Seven Tips For Buying a Second Hand Car and Walking Away Happy
I got burned recently buying a second hand car. It doesn’t help that I was in a foreign country (and was struggling to grasp the local policies), and in a hurry to boot. But even if you are buying a car on your own turf, there are generally a few good rules of practice:
Visit your local Vehicle Registration Office before you sign on any dotted lines
Yup. You may have to stand in line and deal with what seems to be a worldwide inefficiency that comprises government offices. But you can also arm yourself with information as to your rights, the requirements of the seller, and various obscure laws.
In Australia for example, I discovered a Vehicle Information Package that the seller can (but is not required to) provide the buyer with. It contains information about all the previous owners of the car, as well as possible liens and accident/stolen vehicle reports filed.
In some places this is mandatory, which is also something good to know. A seller trying to save a few bucks by not getting the report may end up sticking you with not only the cost of getting the report when you try to register your new wheels, but the nasty surprise of what’s in it.
Get under the car
Even if you will get your shirt dirty, and don’t really know what you’re looking for, get under the car. Anybody can see if there is a gaping rusted out hole in something, or if there are leaks that should be addressed.
Besides which, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing, which will put a shady seller on guard.
Take it on the highway
While test driving your potential wheels-to-be (we don’t have to tell you to test drive it, do we?), take it on the highway if at all possible. Cruising residential streets will only give you a partial picture of how the car drives. Get it to highway speeds and you may discover a terrible rattle or shake, or misalignment that could be dangerous but that would be missed in a general mechanic’s safety check.
And I mean everything. All windows. All doors. Trunk latches. Key holes. Seat adjustments. Seat belts. Lights. Wipers. Turn signals. Radios. Dash functions. Odometers and speedometers (a pitiful lesson learned from personal experience). There’s nothing worse than buying a car, and then experiencing the slow and agonizing discoveries that your new wheels really aren’t all that new, nor are they fully operational.
Take it to a mechanic
I’ll admit, I’m the first person to want to skip this step. It’s costly, it takes time, and I don’t have a mechanic I trust. And if you are buying the car in a place where a safety or road-worthy certificate is required, you don’t need to also run it by a mechanic, do you?
Yes. Yes, you do. Personal experience: The mechanic who checked off the car I bought as being road-worthy (a certificate obtained by the seller more often than not, read: they work for the seller, not you) managed to miss the simple fact that the odometer doesn’t work. So much for the low mileage on the car I purchased.
Most sellers price their car expecting to be talked down at least a little bit. So try to talk them down. The worst they can say is no, at which point you can decide if you still like the car enough to accept their asking price. There’s no harm in asking for a discount.
Trust your instincts
When I was buying my little piece-o-junk, there were some small warning bells going off in my head. Although the couple seemed very nice, there were a few times when their stories didn’t match, or they contradicted themselves during our negotiation period lapsing a few days.
I managed to find excuses for every contradiction though, without addressing them. Maybe I was afraid of confrontation, or maybe I just wanted this deal to work. Either way, I’m stuck cleaning up the mess. And if I had heeded my instincts, I might have walked away and saved myself a bunch of heartache.
It bears noting that if you are purchasing a second hand car from a dealership, there are often rules in place to protect you if the car is a lemon. But with a private sale, much of the liability (or at least the pain of eliciting justice) rests in your hands. Do the right thing, and you’ll end up having a car you love, not one you can’t stand.
What tips or personal experiences do you have for our readers on buying a second hand car?