What questions do I ask when buying a used car?
April 28, 2013 3:10 AM   Subscribe

What questions can I have answered over the phone that will help me significantly narrow down a 25-car field of options?

I've searched the archives, and found help with negotiating and choosing used cars, but not my issue specifically.

I have found a list of cars that fit my price range and preferences through craigslist, as I'm currently not in the US, and will be getting a car when I get home. My male relatives keep trying to push cars on me that are in my price range, but have terrible average mpg (as found online) and are not what I want (with a 2002 Isuzu Rodeo leading the pack), because these cars are "american made," "able to win in a crash, " and "reliable." I am informed by said relatives that I will get swindled and it will be impossible for me to buy my own car, as I am a woman in the South.

I've been told to take a car I'm interested in to a mechanic - but I can't do this for every car I'm interested, and surely that costs money?
I've been told to carfax - I think that costs money as well.
I've been told to prize cars with single-owner histories.

The cars I'm considering are all used: prius, mini cooper, ford focus, civic hybrids, jettas, and passats, year 2000-2006. My price range is $2000-$5000. These cars are located nearly randomly around where I'll be, none farther than 3 hours away.
posted by nile_red to Shopping (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also helpful would be any personal accounts along the lines of "Oh geez, never ever buy _______ because of the exploding whatsits and very common squeaky doodads or expensive to replace widgits!"
posted by nile_red at 3:22 AM on April 28, 2013

Does it have service books/records?
How many miles has it done?
How much do you want to spend on maintenance and is that car typically costly to maintain? e.g. friends with VWs spend heaps more on maintenance (a friend had a major service done on their passat that cost over $2,000)
Do you have a color preference? White is statistically far safer. You may refuse to drive a car that is a ludicrous color. With 25 options, it is a reasonable way to sift them down!
What safety features - how many airbags, what is its crash rating like, electronic stability control?
What is the mpg?
What do motoring journalists have to say about it - and you can often find reviews that are aimed at the used car buyer, not the new car buyer? What do they say goes wrong with it?
Any damage/repaired damage to the body?
What size car do you want - there are some slightly different sizes going on there in your choices?
posted by AnnaRat at 3:37 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does it have the standard manufacturer options, any special manufacturer options, any non-manufacturer options fitted? i.e. is it the fancy version, the basic standard version, has the owner fitted a whole lot of stuff weirdly and badly fitted.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:40 AM on April 28, 2013

Many VW's in that age range have a terrible reliability reputation. My wife's last car was a 2001 Jetta. I will not be buying another VW of any stripe anytime soon.

One way to come at this is to start by test-driving each of the models you're interested in, to narrow the field. Some may feel underpowered, or not have enough cargo room, or be too noisy. Get it down to a couple of models you like and know (from sources like Edmunds) that you should be able to afford. That way you'll have a much better idea of what you're looking for, so you can recognize it when you see it, and won't be so hesitant to make a conditional offer. Do the inspections and carfax thing only towards the end of the process, after you think you've found the right car, and after you've agreed on a tentative price -- not for every vehicle that seems intriguing.
posted by jon1270 at 3:46 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have the time and remember a little algebra, do the following:
1. Find a dealer aggregator like autotrader.
2. look up a few newer (but still used) varieties of the cars.
3. By year and model, graph mileage vs price. You'll generally start to see the packages appear, you'll also see the year differential appear.

For instance, when we were shopping for a used Odyssey, I could see that every dealer had the same price on the car relative to the mileage, I could also see which models were LX vs EX vs Touring. I could also see that the high mileage vehicles were exactly the same price per mileage point as the newer car of the same year. By looking at the year of the car, I could see that the cars lost 1500-2000 per year manufactured; however the slope of a 2007 vs a 2008 LX was identical - the offset was the only thing different. (also, I could see the warranty effect if the car went past the warranty.)

I recently applied this same methodology to buying a used Subaru. It held across manufacturers.

My point is, once you know how the dealer is pricing a car, you'll have a bit of a better idea of what the car should cost. So, when you go to craigslist and no dealer is involved, you know whether the person is pricing anywhere near the fair market value, whether they are under-priced significantly, or whether they are massively overpriced. If the car is significantly under-priced, then you may want to get a CARFAX just to make sure the car wasn't involved in some sort of major wreck - and it may be worth it to make that investment. Basically, this is a good way to eliminate over-priced cars, and narrow your subset to appropriate priced cars.

You can turn 25 cars into 3 cars into 1 car pretty quickly this way.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:50 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try to get your hands on the most recent automotive issue of Consumer Reports magazine for reliability information.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:07 AM on April 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been told to take a car I'm interested in to a mechanic - but I can't do this for every car I'm interested, and surely that costs money?
I've been told to carfax - I think that costs money as well.

You don't have a mechanic look at every car you're interested in. You have a mechanic look at a car when you're about to buy it but need to make sure there are no outstanding issues. With carfax, you can pay a monthly fee for an unlimited number of carfax queries on vehicle titles. Do that.

Eliminate all VWs within your price and age range.
posted by deanc at 4:52 AM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For private car sales such as through Craigslist or other ad I always ask the following to see if this is a waste of my time or not.

