Oh subaru, oh subaru.
June 21, 2012 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Should we be wary of this rather low-mileage used car? What should we be looking out for?

We're used car shopping, and have found a 2002 Subaru Legacy GT Wagon, with 79,000 miles on it. Head gaskets, Water Pump and Timing belt have all been replaced. No rust. Pretty clean....have yet to test drive.

And best of all, it's well within our budget. We're freaking out a little bit, thinking that this is too good to be true (like there's dead puppies in the spare wheel well or something, or the transmission has a demon in it or something).

This is by far the lowest-mileage car we've found within our budget, and are wondering what we should be looking out for. Is this deal too good to be true?
posted by furnace.heart to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Why were head gaskets replaced? That's a bit unusual. Timing belt is a regular service item, and water pump a "might as well do it while we're in there" thing, but head gaskets?

An indication of the price would be good.
posted by anadem at 1:03 PM on June 21, 2012

I concur with the head gaskets being replaced as a bit unusual.

A comment is that if you still live in Portland, a 10 year old car with 79,000 miles is not that unusual for someone who lives in-city and rarely commutes by car. I have a friend with a 2004-vintage car with less than 45,000 miles in a similar scenario.
posted by saeculorum at 1:06 PM on June 21, 2012

Best thing would be to take it to a mechanic you already trust (not the seller's mechanic!) and pay to have them check it over for you. This would probably cost you around $75-$100 (YMMV) but would be very worth it in terms of helping you avoid a lemon.
posted by easily confused at 1:11 PM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bring it to an independent mechanic who knows Subarus and have them check it out.

79k miles is low, but as saeculorum sad, not uncommon for urban dwellers and others with short commutes.

There are good deals out there, but they are hard to find. Just remain skeptical and do all your homework before buying.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:12 PM on June 21, 2012

Take it to the dealer and pay them to assess the car. They can hook it up to the computer and determine if there are any faults, or issues in that regard. They can do an inspection to insure that everything is where it's supposed to be. They can look the car up in their system to see how it's been maintained, etc.

A 10 year old car can be awesome, whoever gets my car after I'm done with it will be getting a cream puff, but you have to use common sense. Getting a mechanic to go over it with a fine tooth comb will give you a decent heads up on how much more you may have to put into it in the future.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:13 PM on June 21, 2012

For that vintage of Subaru, the head gasket replacement is quite important and not at all unusual, as it was a notorious fail point in their cars up until 2004. That it's already been replaced is a ~$2000 repair job that you will not have to do.
How far off the "good" Blue Book value is the asking price? If it's only in fair condition, beyond the low milage, the answer may be bodywork, previous accidents or an icky interior. Take it for a test drive and then get a mechanic's opinion.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 1:14 PM on June 21, 2012

The last time I bought a used car, I hired an independent car inspector to come to the lot and inspect the car - the selling dealership had no problem with this and it was less than $120 and I got immense peace of mind. I got 100,000+ miles and 12 years off that little car! If you're feeling worried, get an inspector/mechanic.
posted by pointystick at 1:23 PM on June 21, 2012

We've just moved to the Other Portland up here in Maine, the car's in NH near the in-laws. We're going to take it to their family mechanic to have him go through it.

Yeah, a buddy of mine has had several Subaru in the past and present, he said the head gaskets usually need to be replaced by 150k for certain...so we're taking that as a good sign.

Alright, Thanks all. We were just hoping that the 2002's weren't trashbags with wheels. Lets hope the mechanic doesn't find anything...or more accurately, only finds good things.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:42 PM on June 21, 2012

I also want to give you peace of mind in that the head gasket replacement on that car from that year with those miles is NOT unusual.

My main concern with cars made after 2002 is never miles anymore, but rather the age. Things rot, fall apart, break, completely independent of miles, and instead all about the age. An 11 year (model years) old car is 11 years old--I don't care if it has 45,000, 79,000, or 210,000 miles.

That being said, there ARE good deals out there. I sold a car once that I know a lot of people would think was too good to be true, but it was real. I also bought a car that was in better condition and 1/2 the price of the rest of the same car for sale in my area, and it's still a perfect gem.
posted by TinWhistle at 1:45 PM on June 21, 2012

With 79k, I doubt its a rebuilt title. This is apparently when the car has been in a wreck and gotten restored. Very annoying to keep stumbling across. But in your case, they are probably just selling for extra money. Kids probably graduated and all.
posted by Jacen at 2:03 PM on June 21, 2012

Look for leaks around the gasket, as you'll want to know that the gasket was replaced before the head warped rather than after, and leaks would be a tell. A compression test would be a good idea as well. Having a mechanic look for signs of major rebuild evidence would be good, too.
posted by davejay at 2:35 PM on June 21, 2012

What should we be looking out for?

