I'm afraid of used cars, help me out!

Hey guys,

Im 23, I’ve have my license for about a year and a half and I do not own a car. I’ve maybe done 2000-3000 km of driving in my whole driving career. I know nothing about cars. The only advice that I can ask for about cars is my grandfather. He grew up during the Soviet Era. He thinks used cars are the devil and that no car could possibly last for more than 100 000km. To give him credit, the Ladas and Moskviches probably couldn’t either.

Unfortunately this irrational way of thinking has been passed on to me. I thought that I’d never buy a card that was dirt cheap and had done a zillion miles. Just recently however I had to drive a friend’s old, beat-up Ford Ka. Underpowered to begin with, this thing barely had wheels attached to the chassis and probably had done 250 000km easily. And you know what? It drove. It was fine! Whats more, he said that if that car went on the market today, it would go for maybe 300 €.

So that gets me thinking. I have maybe a thousand euros to spare, why not get a cheap car? Then I remember the first bit, I know nothing about cars. So would you guys be able to give me an education about used modern cars? How much can I expect something like a Golf or BMW to last? Is buying one with 200 000 KM on it lunacy? Or is it ok provided I know what Im getting into?

The rule of thumb I grew up with was that cars start to develop serious problems after about 100k miles (160,000 km). It’s not particularly true, since I’ve since encountered plenty of cars with more mileage than that in good mechanical shape.

It really depends on the car, but just as significantly, it depends on how it’s been maintained. Toyotas are very reliable, but my first car was a high-mileage Celica I purchased for $900 (~650 €) and wow, what a nightmare it was. Among other things, the transmission malfunctioned shortly after I bought it, which was an expensive repair.

The issue was that, like you, I was in my early 20’s and didn’t know anything about cars. I didn’t know what questions to ask, and I didn’t know how to spot a car that had problems. There are reasonable cheap cars out there, but it requires real expertise not to get burned. The cheaper the car, the more you need to know. With really high mileage cars, buying a brand with a good reputation doesn’t mean you’re safe.

Your plan makes sense if you know a real expert who is willing to give you advice for free. Ideally, you’d want a mechanic.

Thanks very much for the speediest of replies. Just one more thing I want to put out there before I let some more replies flow in. And that is this: I dont know much about a lot of things, but nowadays I can avoid having to trust the seller of the product by doin research online. A quick search already revealed massive forums dedicated to practically every model of every year of every car you could think of. What do you think, would it be worth it to try and read up on some of the commons faults of some car (If I find a car, that is) and have that be the expert?

That is definitely one way to do it. The ultimate is to have the dealership allow you to have a mechanic inspect the vehicle before the sale. But online research is an invaluable tool to help you decide. Consumer Reports does an annual car survey that is pretty great. They have people comment on their car’s reliability, handling, etc. So they put out a huge book that has customer reported data for pretty much every make and model of car. I did a ton of online research about my car (2006 Ford Escape) and people’s consensus was that it was good and reliable. Fast forward to 5 years later and I have had to replace the rear differential and the transmission as well as the water pump in the engine and some electrical issues. Totaling over 5k in repairs (extra repairs, not common things like tires/brakes) in the last 5 years. So, your mileage (haha) may vary.

I’d steer clear of any place that is adverse to having an independent inspection carried out.

What sort of vintage is in that price range? Broad question, I know, but post circa 1995 you just don’t get the lemons you used to get in years gone by (where entire models were to be avoided). Anything post 2000 with a good service history that has not been in a prang is likely to be ok. Miles done in country or distance driving is preferred to city driving. Picking up an ex-commercial of government vehicle can be a good bet, as the service history is almost guaranteed. Modern engines will happily do 100,000’s Km’s with good maintenance.

In general, cars should not make odd noises, so if you test drive and something sounds weird, ask the question or have it checked. Timing belt driven engines need the timing belt changed roughly every 100,000km, so if it near there ask if it has been replaced recently, as it can be costly if not anticipated. Timing chain driven engines are generally less of an issue, pre '95 Mitsubishi engines excepted unless they have been extremely well taken care of (the old 4G3x/4G5x series of engines had very complex timing chain arrangements, were advanced for their time and many service agents back then were not terribly well versed in their maintenance).

There is a lot of value in a friend that has owned a few cars or at least has some mechanical knowledge, when looking around. If they drive it they may be able to identify things that your limited experience would miss. Always ask the reason for sale. As is common in life, most people are not actually out to screw you and probably genuine reasons for sale. For example, I am selling my car right now and I can tell you I would not let it go without being 100% certain it is completely sound.

Drive and look at some cars outside of your price range, but similar vintage - it will give you a good comparison to vehicles in your price-range!

I’m a big fan of online research, and it’s great if you’re buying a new car, or a low-mileage used car. The issue is that every high-mileage used car is unique. You cannot read online whether the specific car you’re examining is in great shape, or has a host of problems that will manifest in a few months of driving.

