What do we need to know before buying our first used car?
April 11, 2014 7:40 PM   Subscribe

My gal and are buying a used Jeep Cherokee. We live in Brooklyn and want to put our minds at ease that this is a decent buy for what we're looking for. Plenty of details within; the short version is: what do we ask the mechanic to check before we commit to buying, and what are the next steps with insurance, DMV, etc.?

We live in Brooklyn but get out of the city often enough that buying an inexpensive used car is going to be cheaper than paying Zipcar $400 every time we want to spend a night or two someplace where there are trees. We know that gas is expensive, alternate-side parking is a chore, and insurance, parking tickets and the rest are a drag. But we have spent a couple thousand bucks a year for the past few years on renting cars to take trips upstate, and we're biting the bullet and buying a car. For our purposes, a Jeep Cherokee fits the bill: they can be had for a couple thousand dollars, they are reliable, they have 4WD, high clearance for the back-country roads we often find ourselves on, and they are pretty. Please, no advice about other models of car, or the virtues of public transit: we understand, but we're going to get one of these things either way.

We test drove a '99 wth 140k that we found on Craigslist. The guy selling it lives nearby, seemed like a straight shooter and was honest about what he saw as the car's limitations. The two things that caught my inexperienced eye: a check engine light (disclosed in the ad) which the seller says is the fault of a bad gas cap. Also, when we asked about how it was on the highway, he said it rattled or vibrated at 65, but at a higher speed the vibration stopped or lessened (something that I have heard is common in this model).

We want to take it to a mechanic ASAP and get it checked out before we commit to buy. Other than getting a computer diagnostic to confirm the cause of the check engine light (if it's something other than the gas cap, especially if it's a big and expensive thing, we'll probably keep shopping), what do we ask the mechanic to check? Do we just say that we're considering buying it and we want to know if it's going to explode or have a grave problem in the near-term future? The tires, A/C, shocks, battery, timing belt, alternator and compressor have been recently replaced. There's no visible rust and we just checked the VIN number, which confirms everything the seller told us in person and in the ad.

Stepdad says: they should get it up on the lift and check for leaks, and look at the the axel and front case transfer fluid. Any other obvious things we're overlooking? To be clear: this is a 15-year-old $3,000 car that we want to take camping. We don't expect it to last for a decade with zero problems and it's OK if it doesn't run like new. We just want to be sure that the transmission isn't going to fall out in six months and we'll have a repair bill greater than the car's value. Would you trust a McMechanic with this kind of check-up? Once we buy a car, we'll definitely go to the garage that's been recommended to us, with a mechanic we can trust. But if our concern is just getting the car checked out over the weekend (when others are closed around here) and we want to take it to AutoZone because they're open, is that a crazy idea? (We're trying to get this locked up in the next few days because, like apartments around here, Cherokees seem to sell super quickly in this area. And since they stopped making them in 2001, finding one locally that seems to be in good shape with relatively low mileage has got us ready to act and we just want to get the thing done. We've seen plenty of these things with higher mileage and a higher asking price, so this one in particular looks good.

OK, rant over. Any other advice on next steps in used-car purchase land (or links to helpful sites) would be great. Assuming the mechanic OKs it and we follow through with purchase: I know there's some paperwork to be done by buyer and dealer, a trip to DMV for registration, title transfer, and new plates, insurance purchase immediately after, and then 10 days to get the car inspected. Any other basics you wish you'd known before buying your first car? Bonus points if the advice applies to used cars, Jeeps, and NYC car ownership. (Again! Please don't try to convince us that we should just get a sensible vehicle like a Carmy, or use public transit: we plan to drive this exclusively to leave the city and drive on uneven dirt roads with a dog -- who is not allowed on Amtrak or, ironically, Greyhound.)

Thanks in advance! If you need me to clarify, ask away, I'll be babysitting this thread.
posted by andromache to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is this a Cherokee or a Grand Cherokee? They're two somewhat different beasts with different problems and failure points. The Cherokee shares more with the Wrangler platform, the Grand is more of a classic SUV.

