Last week we started talking about buying a car
for less than the price of many bicycles. We discussed where to look and what, or what not to look for.
Now it's time to start narrowing thing down. A quick look around my neighborhood via Craigslist this week turned up a '92 Mercury Grand Marquis, and a '95 Ford Escort Wagon for sale, both under $2,000. Both ads mention condition (running
) and registration status (plates
)--so two of my standard questions are answered.
Now, what else do you need to know before you commit to go look at the car in person?
Now, before going on wild goose chases and wasting your time, here are the first few questions I always ask via the phone, or email.
- Do you still have the car for sale? (Obvious, isn't it?)
- Why are you selling it? (If they don't have a good motive, why is it so cheap? There should be a nice simple answer that isn't "It's been nothing but trouble and I'm tired of fixing it...")
- How long have you had it? (Hopefully a good long time, you don't want to buy from a flipper who just bought it to sell, or someone who bought a problem and now wants to pass the buck...)
- Is it currently registered and do you have the paperwork? (In California, and some other states, if you buy a car that has back registration due, you have to pay it not the previous owner.)
- Has it passed a smog test recently? (The smog test can be the bane of the existence of the cheap old car buyer, but a recent passing grade indicates the motor is in good shape internally.)
- Is it a salvage title? (A salvage title means the car was totaled by the insurance company and put back on the road. The car may or may not have been put back together correctly, but it will never be worth what a non-salvage car is worth.)
If things seem kosher after the questions and phone conversation, then it's time to go look at the car.
If you meet the seller at the local big box market, this will hurt you. If you go to where the car lives, you can see it in its natural habitat and get an idea of how it was treated. You also get to start the car, to see how it runs from cold after sitting all night. Best of all, you will know where the seller lives, which will keep them honest. Walk around the car and give it the once over, put your hand on the hood and make sure it hasn't been running recently (it would be warm
Now the moment of truth: the test drive! Load up the friend you brought along and the seller and go for a ride. You'll want to do a few good starts from a standstill and a few good hard stops, noticing if it shimmies (warped brake rotor? bad ball joint?
) or pulls to one side (bad tie-rod?
Make sure it accelerates cleanly without smoking or hesitating by accelerating from a stop sign like you were getting on a freeway. If there is one nearby, drive slowly up a big hill making the motor work. Notice how the transmission shifts and make sure its hitting all the gears--3-4 in most automatics, 4-5 in a stick. If it is a stick shift, test the clutch by cruising in 3rd or 4th with barely any gas, then floor it and see if the motor races and the clutch slips, or if the car accelerates like it should. In an automatic, the same test ought to produce a 1 or 2 gear down shift, and the car should accelerate away.
Hit a pothole or two if it's convenient, and listen for rattles. The last part of the test is to take a left and a right turn at quicker than normal speed, to make the suspension work and listen for thumps.
Try not to scare the current owner.
Even if you know nothing about cars after you have driven it for a while, pull into a parking lot and open the hood. Look under the car for leaks, check under the hood and listen for squeaks and squeals. Turn the motor off for a few minutes, then turn it back on. You want it to start easy, hot or cold. Drive back with the AC on--if the car has it--just to make sure it works. Oh yeah, and try to remember how to get back to the seller's house.
After this, you should have an idea whether this is a car you want to buy or not. People who buy things off of Craigslist seem to want everything for nothing while sellers seem to want a lot for everything, so it can be hard to know what exactly they will settle for. In my experience, if an add says O.B.O. (or best offer
), the seller will take nearly anything just to be rid of it.
The Escort is listed $1,900 O.B.O., so I would start the bidding at $1,000 even. In a O.B.O. situation anything over one-half the asking price is a reasonable offer. The Grand Marquis is listed at $875 and the word cheap is right in the ad, therefore the seller knows it's priced to sell, so I expect that car to sell for $800 at least.
A few years ago I had a clean 35 year-old motorcycle, third owner, less than 3,000 miles, running great, ready to go, advertised for $1,500 firm. A "buyer" came and looked at it, and even took it for a ride around the block, then offered me $750. Not only did he waste my time looking at something he had no intention of buying, he insulted me by offering me 50% of my asking price, when the word firm was in the title of the ad. The word firm means "I want about what I'm asking" so start by offering no less than 80% of the asking price. Asking prices are usually decided by thinking of a number, then rounding it to the nearest hundred, if not $250. When you see something listed for $875 or $1,450, figure that is the actual amount they want and they are as new to this as you are.
If you see something listed at $1,686.50, the seller is obviously a little crazy, so best to avoid it all together.
So what to buy? Basically the same criteria apply as I mentioned in my motorcycle tips
post earlier. Look for something from a volume manufacturer that has a motor and a chassis that were made for many years.
For this reason, Ford and GM cars are great because they used similar motors, transmissions and chassis for long periods of time. The Chevy Cavalier and its brethren were basically the same from 1982-2000, so parts are cheap and plentiful. The mid-sized Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles were not only basically the same for 20 years, they were often owned by old people who didn't drive much.
The Ford Panther platform is still in use under most cabs and police cars, and debuted in 1979 (you know when you see running used taxi cabs for sale, the car must be durable
). Older Honda and Toyota mid-sized cars are often less than the Corollas and Civics from the same era since they seem boring in comparison, but they still sell for more than their American counterparts. Avoid off brands like Mitsubishi and Isuzu unless you get a killer deal on a super clean car. Volkswagen can be cheap and cheerful too, but you have to go back to the Mk2 era cars (1985-1992) to find something that isn't going to cost a lot to fix if something does go wrong.
Buy the right car and you can get away with little maintenance, and minimal insurance. Buy something like a Ford Taurus or a Dodge K-car and you won't ever need to buy new car parts because used parts are littering the junk yards. Buy something cheap enough and you can use it for demolition derby
or the B.A.B.E. rally when you get tired of it or try some of the things the miscreants from Car Craft magazine
suggested in their "total beater" article years ago, including "practice burn outs and bootlegger U-turns
," and "build a permanent convertible.
If you've got suggestions, or stories of your own used car buying experiences I'd love to hear them. Add them to the comments section below.