My girlfriend just graduated university, which means that she finally felt obligated to buy a car. Me, being the gear-head in the relationship, started the task of finding something reliable for around $2,000. She didn’t care about power, fuel economy, handling, nothing. She wanted something that would last four years without suffering a serious mechanical breakdown. This vague expectation lead me to shop for the obvious — a Toyota Corolla.
The first Corolla we saw was an early 2000s model complete with steel wheels, an enormous amount of rust around the sun roof, loose exhaust hangers that made it sound like the muffler was dragging on the ground, and a cracked windshield. I offered him $1000 which he accepted slightly too eagerly. I figured $300 would cover the new windshield, the exhaust hanger would be a quick fix, and the rust on the roof wasn’t an issue so long as this truly was a two year car. All in, it would cost around $1500 after the safety and e-test.
Thankfully, my girlfriend left her cash at home. When we got there, I gave my mechanic cousin Mike a call to find out if we could leave the Corolla behind his shop in order to get the safety and e-test done. He immediately started asking hard questions; “How’s the front end? Did you jack it up to check ball joints? Did you check to see if the hard brake lines in good shape?” Nope, nope, nope. My stomach sank — I felt like an idiot, and we called off the deal.
Half a billion beaters later, I found it. A “Starry Blue Mica” 2003 Mazda Protégé. It came with a maintenance history an inch thick, saw oil changes every 5,000 kms, had it’s timing belt done, and saw rustproofing every year. Came etested and certified — all for $2,600. During the search, I encountered trash that made me literally sick and learned a ton. Here’s some of my lessons learned:
Be Pessimistic – Always
When you go to check out a car, never arrive with the expectation that you’re going to buy it. Here’s the problem: say you find your dream car, exactly what you’ve been looking for in pristine condition for a wicked price. You withdraw a load of cash from the bank, go check it out, and there’s a problem. Maybe it’s misfiring, or it has rust. When you get excited over a car, it’s really easy to overlook problems.
For example, I went to check out a Mazda Protege5, which in my mind, was utterly perfect for her. It’s a reliable daily driver, a practical hatchback, and it’s fun to drive. Better yet, this one in particular, had no visible rust; a miracle. I arrive to checkout this car and am greeted by an overweight, middle aged man with a thick Russian accent, who while I was there, was both vaping and drinking a beer at the same time. That was my first warning sign.
The second, was the fact that the car had undergone a rust repair, meaning that the fenders looked great while the underbody was very rusty. Then, after popping the hood, it was obvious that the valve cover gasket was long gone and dark sludgy oil was seeming out all over the engine. Then during the test drive, there was a rattle from the exhaust that sounded like a loose exhaust hanger. I showed up very excited, which why after all this, I was still considering buying it. Moronic, I know. I finally gave up when the owner couldn’t tell me when the timing belt had been done last.
You’ve seen it before. That ad.
“I need this car gone. It’s just needs a small fix. My loss is your gain!”
Almost nobody sells a car that needs a small fix. If it we’re actually small, they’d fix it themselves and sell if for a lot more money. Sure, you’ll have the odd rich guy who values his time a lot more than his money, but you have to expect the seller to lie to you. On that note, cross check everything they tell you.
Know what you’re buying
All cars have unique quirks, and you should know them before you go shopping. Miata’s for example have nasty habit of rusting from the inside out on the rear quarters, they have incredibly soft frame rail braces that will bend if used as a jack point, and can burn oil in biblical amounts if not maintained (see: my car). You can find out if it’s ever had a rollbar installed (and has probably seen track time), if there are holes drilled into the sheet metal underneath the carpet in the rear shelf. They also need an expensive timing belt replacement every 100,000 kms.
Whatever your buying, this is the sort of stuff you should know. At a minimum, you should know if It has a timing belt, and how often it needs to be changed. Forums, websites such as CarComplaints.com and car-specific Facebook groups are a goldmine for that sort of info. You`ll feel like an idiot if you buy a lemon because you missed an incredibly obvious warning sign.
Buy something certified and e-tested
Determining if a car will pass a safety inspection during the 15 minutes you have with it is extremely difficult unless you really know what your doing. Bad ball joints, worn bushings, an exhaust leak, a sketchy/improper repair, patched brake lines: the smallest thing could lead to an expensive bill really quickly. If your confident in your ability to diagnose problems and can convince the current owner to get the car up on a hoist, then you might get away with buying a car as-is, but the easiest thing to do is to buy something already certified.
Safetied cars are usually a fair bit more expensive, so if someone isn’t willing to safety their car and sell it for a higher price, you have to wonder why.
Buying a car with a thoroughly documented maintenance history is difficult at best, but without receipts you’re gambling on the fact that it’s actually had regular maintenance done. Not only do receipts confirm that the car hasn’t gone 40,000kms between oil changes, but they allow you to plan future maintenance. For example, the Protégé that we ended up buying had it’s timing belt done at 100,000kms – about 60,000kms earlier than the service manual recommended. Had I assumed that it was done at 160,000, I would have ended up doing the timing belt at 320,000kms; 60,000kms late, potentially leaving my girlfriend stranded on the side of the road. In short, a maintenance history isn’t something that’s “nice to have.” It’s freaking amazing; almost mandatory.
If you’re in a rush, you’re more likely to overlook warning signs and make a bad decision. Buying cheap used cars is like wading through trash: 90% of cars for sale are utter junk, but eventually, you’ll find the one.
Don’t buy someone else’s project
Properly built and seriously fast project cars can be bought for a tenth of what they originally costed in parts, but there’s a reason for that. Unless that car came with a bolt-by-bolt build thread, you don’t know who built it, how it was built, and if things go wrong, there isn’t a service manual in the world that will tell you how to repair your 2JZ-powered Impreza. If that’s a risk you can live with and you’re prepared to reverse-engineer someone else’s build, by all means have at it – but you’ve been warned.