You've heard the saying: Buy a used car, and you're buying someone else's problems.
Kenny Dill, a snowbird spending the winter in his motor home near Orlando, has heard that saying, but he's looking for a used car to drive for the rest of the winter. He wants to minimize his risk by having the car inspected by a mechanic.
It's a good idea, especially if the seller is resistant. But know what to ask a mechanic to check.
"I found a small car I like," Dill said, "but the owner wouldn't let me take it to a mechanic to get it looked over. . . . I'm wondering if it's a warning sign."
There are legitimate reasons why a seller would balk at letting a prospective buyer take a vehicle to a mechanic. Not all of them involve hidden problems the buyer doesn't want discovered. One possibility: The seller might have other willing buyers.
The seller also could be security-conscious; what's the guarantee you'll bring his car back? Professional used car lots may insist that they have already done their own inspection, and might offer some sort of brief warranty or guarantee, something you likely won't get from an individual seller.
Regardless, in a "buyer beware" world, it's smart to have a used vehicle inspected by a professional. Robert Kasper, owner of Mitchell's Automotive in Orlando, does it several times a week.
What should a professional mechanic look for?
"I'll put it up on the lift, and look for anything that doesn't appear quite right," he said. "If a car has been in an accident, body shops can do a great job of making it look like new on the outside, but underneath, there are almost always telltale signs — wires hanging down or routed in the wrong spots, or maybe part of the left front suspension looks a lot newer than the right front suspension."
He also looks for signs that the vehicle has been fixed, quickly and cheaply, just to sell. And he gives the vehicle a safety check, making sure airbags and other safety-related features are correct.
"I'll also look to see what has been replaced, and what hasn't," Kasper said. How important that is may depend on the vehicle's mileage. If it has, say, 130,000 miles — and the original radiator, alternator, starter and fuel pump — it's a good bet those items may need replacing soon.
An inspection usually costs less than $150. Kasper said he typically doesn't charge for checking used cars, hoping to build goodwill that pays off in future visits. Having a mechanic's input can be used as bargaining chip — if a mechanic says the vehicle will soon need a $150 radiator, it's logical to ask for $150 off the asking price.
On the Web
Plenty of online resources offer useful information on buying a used vehicle. Among them:
Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com). Both offer advice on purchasing used cars and trucks, and they also let potential buyers compute an appropriate ballpark price for the used vehicle they are considering.
Cars.com offers advice, and it also has an archive of test drive stories dating back more than 20 years, so you can read what did or didn't impress testers when they vehicle you are considering was new.
Consumer Reports magazine also has helpful information at ConsumerReports.org, but some of the information is available only if you are a subscriber.
If you don't have a mechanic you trust, word of mouth is typically the best way to find one. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been resolved properly, and your mechanic should have the appropriate licenses and permits required displayed in the shop. Certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is no guarantee of competence, but it doesn't hurt.