Tips for Buying a Reliable Car on the Cheap

By Chris Barry

Let’s dispel the one myth that likely has cost car owners countless thousands of dollars that they probably never needed to spend.  You absolutely do not need to spend a lot of money in order to own a reliable car that will get you from point A to B.

I firmly believe that $1500 can buy a lot of car – if you know how to go about it. And trust me, it’s really not that difficult.

Now it’s true that the more you know about cars and auto mechanics the greater likelihood you’ll walk away feeling confident you’ve scored yourself a bargain. But it most certainly isn’t a prerequisite. I’m no mechanic by any stretch of the imagination, and while for strictly economic reasons I’ve made of a point of learning as much as I can absorb about the basics, I don’t own any tools and have nowhere to work on cars in the first place.

While it’s true you’re taking your chances when purchasing an older vehicle, there are a few simple rules to follow that will significantly mitigate your risk of getting ripped off or purchasing somebody else’s auto woes.

Do Your Research

While it’s certainly possible you’ll find the exact make/model/condition of car you most desire at a price that falls within your budget, don’t count on it.  You have to leave yourself open to purchasing the best available vehicle that fits within your price range, so limit yourself to four makes/models and start researching them. Go to the online auto forums and see what others have to say about these cars, people who also purchased a used model of the same vintage. Don’t take any of it too seriously, people can be notoriously vindictive on these things, but you might discover a pattern of complaints about some aspect[s] of the vehicle. If so, take it into account and learn how much it might cost you should the car you purchase suffer from the same malady. Also, once you’re inspecting the vehicle you’ll have a better idea of what to look for.

To inspect or not to inspect

That is the question. Many garages will do a pre-purchase inspection of a vehicle for roughly $75-$100, but it’s not always the most prudent way to go. Much will depend on your own knowledge of cars. Usually, a relatively detailed roadside inspection and test drive [highway and city] will give you a pretty good indication of what you’re up against. What people often don’t understand is that their mechanics can only tell so much about the condition of a car from a pre-purchase inspection as well. The sorts of things that are likely to break down in an older vehicle don’t exactly warn you in advance. If the car’s electrical system is going to go haywire six months down the road, there’s no way for a mechanic to detect it in advance. To varying degrees that truth holds with all sorts of things: starters, alternators, transmissions, timing belts, to name a few. Unless your mechanic is also psychic or the mechanism in question is already getting ready to die, he/she will only be able to make guesses – albeit more educated guesses than your own. Do you want to spend $100 for an inspection of a $600 dollar car? It’s your call. Incidentally, your car insurance should only offer as much coverage as you need. Consider reducing your collision coverage if you’re downgrading to a model with lesser value.

Beware the dealer

You will never get a great deal from a used car dealer. They’ve already gotten the deal from the original owner and aren’t going to pass it on to you. Plus, dealers are far more likely to be dishonest than a private seller. They know all the tricks, legal and illegal. Rolling back an odometer is not that difficult to do if you know how to go about it properly – and every used car dealer does, whether they actually do it or not. Instead, go to the classifieds, that’s where you’ll find your deal.

Who to buy from

When purchasing an older used car from a private seller you need to be fairly good judge of character. My own best deals have come from middle-class families who’ve purchased a new vehicle and need to get rid of their old one for space concerns. The ideal person to buy from just wants to get rid of their old car with minimal hassle. It’s simply not worth it for them to lie or otherwise try and cheat you for the extra few hundred dollars it might entail. As with most transactions, be wary of anyone pressuring you into buying straight away, or whose demeanor changes should you ask about possibly having it professionally inspected.  Immediately ask them about anything that doesn’t work on the car, things like the heating or AC system, turn signal relay’s, wiper systems, door or window handles, the radio etc., and try them all out on your test drive. If they’ve lied to you about anything, well…. Also, check out the condition of the seats and the car’s interior. If the odometer reads 100,000 kms or so then the seats should reflect it and remain in good condition.  If they aren’t, you’re likely dealing with a seller you shouldn’t trust.

Good luck.

 Chris Barry is a freelance writer from Montreal.

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