If you see an appealing ad on Craig’s List, or in the newspaper, or online, the first thing you should do is check the year, make and style of the car on www.kellybluebook.com. Kelly will immediately (for free) give you a range of prices, from a car in poor condition to one in excellent condition, for your specific area.
If the price seems reasonable, and if you are seriously interested it’s time to go see the car in person and do a walk around. That is, walk all the way around, and look down the length of the car. It’s best to do this in bright light, during the day. Are there ripples in the paint? If so, it may have been in an accident. Are there different color paints on the door and the frame or uneven gaps around the hood, doors, and trunk? Those too are signs it has had body work after an accident. Check inside the trunk: is the body color overlapping any rubber or plastic? Then it’s been repainted, and — say it with me now — you know it’s been in an accident.
Why shouldn’t you get a car that’s been in an accident? No. 1, airbags (see Part 1), and No. 2, the possibility of a bent frame, or serious cracks that can’t be repaired.
A Test Sit
Now, sit in the driver’s seat. Is it worn? Does it sag? Does it adjust to a height and angle that you find comfortable? Can you see easily over your left and right shoulders? If the car doesn’t feel right for you, it’s not right for you. Check the back seats too, if that's where family will be sitting. Can they see out? Can they have a conversation with someone in the front seat? Are the seatbelts readily accessible?
What You Can Check Yourself
Don’t worry about tires. You can get four new tires for $250 or less, installed and balanced. A new front brake job will cost you $500. (Front brakes do 70 percent of the work, and take 70 percent of the wear.) Start the engine (a reason morning is the best time to check out a car, so you can see how the car starts “cold”) and, after it warms up, turn on the heater and air conditioner. If the air conditioner doesn’t blast cold air, it could be because it just needs to be recharged, or it could be that you need a new compressor, or even worse, a leak in the system. To recharge it isn’t expensive; to chase down a leak and replace a compressor is.
As long as the car is running, set the parking brake and go around back. Make sure there isn’t blue smoke (burning oil!) or white smoke (water in the engine) or black smoke (run!). Now turn the car off, and make sure it doesn’t keep running, or rattle as it stops.
Look under the car for any leaks or stains. Green is antifreeze from the radiator. Brown or black is oil. Red is transmission fluid. Pale yellow means a dog peed there.
You want the shock absorbers to work properly, so press down on each corner of the car. It should go down and come back up to its starting position without bouncing. And there shouldn’t be any squeaks.
Now try every electronic doo-dad. Make sure all the windows open and close, the remote door key works. Check the car alarm. Set it, and then try to open the door.
Bring a CD with you and make sure the radio/CD player works. And you, yes you, should pull the dipstick (it’s the thing usually painted red or yellow that says “engine oil”), wipe it clean, put it in and take it out again. Then look at the oil level — it should be somewhere in the crosshatched area, and clean. At the very least you’ll know if the owner did basic maintenance. If it’s low, there could be an oil leak, and you should walk away.
Now We Get Serious
Take one last look. You still want it? You can afford it? Then open the driver’s side door and look for the manufacturer’s sticker. It will tell you important things like the month and year the car was made (there can be up to a year’s difference in cars of the same year) and the Vehicle Identification Number.
If you want a second opinion, you can take the car to a garage and ask them to do a detailed "pre-purchase" inspection for about $100. If the mechanic finds any problems you can use that report to negotiate the price downward.
You can also use a service like CarFax to get a history of the car (www.carfax.com). For a nominal fee and the VIN carfax will report when and where the car has been registered througout its life and if the car has been branded at any point with a salvage title. That means the car was written off due to theft, vandalism, flood, or severe damage from an accident. Many times these salvage vehicles are bought from junk yards, rebuilt and resold. Carfax is not foolproof but is a usefull final tool in the purchaseing process.
In the meantime, the mechanic will be doing things like pulling off the wheels and checking the brakes for wear. He’ll look in the wheel wells, and check the exhaust system. He will open the hood and have a look at the engine, checking for dirt and oil. Then he’ll start the car and check for abnormal engine sounds, and take the car for a drive, to see if there is any unusual behavior. If he gives it thumbs up, chances are it will provide you with reliable transportation.
Finally, you will want to make sure you feel comfortable driving the car. You’re going to spend a lot of time in this vehicle, so get one that makes you feel good.
And by the way, the original jack and tire irons should be in the trunk, along with a spare. Not that you’re ever going to have to change a flat tire. Of course you could, but do you really want to get down on the ground and wrestle with a jack. In all my years of driving a car, I’ve never had to change a tire myself.
This is something men love to do. And I say, Let ‘em.