I’m not suggesting you trust the seller. I’m saying you need someone on your side with mechanical knowledge if you’re buying a used car. Getting an independent mechanical inspection, for example. But having someone come with you who knows cars will help weed out a lot of clunkers before that stage.

I just bought a used car (minivan*), so allow me to share my experience. It may or may not be relevant to what you experience in Estonia.

In the United States, there are a series of weekly auto auctions where used vehicles of all types are sold. At one of the large auctions, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 or 3,000 cars are sold every week – so it’s a volume business. I found a guy who specializes in going to these auctions, looking at cars, finding one that meets your needs, and purchasing it on your behalf. The guy I found is a mechanic who has owned his own shop for 30 years, is bored with just fixing cars, and likes finding/buying cars for people. It required a leap of faith, but this guy had great references from several people I know, and ultimately he got me a minivan for about 20% less than what our local used car places and dealerships were charging for it.

We were pretty specific about what we wanted – specific make & model, year, and trim – while flexible about other stuff (color, mileage within limits, etc.) It took about a month for him to find something that met our needs and was in our price range, but he came through and we’ve now been driving the minivan for almost 5 months.

While I was purchasing a relatively new minivan, there was someone else who was looking at cars (all the vehicles are posted online prior to the auction for you to look at pictures and the like) who was looking for “something sporty and reliable for under $4000.” My guy was pretty confident he could find something that would meet that definition. In the European market, where a lot of vehicles get shipped from Western Europe to Eastern Europe (or at least that’s my recollection from 10 or so years ago), I would imagine there are probably a fair number of decent used vehicles that are available if you have someone who can help you sort out which vehicles are worth buying and which are not. I personally don’t have that knowledge, and going through this guy cost me about $750 (on a $24,000 purchase) which seems to have been money well spent.

*I’m not proud, but I’m driving a minivan every day. While I miss driving a smaller vehicle, the damned minivan is so practical when it comes to throwing in more and more kids/stuff/etc. that I find we’re using it more than I thought I would. I know, time to turn in the man card.

My kids have all bought used cars. It helped to go to the same person and a build a relationship. Where I live the car dealerships sell lousy used cars; we did much better at a used car dealer (only sells used cars).

No matter what - I always buy with the idea I will need to do about $1500 in repairs. That helps me set the price I am comfortable with. I have no scientific reason on that amount but in my experience old cars will need to be repaired sooner than later and better to plan on that much. I made my kids wait until they had repair money in the bank so they were not caught flat footed with a car that they could not fix.

Make certain to change the oil regularly on an older car (well all cars - but especially on an older car).

Of course buying an older car - how far will it have to go? A clunker is fine as long as you are close to home and can get help easily (some people I used to know would buy really cheap cars and when they break they scrap them and get another clunker). Not something I am comfortable with - rather save for something better.

I always try to learn how old the timing belt is as I have seen that needing repair the most.

I also made sure my kids got Triple AAA plus which will give a tow up to a 100 miles (not sure if they have that in Europe).

You can get maintenance guides and owner manuals from manufacturers’ websites. I’d suggest doing so for any year/model of car you are considering. You can find the most expensive maintenance service that the car will require and when it will require it. Then, when you are thinking of buying a car with X thousands of miles/km on it, you can see what maintenance is upcoming. Also, ask to see maintenance records of what has been done already(if anything).

For instance, if you are looking at a car with 100k miles on it, and you see in the owner’s manual that it gets a timing belt replacement at 110k miles, and the seller can’t show any records to say the timing belt has already been replaced, you will soon have to be spending the money to do it if you buy that car.

Do timing belts really get replaced that late now? Serious question. I replaced mine at 60k miles, as per recommendations, but this was a car built in '97.

Varies by manufacturer, but rule of thumb is typically 80-110k Km (50-68k miles). So 110k miles would be approaching a 2nd timing belt change.

My mother in law’s Hyundai Tiburon wanted a belt change at 60k km (37k miles), which I thought was ridiculous but it was backed by the owner’s manual. That would be a pretty rare exception though, from my 7 years experience as an engine reconditioning parts interpreter way back when.

I also think it is wise to try and learn how easy or uneasy it is to obtain parts on the model car you are purchasing (and the relative cost of that model’s parts.

Can you elaborate please?

If you buy a BMW or Alfa Romeo in Australia, you will be much worse off for availability and cost of spares and (potentially) consumables, than if you lived in Europe. Globalisation over the last decade or so has certainly reduced this issue, but it can still be worth consideration, particularly for older vehicles or those that were not produced in significant quantities.

To add to Sharaleo’s answer above:

How long will a company manufacture parts for a model they retire? If you buy a used car and the model is no longer being supported at the end of the year with parts than I would weigh that into my purchasing decision.

