How to buy a used car, part one: Trust your data, not your eyes

Via Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Via Flickr/Thomas Hawk

As a long-time car dealer and auto auctioneer who has inspected, liquidated, and appraised over 10,000 vehicles a year, I can tell you that used car market has far more bad vehicles than good ones.  

A terrible accident, neglect, rust, the prior owner from hell, and much more. The brutal truth of the used car market is that most sellers try to pass on all their abuse and future repair costs to you, the buyer.

So how can you make your way through all the rolling money pits before you find an automotive creampuff?  Well, the good news is that there are also plenty of nice used cars out there for sale at attractive prices, and those are the ones worth your time.

This is why I have designed a simple process to make your car buying experience fast, easy, and straightforward. I use it every day as a wholesale used car buyer. If you have the mental discipline, it will make your next car your best car. 

Step 1: Make overall condition your first, second, and third priority

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Most car buyers fall in love with a particular car and then essentially buy with their eyes.

The overwhelming majority ignore an independent mechanical inspection that lets an expert – someone who has seen thousands of cars – make the call between good, bad and ugly. Instead they hold onto that dream of how the car may have been like when new. 

Why do they focus on the new car version of they are buying a used car? Because new car reviews are the online fuel that guides a shopper’s mind towards a specific car.  This is why new-car reviews with twenty-seven adjectives and thirty-two adverbs are given all the online exposure these days — while the more accurate long-term appraisals and information about a specific model from actual owners and enthusiasts are routinely ignored.

There is little money in showing the faults of a model, and plenty in offering a glorified vision of what is in essence, a car used mainly for commuting and running errands.

So don't be the usual car buyer who falls in love with a vehicle, and only then begins to do due diligence based on how much you're spending at the mechanic. Focus instead on the most important ingredient in figuring out if a used car is worth your time and investment; the prior owner.

Step 2: Begin Researching The Owner

A lot of buyers believe that Carfax is the holy grail of information when it comes to shopping for used cars.

It is not.

As someone who routinely sees wrecked used cars with clean Carfax histories, I can tell you that a lot of cars fall through the cracks. Most repair shops do not report their maintenance and repair history to Carfax, and many new car dealers still don't provide this critical need.

Carfax is really just a first step to eliminate many, but not all, of the substandard vehicles.

Accident history is one good example. Vehicles that have 'minor' and 'moderate' accidents may have needed only minor cosmetic repairs, while severe ones are an obvious cause for concern. Definitely eliminate the severe ones along with those that have salvage history and odometer inconsistencies which are not related to emissions testing. 

Cars that have been owned for a long period of time by the same owner are often (but not always), in better condition than ones that may have seen two or three owners within the last few years. If you see a car that had two owners within the same year, it may have been repossessed or even damaged and then unreported. Give those cars a minus, or just strike them from your list entirely.

Finally, the driving environment for a car has a unique impact on its longevity and condition. Places that are marred with stop-and-go traffic and bad roads tend to be far harder on a vehicle than a rural settings with a warm climate and plenty of highway cruising. If you want to avoid cars that come from the rust belt, pay particular attention to the registration history.

Andrew Whitis/Flickr
Andrew Whitis/Flickr

Step 3: Avoid the Mileage Trap

Miles are important, but only when you compare apples-to-apples in terms of environment.

I find that vehicles with higher miles that come from the right owners, and the right climate, tend to be far better values when it comes to a used car. Highway driving on smooth roads tends to put minimal strain on a car’s powertrain. Constant stop-and-go driving, along with long periods of idling, are far more taxing.   

The driving habits of the owner, and the maintenance he performed on the vehicle, will be the big difference between those cars that are worth your investment of money and time, and those that should just be let go.

I'll put it to you this way. In the horse country where I grew up we used to say, "It's not the horse, it's the rider." When it comes to used cars the philosophy is the same.

So start this up by making your life easy. Put condition first and foremost. Next, figure out whether that particular car has a good track record.  A Carfax report will you help you eliminate many of the bad apples up front, and help you maintain the right mindset. This first step in removing the bad apples will save you time, cost, and aggravation when it comes to having that vehicle looked at by an experienced professional.

Is it time for a test drive? Not yet. Now is the time to call the owner and ask a few pointed questions about the used car that interests you — and we'll focus on how to do that next time.