Navigating the labyrinth of a used car purchase
It's both simpler and more complicated than it seems.
Private or trade. Dealer used approved, or bargain basement. Buying anything that has been previously owned, from a washing machine to an iPad is always a risk. Not that there aren’t pitfalls with new purchases, but warranties and companies eager to stand by their product can dampen the impact if you pick up a bad one.
As some of you know, my first ever real job was selling used cars. Mainly ex-lease one-owner vehicles that were in the sweet spot of having taken the initial hit of depreciation and their maintenance in good order.
This isn’t to say there weren’t lemons, even when the lease company are paying the bills some people still neglect their car, late servicing, car park dings, ruined brakes and interiors that could never quite shake their whiff of a previous careless owner.
Fortunately, very few of my sales ever came back for anything more than minor issues. One of the many reasons I never made the top of the sales board, I would talk a buyer out of a car because I knew it was a headache, and I'd be honest about it. Finding a discerning salesman when going to a showroom is the most important thing a used car buyers can do. Sure, a good car is a good car no matter who the seller is, but finding a suited up seller that knows their bonnet strut from their battery strap will make minor faults known. I found that many people would still buy a car with a cosmetic blemish or even a slight mechanical annoyance if it was made clear, as it was my fine-tuned ear that noticed the problem, the punter, not knowing it should be slightly better, couldn't care, as long as it wasn't going to cause them real problems. I remember selling an RX-8 with what I considered a hack job of a custom exhaust, the lady that was considering buying it was a teacher and thought it would impress a few of her students, and she wasn't bothered about the slight rattle it made when at idle, you couldn't hear it in the driver's seat.
As I said many times, better to know and never have a problem that not know and live in blissful ignorance until the day you hear a loud bang.
Warning someone about a common fault or something you have noticed that is different about this car over the other ones you have been in, good or bad, is good for business. Although my manager didn't see it that way.
The salesman has probably driven more examples of the car you are looking for than you could hope to see in a month of viewings, so probe. If you get answers of little substance and heavy sales patter, it may be worth moving on. I was 18 when I made my first sale. I told the customer they had popped my sales cherry and they paused, wondering whether I was telling a lifeless joke or I was serious. I knew so much more than them about their purchase and was half their age, my knowledge sold them on the car, not my salesman’s charm. They made a point of hauling my manager over and explaining that I knew than the last five garages they had visited put together, something I couldn't claim today.
I can guarantee you that my charm with customers back then was equal to my chat up lines, poor, worn out and getting me nowhere, but knowledge and becoming part of the buying journey with the customer scored the deal.
The second most important thing when buying from a dealer is learning as much as you can about the previous owner. Is there a bunch of receipts stuffed in the service book, are there lots of light scratches (the deeper ones would have been seen to by the prep team before it reached the forecourt). Even checking the preprogrammed radio stations can tell you something. If preset 1 is radio 4, it's unlikely a boy racer has been behind the wheel practicing doughnuts in car parks. Although having met many people, a small portion of the fastest drivers are tuned in to Melvyn Bragg. Four matching brands of tyres and a clean engine bay are another good sign that most know about, but forget to check.
Private sellers are a whole different world. You can interrogate, get information that a dealer just wouldn’t know about its history, and see where the car has lived. If a seller roles a garaged ten-year-old car out and you can see his pressure washer, detailing shelf, and tyre depth gauge hanging by the door then you may just want to get your money down before somewhere else does.
Sadly they are a rarity. For many, a private sale is a treacherous path, if you think used car salesman have questionable morals you need to meet the general public. Remember a used car seller is just selling on someone’s car, they don’t really know if its been a loved example or not, all they know is that with a service, valet, and convincing advert they should be able to earn a few quid.
One check that may not seem obvious is a modification or removal of emissions controls. Cut, gut and shut jobs are rising in popularity.
Private sellers that are actually traders, should be given wide berths unless they make it clear they are a driveway dealer. Many genuine ones will want to separate themselves from the have-a-go traders, they've usually retired from the trade or moved on to another job, but do it on the side for some beer tokens.
The seller with a free advert, having bought the car yesterday and listed a lifeless advert and a couple of poor photos with their mate in the background should be ignored unless you enjoy nervous encounters with people whose moral compass had the dial removed years ago.
Fast-talking liars, shifting their problems onto someone else can be easy to spot, but not always. Worse still is that many people believe their level of care is fastidious when it is in fact negligent. Having met people that have said their car is perfect and won't need a penny spent on it, only to find a broken coil spring, air conditioning in need of a re-gas, and tyres so unevenly worn that you could ski down the slope from one side to the other.
One check that may not seem obvious is a modification or removal of emissions controls. Cut, gut and shut jobs are rising in popularity. Speaking from experience, having bought two used vehicles only to find later that the emissions are off the charts. This is where a catalytic converter, Diesel Particulate Filter or Petrol Particulate Filter is cut, the contents removed then welded back up. This is to give the impression that the unit is still there, but MOT testers are wise to the job and any evidence of tampering will result in an immediate fail. Added to that, as much as petrolheads may love extracting power, dumping the finer particles into the atmosphere, particularly into cities is directly impacting public health, and real enthusiasts will opt for a high flow sports catalytic converter over a cut and shut. Hanging around the back of the car with the engine running for a minute will reveal the truth and if there's a strong smell, then either budget for the work or walk away.
Always budget for more, even from a dealer. I have seen time and time again, people stretch to afford a car, then have all the joy sucked out of their shiny new purchase when a brake pad sensor tells them it's time for a change a thousand miles later, or they get a puncture on the way home. Keep a kitty for any unknown issues that may arise in that first thousand miles and you should be OK.
A final note, no matter how you buy a car. Remember, that unless you are shopping for a limited edition exotic or an incredibly rare optional extra, there are other ones and so, if it doesn’t feel right. Turn around and find another labyrinth.
Most of this article is written from experience, forever an optimist with a love of cars will have you handing over your hard-earned cash even when all the alarm bells are ringing. I will point myself here the next time I go on a 100-mile journey to pick up a car that I should walk away from. Sadly, some of us just can't listen to our own reasoning. Best of luck out there.