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November 29, 2011

What to Look for in a Used Car: A 4 Step Guide

Photo courtesy of stock xchng
In tough times, there’s a huge temptation to compromise on your car purchase, and buying a used car is one place to save thousands, if not millions of pesos.  Sure, we’d all like to drive a brand-new Mercedes-Benz, but boy, that Corolla sure is tempting for just a hundred grand. After all, it’s just for getting back and forth to work—how could it go wrong? Generally, there’s nothing wrong with bargain hunting as long as you’re hunting the right game. And when it comes to used cars, there are some things that you should always check.

Step 1: New Versus Used

Purchasing a used car can save you a lot of money. A new car depreciates quickly in the first few years and after three years; it’s sometimes worth just 60 percent of the original price. In fact, as soon as you leave the dealership lot, your new car is suddenly worth P 50,000 less. When purchasing a new car, you’re basically paying for its fresh “new” aroma and the warranty. Yet, buying a new car does not always mean the buyer will get perfection. A new car may come with problems associated with poor design or manufacturing defects that may have been already repaired during the warranty period if it’s a used car. The same is true for all kinds of recalls. Another advantage of buying used is that you can buy a loaded model with all the accessories that you might not have been able to afford had you bought the car new.

However, buying a used car is still a bit of a gamble—there is no guarantee that the car is accident-free, has real mileage and was properly maintained. There may be some hidden problems like a worn out transmission or engine problems that may not have been obvious when you test drove the car.

Step 2: Removing the Risk

First and foremost, be prepared. Do as much research as you can. Read reviews, compare options, and ask colleagues and friends on the make and model you’re interested in. Try to determine maintenance cost and upkeep. Ultimately, your goal should be to narrow your search to one or two models. Why? Because if you pick a car on a whim without knowing what you want, chances are you won’t be happy with whatever you end up with. Another reason for narrowing your choice is because when you need to inspect or test drive a few different cars of the same model, it will be easier for you to compare their conditions and pick the best one. Recognizing a worn clutch during your test drive would be easier if you were to try a few vehicles of the same model instead of becoming confused by testing out different ones.

Second, in this age of computerized record keeping, check if the car comes with a complete service history. It doesn’t matter if the guy selling it swears he always changed the oil himself; a car’s service history doesn’t lie. Of course, the exceptions might be classics, but the truth is, since the introduction of computerized fuel injection and engine-control modules, an ever-increasing number of repairs have been creeping beyond the realm of home-mechanic care. Look for a comprehensive service history in any used car, with most of the servicing done by the same mechanic or dealership over time. Vehicles that have been flooded or repaired after serious accidents, those with rolled back odometers (still possible with those digital-type odometers), heavily abused vehicles (former taxis, rentals and media test drive units) can be eliminated after simply checking the history record of the vehicle.

Third, don’t buy based on what you’ve been told, because it may not always be the truth.  Check out the car yourself and ask a knowledgeable person who knows about cars to help you. And as a final step, bring a trusted mechanic you trust for an inspection.

Step 3: Inspecting Your Choice

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to one or two cars, inspect the vehicles yourself.  Bring a pen and paper to write down notes on things you like and don’t like, these will help you in the final negotiation process; a small flash light for checking under the hood; a small magnet to help you find hidden repaired corrosion spots; a paper towel or clean rag to check the engine oil and transmission fluid and a CD to check the stereo.

First, walk around the car and look at the general appearance: it is an indication of how well the car was taken care of. Mark down any defects you find: cracks on the windshield, scratches, dents, corrosion spots, broken lamps or mirrors, missing wheel covers and the like. Later you may ask the seller to fix these problems as part of the deal or negotiate the price down accordingly. Look for signs of previous accidents or corrosions. Don’t buy a car that’s been involved in a serious accident, especially in a frontal collision. All sorts of problems may arise later such as excessive tire wear, premature corrosion, alignment problems and noisy wheel bearings.  Look at the paint and the body panels; they should all be consistent and straight.  Finally, open all the doors including the hood, fuel cap and trunk. Make sure they operate freely.

Secondly, while you’re at it, check the tires.  They must be of a well-known and reputable brand, as well as being the same size. With regular tire rotation and proper inflation, the tires on most cars will wear out at similar rates. If a car needs a tire, it should need more than one. Therefore, all four tires should match each other in size, make and model (except for cars originally equipped with staggered sizes front and rear).  And watch out for bargain-brand tires that come from China. Some have the poor tread-wear ratings and the grip of a greased beach ball. A car fitted with cheap tires is sign that the owner was willing to take shortcuts.

Thirdly, the condition of the interior is another good indication of how the vehicle was taken care of. Check the seats and the seat belts, they shouldn’t be overly worn or torn.  Try to lock and unlock the doors and the trunk using the key.  Be alerted if you notice the excessive use of air fresheners, it could be used to block some bad odor, and some of them are hard to get rid of. Open the trunk, and there mustn’t be any musty smell.  Check the instrument panel and make sure all the gauges work. Check all the electrical accessories such as the power windows, sun roof and the CD player. If the car comes with an alarm system, ask to demonstrate how it works. Make sure you try the air conditioning system too—cool air should immediately start after you switch it on. Be aware that a malfunctioning A/C system is quite expensive to fix.

Most importantly, check under the hood. It’s very important to verify that the oil changes were done regularly. It’s a fact that if the oil was not changed regularly, the engine, even the most reliable one, won’t last long. With the engine off, open the oil filler cap and look at the internal side of the cap and inside the engine. If the oil cap and parts you see in the oil filler neck are covered with thick black deposits, it’s an indication that the engine wasn’t maintained properly. Pull out the engine oil dipstick, and check if the oil’s colored black. Also check that the oil’s been filled to the proper level. If the oil level falls lower than the “low” mark, it’s a sign that the car has excessive oil consumption or the oil hasn’t been changed for a long time. There are also a few things under the hood that may indicate that the car was maintained poorly: such as an extremely dirty engine, badly corroded battery terminals and oil leaks.

Lastly, start the car.  If it emits blue smoke, this indicates that the engine is worn and is consuming oil. Black smoke means excessive fuel consumption and a poorly maintained fuel line. Check also that the car shifts smoothly through every gear of its transmission, including reverse. If the car comes equipped with an automatic gearbox, there shouldn’t be any delay (more than a second) between the moment you shift and the moment the transmission engages. There shouldn’t be any jolt or jerk either.

Step 4: Paperwork is Key

Once you’re happy with the car, be extremely careful when doing the paperwork. For example, if you’re buying from a private owner, make sure there are no registered liens against the vehicle and that the person who signs the sales contract is the actual owner of the car. Check the car with the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and tell the owner to secure a Philippine National Police (PNP) clearance to make sure that the car isn’t stolen.

If buying from a dealer, read the warranty policy and all the papers including the fine print. If it’s a “Certified” used car, you’d be wise to check exactly what items were checked off and approved because the car might have a history of an accident and still be certifiable. Don’t rely on a salesperson’s verbal promise. Whatever he promised, get it in details and in writing. If the car is still covered by the original warranty, find out if it’s transferrable in your name.

Remember, don’t sign any contract and don’t give any deposit unless you’re completely satisfied with the car. If you have any hesitation, be prepared to leave, you can always find another car or come back later if the seller promises to fix the problems. In the end, buying a used car may save you more money, but it’s sure to cost you more time. You have be extra careful, and if you end up going through any shortcut, you’ll end up with more problems and potentially less money in your wallet than when buying new.

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