Any chance you can link to the ad?
posted by BenevolentActor at 8:07 PM on April 11, 2014

Response by poster: Cherokee Sport, BenevolentActor, not Grand. And sure, the ad is here.
posted by andromache at 8:13 PM on April 11, 2014

Bonafides: Drove a 1989 Cherokee until the clutch pedal broke, then sold it to a guy who is still driving it daily with 200K+ on it.

I am skeptical of the Check Engine light, but any mechanic can check for the code. My guess is that it's more like a cracked hose or an EGR valve, because a loose gas cap would probably have been replaced by somebody looking to sell a car with a CEL on. If the cause points to something like oil pressure, pass on the Jeep. You need to have the CEL cause legitimately repaired before your rig can be registered, and that is the most probable reason the seller is selling.

The vibration is probably part of the front steering, like tie-rods or just wheel balance. I'm suspicious about the "shimmy at highway speeds" and the claim that the tires and shocks have been replaced. Maybe that was done in an attempt to fix the shimmy, and it wasn't successful.

My Jeep shimmied at highway speeds and while braking, and a new set of tie rods got it driving straight again.

If it were me, I would try to find a tire and brake shop that was also open, and have the alignment checked, if the other mechanic doesn't have the ability to do so. Don't be shy about calling them to ask what they can and cannot do; in my area, AutoZone is purely a parts shop and doesn't have lifts or tools other than a code scanner and a filter wrench.

My water pump and radiator failed at 150K; my repair cost was about $500 because I did it myself. The symptoms were leaking coolant and a tendency to shred serpentine belts because the water pump bearing was shot. Plan to replace the cooling system within a year or two.
posted by Kakkerlak at 8:44 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks. The engine and transfer case should last quite a while, the rear main seal and water pump seems to be the more common repairs. But otherwise they should generally last about 200k to as high as 400k miles before a rebuild is required (assuming proper maintenance, which I'm not sure is a given based on someone driving it with a check engine light on). I don't know anything about that transmission. The axles are going to last quite a while before they break, too.

It's basically a Wrangler on a unibody. It'll be loud, uncomfortable, bumpy, and provide years of reliable transport. When they break, they tend to give plenty of warning rather than leaving you stranded.

That particular one looks stock, so I wouldn't expect the axles to be stressed or the transmission to be abnormally worn. Shift forward to reverse and see how crisp it is. Can you feel any slop in the drivetrain? Just it shift all the way into 4th crisply and smoothly?

You've got the two biggest ones covered:

Check for underbody rust.

Get that check engine light properly diagnosed. A new gas cap is $10, so I'd question whether that's really the issue. There are a few different things that can cause the engine code he's talking about. None of them typically would cost more than a few hundred to repair.

Check how grimy the underside is. If it's suspiciously clean, that may be a bad sign. Normal grunge is expected, but new wet fluid is a bad sign. After you drive it, park it somewhere clean, wait 15 minutes, check for any fluid spots under it.

A good mechanic should be able to judge the condition of the drivetrain pretty easily. Any slop in the drivetrain is a potential bad sign. I wouldn't think that autozone will be able to do more than tell you that the battery is okay. If you don't have a mechanic friend who can help, then you'll need to find a shop that's open on the weekend.

Part of buying a used car is the risk that five miles after you buy it the engine will explode in a rain of mechanical bits. The upside is that that particular drivetrain is pretty good about letting you know ahead of time, usually by coloring your driveway in fluids.

If you're going to be taking long trips in it, think about how comfortable it is. That's a consideration in those.

With 140k miles, you're going to have regular repairs. It's a fact of life. But generally that platform doesn't suffer from catastrophic issues for a while longer. There's a reason they sell fast. But over the course of the next few years, you're pretty likely to spend as much as it's worth in repairs. Factor that into the cost of ownership (I have a saving account specifically for this).
posted by BenevolentActor at 8:51 PM on April 11, 2014


That post explains how to read the engine codes without a scanner. Maybe print out the list and bring it with you to see which code that is. I don't know which of those would correspond with a bad gas cap.
posted by BenevolentActor at 8:58 PM on April 11, 2014

No matter how much checking a mechanic does, any vehicle can develop a major (read: expensive to repair) problem at any time, so although it's important to check the individual vehicle, it's also important to 1) check the reputation of the make, model, and year in general, and 2) understand that you get what you pay for, and for $3,000 and with 140,000 miles, don't be surprised if you start incurring a lot of repair costs. You said you were inexperienced so I just wanted to highlight the concept of total cost of ownership (i.e., what you are paying up front for a vehicle is not necessarily an accurate indication of the true cost of the vehicle). What do we need to know before buying our first used car? That.
posted by Dansaman at 9:32 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are in NYC - hells YES check underbody rust!!!

