Top 10 tips for buying a used car

Follow this advice to help make sure you don't pay too much, or end up with a dud.

By Wheels Wheels.ca

Jan 19, 2012 6 min. read

Article was updated 11 years ago

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There’s no St. Lucius, Patron Saint of Loose Tie Rods, looking out for you.

Finding a great second-hand vehicle shouldn’t be a matter of good luck or even divine intervention.

There’s an abundance of used cars and trucks in the GTA — Toronto has one of the highest concentrations of automobile dealers in North America — so scoring a good one is not an insurmountable task.

More: The top 5 reasons to buy a used car

More: Don't go near these used cars

It just takes a bit of homework and some patience to locate the right model at a reasonable price. No good comes from rushing into things. Follow these steps and you’re bound to end up with a good experience and an even better vehicle.

Research your purchase

The proliferation of automotive websites that offer professional reviews and post owners’ experiences is a helpful trend, and an excellent way of gaining insight into the second-hand models you’re contemplating. Online forums frequently discuss reliability concerns, things like jerky transmissions and short-lived air conditioners. New-car reviews rarely mention these issues, but many owners aren’t shy about spilling the beans. Look for any angry buzz online regarding your model before you step on the car lot. If nothing else, documented problems can help you negotiate a lower price.

Shop the less popular brands

Everyone knows the leading brands that command premium second-hand prices. But why surrender to these unkind market forces? There are other, lesser-known competitors that for a variety of reasons didn’t sell well — models that can give you similar quality and features for less dough. Automakers such as Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Kia made some very good models that were undersold and overlooked. Keep an open mind rather than fixate on one model. Knowledgeable bargain hunters familiarize themselves with all of the segment models and are often rewarded with a great vehicle for a considerably lower price than the big-selling brands.

Word of mouth

Don’t underestimate the value of letting your friends and colleagues know you’re looking for a used car. Someone always has an elderly aunt who wants to sell her mint-condition Buick Lucerne to the right buyer. If you’re not picky, these often make the best deals, since sellers may not know the exact market value of their vehicle, or may not be motivated to go through the tedious rigmarole of prepping their vehicle for sale. That’s not to say these sellers are ripe for the picking — some may harbour unrealistic notions of what their car is worth, unaware of the precipitous depreciation than can ravage their net worth.

Have a budget in mind

It’s smart to know how much money you can spend on your next car. What is your trade-in worth? Unless your present ride is a recent model, chances are the dealer will be wholesaling it to another retailer, and the wholesale value is all you’re going to get. Consider selling your present car privately. With a bit of spit and polish you may get a couple thousand dollars more than the dealer would give you. That money can go a long way in helping you leverage your next automobile purchase. Having cash in your pocket gives you the upper hand when it’s time to negotiate.

Dealer or private sale?

New-car dealers are the best source for late-model used cars, since they have first dibs on lease returns and trade-ins. Notoriously fickle (and expensive), they’ll send anything dubious or with high mileage to a wholesaler or to auction. Independent lots buy their inventory at auction, which can be a hodge-podge of good and bad. If the price is low, chances are it’s had an accident repair. Private sales are the wild card: you could get a dud from a curbsider (who sells multiple vehicles posing as a private seller) or a creampuff from someone who was insulted by the dealer’s lowball offer on his trade-in.

Take a close look

Used cars are like snowflakes: no two are exactly the same, so scrutinize each one carefully. Look for paint overspray on door seals, mufflers and wheel-well liners — a sure sign of collision repairs. You may find shattered glass fragments under the seats. A mildew smell indicates a stubborn water leak. Fresh undercoating may be masking recent structural repairs. Lit warning lamps may be a portent of expensive engine repairs. Motor oil that resembles a frothy milkshake often means there’s a blown head gasket or worse. The transmission fluid should be bright red or reddish brown; any darker and there may be problems.

Drive it like you own it

Rather than a five-minute spin around the block, tell your sales rep you’re going to be on the road for a good 45 minutes. It’s usually enough time to take the vehicle on the highway as well as on some potholed roads where you can test the car’s structural integrity. Keep the radio off and listen carefully to various noises. Pay attention to how the transmission shifts and test the air conditioner. To assess it properly, drive it like you already own it; don’t baby it. If the rep isn’t agreeable to giving you the vehicle for a good hour, then take your business elsewhere.

Get a history lesson

CarFax, CarProof and AutoCheck history reports recognize rebuilt or salvaged vehicles, but beware: they may not disclose collision repairs if the previous owner chose to do them without going through their insurance — and up to half of all collisions go unreported. Avoid vehicles from out of province. Use the VIN number to search provincial records and ask your insurance agent to do a history search, too. While you’re at it, find out how much it costs to insure your model. A steep premium may compel you to look at something else.

Befriend a technician

Settled on the vehicle you want to buy? Have it mechanically inspected by someone you trust. Vehicles that have been repaired after a collision aren’t always easy to spot, which makes a professional inspection on a hoist all the more critical. A good technician can detect creases in the unibody and paint overspray. There are garages that only do vehicle inspections and do not perform repairs (vintage car collectors use them). Many shoppers won’t invest the half-day to take the car for a third-party assessment, which pretty well negates all the careful shopping they’ve done. It’s like dropping the ball at the 10-yard line.

Drive a hard bargain

New-car dealers love used cars. Profit margins on popular new models are razor-thin (luxury cars and SUVs are more lucrative), while used vehicles remain a bonanza for dealers who can lowball customers with trade-ins, recondition them, then “remarket” the vehicles for a lot more. The average profit on a used car is $1,800 to $2,200, while a high-volume new compact only earns $1,000 to $1,200 for the dealer. So don’t be afraid to play hardball. And watch for extra fees sneaking into the sales contract: administration fees are now part of the advertised price by law. If you’re not happy with the way negotiations are going, head for the door.
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