1. Do you have a clear title and is it in your name ? (verifies that the person is the actual owner and not some small-time dealer who really does not know the car at all - you will be amazed how many people do not have a title or not in their own name )

2. Is this a salvage title in any way ? (in most states you won't be able to easily register or resell a salvage title - LOTS of those going around lately)

3. Is there anything at all wrong with the vehicle mechanically or cosmetically? (of course there is always something wrong with the vehicle - missing knobs, tire tread low... tear somewhere in fabric, etc. I ask this more to gauge the honesty and personality of the seller)

4. Can I test drive the vehicle beforehand (amazing how many people will respond "no" - care to guess why?)

5. Are the plates and registration current? (if the vehicle hasn't been used for 6 months than there's probably a bad reason why).

6. Can you give me the vehicles VIN so I can carfax it? (then look it up on Carfax - ALWAYS Carfax or Autocheck a vehicle before you see it - you will eliminate 50% to 75% of vehicles this way e.g. water damage, bought at an auction a month ago, salvage title, major accident(s) etc. - saving you a lot of time and effort

My experience - I have never in my long life purchased a new car - I have always bought used and have had some great vehicles like my '05 Corvette I bought a couple of years ago. Everyone thought it was brand new.

Some additional thoughts:

a. As a woman you will be treated sub par by salesmen (or women for that matter) at dealers in many if not most cases. Be exceptionally assertive. Don't be afraid to offend - these people are not your friends. Being friendly to "win them over" imho results as you being marked as an "easy sell"

b. I have had good luck at CarMax - they have a no-haggle policy(absolutely) . One price take it or leave it and your car will come with a 5 day no questions asked return policy and a 30 day no questions asked warranty - if anything proves faulty they will fix it or pay to have it fixed. You're going to pay about 10 - 20 % more for all that then you could get the vehicle from a private owner - fyi . It's a matter of how much your time is worth and the security of the 30 day warranty.

c. Craigslist is a haven for car scammers. Be overly cautions of any car there.

d. You can get a good idea of current selling prices from private sellers at cars.com. Ebay is interesting but most people will vastly overprice there cars there but you can find a gem there if you are persistent.
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 5:17 AM on April 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Arrgh - meant autotrader.com not cars.com -
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 5:22 AM on April 28, 2013

That era of VW is known for electrical issues that are impossible to diagnose and fix. You can check Car Complaints for an aggregation of the types of maintenance problems that particular models have.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 8:04 AM on April 28, 2013

Best answer: You want carfax for this.

It does cost money, but it's very reasonable and basically a flat "monthly" membership fee to search as many cars as you want. Since you're probably not going to be spending several months buying a car, just pay for a month or whatever the shortest membership period it is and run searches to your heart's content.

I found when I was looking for a used car that people were not all that interested in answering my questions over the phone. I had a whole list of things about the title, current registration, and a lot of the things that Podkayne brings up, but mostly they would just interrupt me and be like "look do you want to come check out the car or not?"

Which is sort of not the worst thing in the world, if you think about it, since buying a used car is a little like online dating. At the end of the day, the goal is for someone to buy their car. If they don't have the title or it's a salvage title or it's not registered to them, you're going to know when you get there. (They have to give you the title when you buy the car, and I would not purchase any car without seeing the title and having them make the handoff directly to you, in person.)

I actually liked shopping online for a car, because I could get picky about it without having to go anywhere or talk to anyone. No picture? No. In the picture, there are no plates on the car? No. (I used the plates in the photos to run carfax reports rather than trying to get a VIN out of the seller.) Picture taken at night so you can't actually see what the car looks like? No. Pictures taken from weird angles, possibly to hide major body damage? No.

When you shop online obsessively enough, you also get to know certain things that the sellers probably don't want you to -- like this 2002 Subaru Imprezza that looks like a great car has been listed on Craigslist every day for a month. Why? If it was such a great car, wouldn't someone have bought it by now? Or the ads from people who are obviously curbside car dealers -- photos of dozens of unrelated cars taken in the same spot, ad text phrased in the same way, etc. Nobody just happens to have 5-10 cars they're trying to sell at the same time.

If you've got a field of 25 potential cars, I would narrow it down via the "extreme photo/ad scrutiny" method and carfax, and then start making calls when you are ready to test drive the car.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 AM on April 28, 2013

In my experience, a lot of the time when I responded to a craigslist ad about a low-priced car for sale, it turned out to be an obvious scam "I am now in England and when you send to me 1000 $..." So that might whittle your list down real fast.
posted by mskyle at 6:34 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, anything where there's an email address rather than a phone number, that's a scam.
posted by Sara C. at 6:47 PM on April 28, 2013

When my fiance sold his car he paid for the Carfax report. We are looking to sell my car soon and I was going to get a Carfax report. It's a good faith effort on the part of the seller.

Echoing everything said above about 2000-era VW's - especially Jetta, Golf, Cabrio, Beetle (all essentially the same car). I couldn't believe that my fiance's made it from 2000-2012, that was a miracle. My 2000 Jetta (yes we had the same car!) was put out of its misery when it was totalled in 2011.
posted by radioamy at 9:08 PM on April 28, 2013

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