There are certain models of cars that mechanics hate to work on based on the difficulty of repairing. That would mean increased manual labor costs.

BTW, you can always go to an auto parts store and ask them about price of parts, availability, and so forth to help in your decision (real live people versus the internet - laugh). Or your mechanic - ask what model is the used car he/she would buy and why.

I’ve seen different experiences with this.

My father had a '72 Citroen DS that turned into a rusting hulk in our garage during my teenage years (that would be the late 70’s) because it was impossible to get parts or repairs.

On the other hand, I’ve been driving a '97 Toyota Supra for 16 years. They stopped importing them to the US in 1998, and making them altogether in 2002, and 12 years later parts have never been a problem. Well, except for one minor thing - I had a fender repainted recently due to paint chip, and the “15th anniversary edition” decal / sticker combo is no longer a part the body shop can buy from Toyota.

My Dad used to do this as a side hobby 10+ years ago, he would go and buy a couple of cars from these auctions, fix them up, and resell them for 2x the amount. So there are some definite deals to be made.

I would have no f’ing clue what to pick out at these auctions but if you found a guy who knew what he was doing and had good references… sounds pretty tempting to me.

That’s not entirely true. If you are have gotten to the point of seriously considering a particular car, ask for the VIN# from the seller. Once you have that, there are several services like CarFax, VinAlert and others that will tell you the history of the car… or at least the major components of it, like accidents, insurance claims, and some maintenance info. These reports can run anywhere between $10 and $50US, and if you are getting financing, your bank will run in regardless.

Obviously this won’t tell you that the transmission is two weeks from failing, but it might tell you if the previous owner took it into the dealer for regular service or Jiffy Lube for regular transmission flushes.

If the person that you are buying from refuses to give you the VIN, simply walk away. The only reasons they wouldn’t give you that data is if it’s stolen or has such a terrible history that they don’t want you to know it was damaged in a flood or something.

My own anecdote: we’re buying a third car this very week, and we’re looking for something cheap and fun. We found a private seller whose vehicle looked to be in excellent shape with all sorts of after-market bells and whistles. When we got to the point that we wanted to buy I ran the VIN through the system and it came back with a flag for “potentially altered mileage”. Turns out that there was 86K on the car in 2004, 157K on it by 2010… and then in the last four years only 2K additional miles plus a flag from DMV that there was a discrepancy in 2011. While I don’t think the current seller is the guy that altered the odometer, we walked.

On the original subject line - do not fear used cars. I will probably never buy another (gas-powered) new car. The price difference between buying new off the lot and buying a car one or two years old (with reasonable mileage) is staggering… and arguably the used car will be more reliable since anything major that could have gone wrong would have in the first year. Because of this you can often get a BETTER warranty on a 1-year-old used car than you can with a new one. Case in point: BMW’s “certified used” cars come with a two-year warranty where they will fix anything that goes wrong for like $50… and if the car is still under it’s original warranty the two years is added onto the original term, so if a new BMW comes with a four-year warranty, a one-year-old certified used actually comes with a five-year warranty.

I think the best advice was get an independent mechanic to inspect. They will hear/see things you never will, and will know about how much it will cost to fix. Include this info in your negotiations over price.

The second good idea is to leave yourself a cushion of 50-100% of the purchase cost of the car for repairs, especially at such a low purchase price point. This way you can make that unexpected needed repair and not be flat broke.

The idea of using forums for research is good, especially in decided what to fix and what you can let be. All old cars have lots of stuff to fix. Some you can delay…others you can delay but you will end up spending alot more than if you fix it asap.

In some cases, the seller will even provide you with the report. Dealers do this routinely. When I set out to sell our current cars, the first thing I did was buy a couple of CarFax reports so I could show them to buyers.

That said, the CarFax only tells you about major issues, and does not list every service call, even if the car has seen regular service. I’m looking at one right now, and it doesn’t list a single oil change on a car with 77,000 miles, even though we changed oil every 3000 miles or so. It’s not really a solution to the “every very high mileage car is potentially unlike all the others” issue, just another tool.

Sometimes “potentially altered mileage” on a Carfax is just an error. When we re-titled the car after moving from California to Massachusetts, they recorded the mileage when we first purchased the vehicle (17,067) not the mileage when we moved (42,548). This made it look like the odometer was rolled back, when it wasn’t.

As for buying new, we’re in the process of doing that right now with 2 cars, because we couldn’t find anything used that matched what we wanted. This was primarily about color. Whether that’s important depends on the car, why you’re buying it, and how long you’re going to keep it. In this case, the cars are expensive, and we intend to keep them 10+ years, so paying a bit more to get exactly what we wanted makes sense.

In theory if everyone followed the very sensible “only buy used” mantra, the system would collapse because someone needs to buy new cars to keep up the pool of reasonably priced low-mileage used cars. In practice, there are people out there with car buying habits I find very strange indeed, going through cars every 1-2 years.