a young man's game. The majority of automotive techs start their careers in their early 20s, and have moved on to be dealership service writers, shop owners, or information technology consultants, by the time they hit their mid-30s. If you're taking a 15 year old vehicle into a randomly selected shop bay for new brakes, it's even money that your car is the least familiar thing that tech has seen in the last month. Period. Not a good place to be, if you're depending, as a driver, on the service outcome.
posted by paulsc at 5:57 PM on August 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

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