5 tips to finding a good used car

If you’re shopping for a used vehicle, you’ve probably heard lots of advice from friends, family, coworkers and everyone else with a car-lot saga to share.

There’s the tip to check under the hood and inside the wheel wells for paint overspray, indicating a past collision repair or paint job. Or the hint to check the brake pedal rubber to see if its wear somehow matches the mileage shown on the odometer. Almost everyone, it seems, knows the secrets.

The big surprise, though, is how little homework is actually done before someone signs on the bottom line to make what for many will be the second largest purchase of their lives. Here are a few things most might not normally think of when heading out to the pre-owned vehicle lots:

1. Check the ownership. This applies more to private sales rather than registered auto retailers. If you’re looking at a vehicle being sold by a private individual you don’t know (or even if you do), ask to see the vehicle papers. If the name on the ownership doesn’t match the person in front of you, he or she could be a curbsider, an unlicensed reseller who buys cast-offs and wrecks from various sources and does a little cosmetic work before unloading these rolling headaches on unsuspecting buyers. If you’re still interested in the vehicle, take the serial number and do a little digging. Run the number, or VIN as it’s also known, on the Ontario Ministry of Environment website (use the shortcut www.driveclean.com and follow the drop-down menu to the “find your vehicle’s history” page). If the VIN you’re checking comes up with more than two tests in subsequent years, this may indicate trouble. Call a dealership that handles the make you’re looking at and ask its service department to run the VIN to look for any indication that the vehicle has been written off after a collision. Dealership staff aren’t supposed to release any privacy act-protected information, but if you’re only asking about this particular status of a vehicle, you should get some co-operation.

2. Check the tire size. With many carmakers equipping their products with large rims and low-profile rubber, it’s not uncommon for drivers to swap the tires out for something cheaper when replacement time arrives. But installing the wrong-sized tires can lead to a host of problems ranging from inaccurate speedometer/odometer readings to faults with antilock brake and traction control systems to premature wear. Compare the size indicated on the tire sidewall with the information label on the driver’s door jam or inside the glove box. If the sizes don’t match, you may be in for trouble and some expensive bills. If the sizes do match, run the size on any tire retailer website to check for availability and pricing. You know that if you keep any vehicle long enough you will replace the tires, so avoid the sticker shock and be prepared.

3. Check the serviceability. This is the phone call that has the greatest potential to save you money and grief. Call your regular service provider and ask for an opinion on the vehicle you’re considering. Most shop owners and techs are happy to share their thoughts and many will appreciate the fact you value their opinions. Any bargain you might find on the street or car lots won’t be much of a deal if it costs you a fortune to keep it on the road, or if parts are routinely hard to get.

4. For the record. Most people know that in Ontario, private sellers are required by law provide a document package to confirm past repairs and maintenance. But many of these documents are incomplete or hard to decipher. When you review them, check that mileages and dates on repair invoices are in sequence. If there are large time gaps, ask the seller to explain. If mileages are out of whack, be suspicious of the validity of the invoice. Licensed dealers are not required to provide a documented repair history. But if a dealership is selling a used car of the same make it sells new, there’s a different history you can check: warranty repairs. Every dealership has electronic access to warranty repair histories, and the average vehicle is likely to only have one or two such repairs each year. More frequent repairs might indicate a troublesome vehicle or a very particular owner. Having one of the dealer’s service department staff go through these records would be helpful as many of them are summaries with alpha-numeric codes instead of plain English.

5. Don’t go out with older cars. I’m constantly amazed at people who shell out large sums for vehicles more than 10 years old and expect to get four or five years of trouble-free driving. While vehicle design and build has improved over the years, for the most part the average auto is built to provide a serviceable life of around 10 years or 250,000 kilometres. This isn’t to say that a particular vehicle might not exceed this lifespan or end up in the boneyard much sooner. It’s just that older vehicles tend to be more expensive to maintain and provide less reliability.

Photograph by: Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen
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