2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee here, FWIW, but LA style with only 80,000 miles.....

My check engine light has been on FOREVER. I have zero idea why.

Let's see...

- Does seller have maintenance records? DO NOT EVER BUY A USED CAR FROM ANYONE THAT DOES NOT KEEP THESE.

That said

- Leaks in coolant and fan problems (so overheating!!) are an issue. Put a post it to remind you to check the temp gage on trips. Trust me on this.

- This engine (especially 4WD) eats gas. 14 miles to the gallon. 20 HWY. Are you OK with this?

- Newer models are less solid. I feel safe in mine. This is why I keep it.

- Yes, alignment is an issue. Get it fixed ASAP.

In general, the statement about reliability is sound - get it serviced regularly and it should be OK. Get AAA card for towing if your insurance doesn't cover this already.

You want to get full insurance. I know it is pricier, but it is so so worth it!!!

The car costs about $3000 and you should expect $500 to $800 per year, in smaller repairs , total, to keep it running well. This includes tires, oil changes, and minor repairs.

My Jeep had low miles (60k) was about $3000, but had not been well loved. That first year I sunk an additional $1500 in. Since, about $500 per year, sometimes $800. It has been 4 years.

Gas mileage is shit. I trade this for stability and reliability. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 9:37 PM on April 11, 2014

I don't have anything to add except I loved my old '91 Cherokee. That 4.0L engine is awesome. And it was amazingly compact and light compared to more modern SUVs.
posted by mullacc at 10:41 PM on April 11, 2014

No advice about other cars to consider, because you don't want it, but you ought to know that Cherokees are not especially reliable, and the one you're looking at has three red flags on it: high mileage, the check engine light, and the "rattle or vibration." Either of the last two could be expensive to fix - if they aren't, why hasn't the seller fixed them? The gas-cap story makes it sound like the guy washed his hands of any repairs or maintenance at some point. A high-mileage example of a 4WD vehicle is practically synonymous with a money pit. You might get lucky on this one, but I think it's a bad bet.

According to this 2012 article, the average cost of car insurance in Brooklyn is almost $4000. Even if you pay only half of that because of having an older car, you've just matched the amount you spend on rentals, without even looking at gas, repairs, etc.

If I were you, I don't think my mind could ever be at ease with this purchase. Before you do it, at least get an insurance quote, so you know that part of it. Ask the mechanic this question: "Would you buy this car?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:19 AM on April 12, 2014

The check engine light is on but has been for a long time. My mechanic says a new gas cap will fix it but I haven't bothered to get one.

I'd sure want to get a second opinion on this. Yes, a broken gas cap can trigger a CEL. On the other hand, so can some hideously expensive problems. I'd want to get the car looked at thoroughly by a different mechanic that you know and trust.

Is the seller the original owner? In my neck of the woods, it isn't uncommon for guys who have car lots elsewhere to sell a car or two from their front yard. They look like private sellers, but they're just an extension of their business. Also, ask to see the title and make sure it isn't a salvage title.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on April 12, 2014

Insurance is indeed very expensive in Brooklyn. The same coverage I paid $600/year for in California is $2500/year in Brooklyn (coverage for an old economy car with a $500 deductible). That's why there are so many people committing insurance fraud with NC and PA plates.

If you're just using the car for camping, are you sure you don't want to rent a spot in a driveway in Poughkeepsie? Insurance is SO MUCH cheaper there (back to $600 a year or so for someone like me), and you don't have to do any city driving on Friday night to get to the Catskills.
posted by akgerber at 9:20 AM on April 13, 2014

Get an insurance quote from Geico - they have the cheapest rates in NYC by a pretty wide margin, in my experience. I live in Brooklyn, and pay about $1000/year for an '05 Honda. I don't have full coverage, but I don't have the minimum, either.
posted by breakin' the law at 10:19 AM on April 14, 2014

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