Help me avoid getting ripped off buying a used Volvo wagon
June 30, 2014 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm temporarily stranded in a pleasant but completely unfamiliar city on the east coast. Partly because used car prices seem to be much lower here than my native Seattle, I want to buy a used car while I'm here, and use it to travel west. I'm on the lookout for an early '00s Volvo wagon. Ordinarily, I'd pay to have a mechanic look over a prospective purchase, but that's just not a practical undertaking in my specific situation. So: should I just not do this? Or are there a few simple things to look for before buying a car that I could do in under, say, ten minutes, as a relative novice to car-buying and -servicing?
posted by t(h)om(as) to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't have it certified by a mechanic, walk away. You will always want to pay a mechanic the $100-$200 to insure that what you're buying is in fact a vehicle, and not, a bunch of bolts, held together with rust.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:29 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're planning to drive a car from the east coast to Seattle, I'd definitely have it checked out by a mechanic. Simple things to do would be to research the VIN number to ensure that the car has not been in a major accident and/or declared a total loss.
posted by dfriedman at 9:30 AM on June 30, 2014

In my Volvo wagon (945) there were rather few things, but they weren't easy to look for for a non-pro. Also, they all had the potential (or actual power) to get me stranded at the roadside.

What they said.
posted by Namlit at 9:39 AM on June 30, 2014

Here's a used car checklist I found online. Obviously no substitute for a legit pre-purchase inspection by a mechanic, but if that really isn't something you can do, it's better than nothing.

Also if you drive across the country, it might be wise to get AAA so you have roadside assistance and towing available. Also, AAA can do pre-purchase inspections for you too.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:43 AM on June 30, 2014

Yeah, I would definitely get it checked out. We just sold our 00 Volvo V70 XC. We bought it in 2009, didn't get it evaluated, and it ended up being a huge money sink. The previous owners hadn't maintained it well, and it ended up being lots of repairs and really, really expensive parts. We had a nice mechanic, who kept recommending that we get rid of it and get a used car that was cheaper to maintain. I think he felt bad every time we had to throw $1500 into it. I don't think I'd ever buy a Volvo that was more than five years old again... But if you are going to, get it checked out to make sure it's not a money sink! :)
posted by amileighs at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Granted, this wasn't a volvo, but a similarly nice car of the same era, and we even had a mechanic check out the car before driving it from Maine to Oregon. It blew up on that trip; holed the engine case. Kablooie.

Buying a used car without a mechanic going over the whole thing is a gamble, wherein the consequences are being stranded on the outskirts of cheyenne wyoming for a week and a half.

I wouldn't trust a car of that age to get me from coast to coast unless I knew how to work on it; and knew the car inside and out….and had $8k in my pocket for a new engine, just in case.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't listen to the nervous nellies, do it. Seriously what's the worst that can happen? You get stranded, so what, you don't buy the car and the airplane you fly back on crashes because you personally didn't order the number three engine overhauled? Maybe you get the car it breaks down in a small town and you meet your true love?

Live your life, be confident, fuck shit up, fix it, wipe hands on pants.
posted by sunslice at 10:11 AM on June 30, 2014 [8 favorites]

If you have to ask, you DON'T want to do that, mechanic or no. Early 00's is plenty old enough to be clapped out. And Volvos are not famous for their reliability - I wake up every morning and look out over Seattle's largest collection of dead Volvos, many of them of similar vintage to the one you have in mind.

Luck being what it is, you might break down in eastern Montana, miles from cell service, let alone a mechanic, let alone the parts you need. If that seems like a good time, then it might be worth a shot.

If you insist on doing it, DO get the top tier of AAA coverage. It's not that expensive, and the cost of getting towed is substantial.
posted by wotsac at 10:13 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you must do this, and absolutely can't have a mechanic look at it, I would look for an original owner vehicle that has kept meticulous records from their mechanic. I would want to see a record of every repair, including maintenance records like regular oil changes and all of the tune-ups done at the appropriate time. My mechanic gives a printed report after every time I bring my car in that also details which repairs are coming up so I can plan for them. Look up common issues with the car model and year and see if they have popped up. Also, call the mechanic they use and see if you can verify that they are customers, and it isn't all forged. Even with all of that, I would still have another mechanic check it out, but I am 100% a nervous nellie about these sorts of things.
posted by umwhat at 10:14 AM on June 30, 2014

Look for rust. On the east coast it's expected, but normal rust there can mean "unsellable" in the west.