Rust. Secret rust. I have a Subaru of about that vintage and mileage and was pricing out other ones and for somewhat older cars with lower mileage sometimes the problem was that there was a dent or something that then created little rust holes that become awful and nearly impossible to fix. My old Legacy had water that leaked in through one of the windows and in through the license plate screw holes and just eventually ate out the bottom of the door and the hatch. Not saying that's likely but if you're wondering "What is the deal?" that is a thing I'd look at. And yeah head gasket repair is normal, maybe proactive for Subarus of that vintage.

My old low-mileage Subaru also had a weird smell that never totally went away and I never figured out quite what it was but other than that it's been pretty terrific. Make sure the check engine light works and have a suitable mechanic give it the once over.
posted by jessamyn at 3:39 PM on June 21, 2012

If it helps you any, I sold my low mileage car, which I just never drove becuase I lived in a city, for cheap becuase I didn't want to deal with haggling. The price was the price. I am also someone who gets everything replaced when it shows signs of going wrong. So it is possible that this is not a scam. Do get it checked out though, but take it to a garage where they can hoist it up. Do not get one of those people who travels put to check cars out in situ. I did that once and they missed something pretty big that would have been caught in a grage, i think. And don't be afraid to ask the people selling why the vehicle priced so reasonably. People asked me and I was upfront that I wanted a quick sale and no hassle and this seemed like an easy way to do this as I wasn't trading it in.

Only don't do what someone did with me and phone up and complain the car was still too expensive and I should tell them how much less I'd take for it - and then phone back an hour later and get offended when it had sold.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:59 AM on June 22, 2012

Head gasket is unusual. Yes, subaru's can be weak there but I suspect something else has happened. Subaru's have two heads; for them both to go simultaneously is unusual and points to some other issue. As the water pump has been replaced I wonder if the water pump failed, the engine overheated and the heads warped?

First thing to do is check the authenticity of the car;
1. Does it have a service history; record of work done to the car? This would verify mileage and work, it's also a good indication that the car has been taken care of.

2. Is the mileage genuine; look at the pedals, the steering wheel and the seat bolsters. If these appear very worn then something's up.

3. Check under the oil cap for white paste (water in the oil) and in the radiator for a rainbow on the surface of the coolant (oil in the water). The head is still leaking. This is important; if the heads warp you need to machine them flat, not just stick a new gasket in.

I'd be suprised if rust is a big issue; these cars had galvanised shells. They can have issues with water leaking in the rear lights. This tends to gather at the spare tyre well, so make sure that there's no evidence of rust under the rear cover. Check inside the wheel arches and underneath at the back (above the exhaust if possible). Look at the exhaust; if it's crumbling or new then there's a rust problem and you should be thinking about trouble with the brakes and suspension linkages.

Check the tyres; if the alignment is not correct it'll eat tyres. All the tyres should have relatively even wear, although the fronts tend to wear a little more on the outside.

Listen to the gearbox(es) there should be absolutely no whine or roar from the main box at the front, or the rear axle when you are rolling along.

If everything else works then Subaru's are very reliable and long lasting cars. 79k is not much.
posted by BadMiker at 5:33 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice everyone: we took it to the family mechanic, and everything seems to check out. It's going to need some odds and ends in a few thousand miles (brakes aren't shot, but they're going to pass inspection), and the interior is a little rough...but everything important seems to be there.

Thanks for helping us out with the surprisingly excellent score.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:46 AM on June 22, 2012

I looked at some Subarus, including several at a well-respected local dealer. They replace all head gaskets & timing belts on Subarus over N miles. I forget what N equals. Maybe it's a great deal.
posted by theora55 at 2:59 PM on June 22, 2012

Did you do a title check on it? When we thought we found a good deal, it turned out the person selling it was not the previous owner. We think the guy was curb-stoning it - pretending to the be the owner when in fact he had bought it at auction and was trying to make money flipping it. Use CarFax to check out the car's history - a small investment that might turn up some good information.
posted by metahawk at 10:45 PM on June 22, 2012

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