Separate from an independent inspection, what to do/look for in used car
March 19, 2014 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Our car saga continues (1, 2). We took some test drives over the weekend, and it's likely we'll make some moves in the near future to buy an Outback or Forester. As a first time buyer of a used car, what should I ask/look for personally, separate from the inspection to be performed by my independent mechanic? And how much oxidization is too much oxidization under the hood, anyway?

Again, we'll get the used car checked out by our mechanic. We're leaning towards getting a factory certified used car (and would in all events buy from a Subaru dealer), which may ring fence the mechanical issues with the car, as well.

In addition, we will get a Carfax report on any vehicle, and would not accept any vehicles that had been in any accidents. Essentially, we're looking for (and willing to pay for) a recent lease trade in cream puff.

But what should I be looking for or asking about as a prospective purchaser that my mechanic may not address?

For instance, on our test drives, we discovered that only one or two of the particular vehicles came with their cargo net and cargo cover. I read somewhere on the interwebs to make sure we've got the key to the alloy wheel locks. Also--full size spare or just a donut?

With some of these (e.g., cargo cover, wheel key), I'd expect to roll up in the negotiations. Other things (spare tire) may be off the table. However, I don't know what else I personally would ask to ensure are (or are not) in our deal. Are there any specific considerations in this regard for Outbacks and Foresters (e.g., related to the swing out roof rack, or whatever)?

Also, sort of a side question--We're in MA, and the salt on the roads gets everywhere. we looked under the hood in a new 2014 and then a 2011, and the 2011 showed oxidization on the bolts, etc.--not "ye olde rusty autocar" but it definitely did not look fresh off the showroom like the 2014. This would obviously come up in the inspection if it's a problem, but it led my wife to push more for 2012s and 2013s, which moves the price point up a bit. What is acceptable wear on a Massachusetts car driven in winter?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Find out how much of the original warranty is still in play. That can vary significantly depending on model year and mileage.

If you can get a full-sized spare, do so. Otherwise, just understand what the deal is with the donut.

FYI, you can always buy an after-market warranty, once your factory warranty runs out, it is significantly less expensive to do so directly from the company, versus through the dealer.

Ask about Gap coverage if you're financing some part of the deal, this will protect you from having to take a financial hit if the car gets totalled (heaven forbid) and you owe on it.

Other than that, you're not apt to run into too many issues.

If you can, ask for the previous owner's contact info and call them directly. We sold Husbunny's 2008 Element back to the dealer when we got new cars. It had only 30k miles on it. The dealer had prospective buyers call me to ask me questions. (Pretty much--"What the hell? The car is 6 years old, we live in Atlanta and it has low mileage? What the dilly-o?") I was more than happy to answer any questions the buyer had. They got a GREAT deal!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:14 AM on March 19, 2014

Make sure the AC and stereo work.

Ask me how I know.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 AM on March 19, 2014

I like to look at the oil and coolant.

Just pop open the cap (**if car has NOT been driven recently) or pull out the dipstick.

One prospective seller swore up and down he was a "car guy." One look at his sludgy oil and low coolant told me otherwise.

Sludgy coolant (think black tar) means they're using some plastic adder to fill holes.

Also look at the body, does the paint look uniform or is one panel a little 'dull'? This will hint at a collision.

Take it for a ride. Smooth ride? Still smooth at 100kmph (uh 70mph?)

Turn right. Turn left. Make it a hard turn. Listen for any creaks or bonks.

Slam on the breaks. Just cus its fun.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:54 AM on March 19, 2014

Check that the front and rear tires have about the same amount of tread left on them.

Make sure it comes with the owner's manual and at least 2 keys.
posted by ckape at 12:05 PM on March 19, 2014

I use Autocheck instead of Carfax... I've found it returns a lot more detail, and the Carfax is often missing some really significant information. In one case, an Autocheck revealed that the car had been reported stolen in the past.

On that subject, try to make sure (through one of those tools, or the maker's website if available (Toyota has a ton of detail on their site for dealer service)) that the car had all of the recommended maintenance services throughout the warranty period and beyond.
posted by selfnoise at 12:08 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to buy and sell cars for a living. Fiddle with and try every knob, every setting, every window, every mirror, glove box, seat belt, light, blinker, door lock, trunk, hood, anything you can think of. Almost every used car has at least a few things broken with it. My common questions were: Are you the first owner? Who was the main driver?(you? or your wife? your 17 year old kid?) How often did you get the oil changed? Why are you selling it? If you wanted to put the car in tip top shape, what things would you fix/change on it? Your add says $12,000 dollars, but what is your best rock bottom price? (if he says $11,000, then use $11,000 as the new platform for new bargaining). Hope this helps.
posted by crawltopslow at 1:00 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a Forester and live in MA. There's a lot of stuff under the hood that's aluminum. It oxidizes. No big deal.

Make sure all of the lights front and rear work, the front lamps are super-annoying to replace. If the car is equipped with a moonroof, drive around with it open AND closed. Many of these cars have a faulty moonroof track and it will rattle like crazy when driving with it open. Only annoying, but extremely expensive to fix. Take a look at the undercarriage cover panels. On cars here lots of them can be missing, scraped off in the snow or removed and never reinstalled correctly by incompetent service people.

If the Forester is an XT model, ask about oil changes. They need to be babied more. If possible ask for a compression and leakdown test, these boxer engines can wear in funny ways that are unpleasantly expensive to repair.

The power steering pumps can develop slop. With the engine complete cold, start the car and turn the wheel all the way to the left and right. Listen for screeching.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:39 PM on March 19, 2014

As an adjunct to the mechanical inspection, look for details. Is anything, and I mean anything, kludged into the electrical system? Do the attaching bits look factory or improvised? Do you see zip-ties under the hood, apart from the ones that attach cables to brackets?

I have a turbocharged Legacy GT that I love, and I have avoided problems by doing the following:

1) Using Subaru OEM oil filters. There are loads of threads around that say 4th generation Outbacks' turbos fail frequently - this might not be true of Forester XTs, but I'd bet on it. The thought is most of the Outback XT owners don't use the OEM filters which have a far higher than usual bypass pressure.

2) Changing oil every 4000 miles.

3) Using synthetic oil.

4) Treating all CELs (Check Engine light) as potentially serious issues unless otherwise proven. Make sure the OBD-II monitors in any car you look at are READY. If this is gobbledygook to you, ask the mechanic to ensure they are.

5) Ensuring tire wear doesn't look weird. The front lower control arm bushings on these cars are soft, and fail, and then the whole front end becomes your enemy. If someone lets this go, what else did they ignore?

6) Disqualifying: any - ANY - malfunction or neglect of any primary safety item and that includes empty washer reservoir, tire pressure out of limit, fluids not within MIN/MAX marks, brake fluid either blue or yellow but not clean, low spare tire pressure. I'm talking detail. Someone who pays attention to detail -also- gets the oil changed on time and attends to squeaks or rattles before they get expensive.

7) Disqualifying: tires that aren't Michelin, Continental, Dunlop, Pirelli, Yokohama, or maybe the OEM tires which are Bridgestone. If you see Hankook, Cooper, Ling Long or Atlas tires on a turbocharged car, depart swiftly.

I'd avoid turbocharged cars with aftermarket "improvements". K&N cone air filters = immediate scratch from the list as are most aftermarket exhausts and wheels. Except Rota wheels and Stormung exhausts because those are expensive and must be sought out. A big SHIFT light in the driver's view means some idiot was drag-racing this car and forget about it.
posted by jet_silver at 7:59 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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