I've never had a mechanic look at a vehicle and I've done ok, but I mostly know what to look for. The $100 or so for an inspection is probably money well spent.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:26 AM on June 30, 2014

I should offer the caveat that just because I say you shouldn't do it doesn't mean that I wouldn't. But AAA has bailed my ass out a number of times. And other times I've ridden a 100 miles on reserve brakes, lost a timing belt in a Cleveland rest area, replaced my alternator in the parking lot of an Indiana parts store, topped up my oil every 200 miles between Chicago and Denver (and back), done an curbside brake job in the middle of winter, and abandoned a car in Flint on Christmas eve.
posted by wotsac at 10:28 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The east coast has mechanics too. If we knew where you were, maybe someone could recommend one.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:14 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came in to say what Obscure did. Where are you? Plenty of mefites on the east coast than can help out.
posted by pearlybob at 11:24 AM on June 30, 2014

I'd hesitate to buy a used car from a region that gets harsh winters and drives salted roads if I had the option to buy one from a region that doesn't have those issues. Winters and salt are very hard on cars and can prematurely age them considerably. The only exception would be buying a certified pre-owned car from a brand well-known for dependability.

Before taking long-distance trips with my own car, I get it checked by my mechanic and I know what the maintenance record of my car is. Taking such a long trip in an unchecked and unknown car would make me nervous. There are lots of very desolate stretches of road between the East Coast and Seattle. I've been stranded on roads like that before and it's not the kind of adventure that's fun. It's expensive and nerve-racking.
posted by quince at 11:51 AM on June 30, 2014

'Buying a car for dummies' is a great book and has all the stuff to look for when checking out a new or used car...well worth the 20 bucks.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:11 PM on June 30, 2014

My family used to drive a lot of used Volvos and I had a 1994 940 wagon through undergrad. That car was super reliable, in a sense, *once* I learned to fix it. Once I had the Chilton's manual, a cheap but complete set of tools (always in the trunk), and a few fixes under my belt, it was a great car for that time in my life. My weekend fixes included replacing all the gaskets on the top of the engine after oil started pouring out of the crumbling originals, replacing a blown radiator, and a bunch of electrical gremlins including the ABS system shorting out in the rain. I learned a lot working on that 12 year old beast and was glad to live in a college town where I could bike to Autozone if needed.

We recently got rid of the last one I know of, an early 2000s V70T. That car was very inexpensive for my stepdad to maintain as a daily driver, but only because he knew how to work with or fix all its idiosyncrasies and weird cold weather behavior. Including the turbo, which is a money sink all of its own on an older car.

If you want to pick up a cheap car on the East Coast that will get you back to Seattle without too much adventure along the way, perhaps something more reliable? If you do get a 10+ year old Volvo, my advice is to avoid the turbo models.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:40 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with sunslice -- just do it. Maybe I've never had a real lemon, but I've bought several cheap used cars over the years, and I feel like a lot of people nowadays are overly cautious when it comes to buying used cars. Make sure it goes and stops, and check that there's oil in the engine and tread on the tires, then just go.
posted by bradf at 1:43 PM on June 30, 2014

Wow, why do people crap on these cars so much. The early 2000s were really the end and final crescendo of the "greatness" era for volvos, as long as it's the V70/s70 inline 5 cylinder models. The v70/s70 that's just a facelifted 850 is really a great car, and has a large online following.

A friend of mine bought a fairly nice, but somewhat high mileage 2001 one of those for a bit under 3k. Had all the records back to the dealer, etc. Was owned by an old german lady.

He's a bit erm... crazy, and a hot dogging drunk fisherman in alaska most of the year. As an example of what i mean, someone backed into the side of the car really hard and someone else smashed a window out and he hasn't dealt with either(seriously, he's had no passenger side rear window for almost a year... in seattle). I don't even know if he's done anything but change the oil.

He's put like, 20-30k miles on it since then. It hasn't even hiccuped.

These cars however, just so you know, are like the older diesel mercedes. The actual engine and transmission is essentially bulletproof. It's all the other stuff on the car that fucks up. 3 or 4 of my friends have old volvos from the 90s or early 00s, and every single one has half of the interior electronics broken, the ac randomly pops on by itself(or the heat comes on FULL BLAST for five minutes on an 85 degree day), the sunroofs jam. They put a lot of silly features on these cars like heated mirrors and headlight cleaners/wipers. Expect half or all of that kind of stuff to be broken.

Also, you really REALLY want to know when the timing belt was last changed on a 5cyl volvo(which are the only really good ones from that era, IMO). It's a big, and around $2000 job that involves changing the water pump and other stuff if it needs to be done. I'd happily buy one just on the other side of or midway through the lifecycle of that, but shy away from one approaching it or currently needing it done.

Dealerships charge more for a PPI than private mechanics, but if you're in an area where you don't know the local mechanics and don't have time/can't get a recommendation i'd just take it to the nearest volvo dealers service department and pay their $200 or whatever silly minimum service fee plus the $80 inspection.

When stuff breaks on a volvo it's EXPENSIVE. All the people i know only bother with drivetrain stuff, and just let all the accessory bits fall off and break because of that.

I will say that i understand why you want one though, and not be a huge naysayer. I've driven one of my friends V70s quite a bit and it's confident, powerful, quiet, comfortable and even seems to be reasonably easy to work on in a shade tree manner for being somewhat of a "luxury" car. Me and him diagnosed what we thought was a bad alternator, but turned out to be a bad battery and bad battery cables/terminals entirely via youtube videos and volvo fan forums. They also have great thick hardy paint, and at least on some of them galvanized bodies and such that resist rust and abuse. The general build quality and materials feels heavy and high compared to most newer cars... including newer volvos.

If you asked me what car to get though, in your situation/location and to continue to own in seattle though, i'd say just buy a damn subaru. They're basically japanese volvos, except they didn't drive over a landmine and start suddenly not being well made in the mid 2000s. They're also extremely popular to the point of being stereotypical in seattle, and therefor easy to get worked on at great mechanics and easy to find parts for at local junkyards and shops. Not that seattle people don't love their volvos, but a subaru is just so much cheaper to get parts for while being almost as nice and quirky in most of the same ways. You'll sacrifice interior luxury, and they aren't really all that much cheaper... But do you ever wonder why a used volvo is so cheap for how nice they are and how new of a one you can get? Because they're so damn expensive to work on and get parts for, and all the stupid little luxury bits fail... And in the US, there wasn't any such thing after the 850 came out as a volvo without essentially every option in the book.

Subarus have their own quirks and stupid issues for various models and years(make sure the head gasket has ALREADY been swapped if you're buying a 2.5l one from the early 2000s. they're essentially all defective), but while you might spend more up front for an equivalent year/mileage/etc, they're really just as bulletproof as the older volvos and the parts are like less than half the price.

An alternator for a v70/s70 is like $300ish... for an AFTERMARKET. A used one from a junkyard cost more than a brand new one for my car. Know what you're getting into if you go that route, and only buy a car with full records and a recently changed timing belt if needed. I really can't restate the second one enough, it'll basically add $2000 to the purchase price.

I'm not brockles or anything, and i'm not a mechanic. It's just that this era of volvo was on my shortlist of potential cars to own along with a w123 diesel mercedes. I did a looot of research, and talked to several people who owned them and had to deal with them.
posted by emptythought at 3:12 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I owned a used 2003 V40 and it was terrible. It had major electrical issues, including a short in the thermostat that ended up flooding the engine with gas. The Volvo dealership was not helpful in getting it fixed (cracking it open to look was prohibitive.) I highly recommend against that model.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:50 PM on June 30, 2014

I've taken used to cars to the nearest mechanic, unknown to me, and gotten good results. I'd ask the seller to let you take it for a couple of hours and find a garage.
posted by theora55 at 5:02 PM on June 30, 2014

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