Most people know that buying a used car is smarter than buying a brand new car.
But is that always true?
A used car can certainly save money, but at higher risk.
Most cars depreciate rapidly in the first 3-5 years, losing 50% or more of their original value, even those in near perfect condition. Furthermore, car manufacturers only make major style changes every 4-5 years.
This means you can pick up a relatively new used car for about half the cost of a brand new model and still get essentially the same styling.
It’s also possible to find used cars that are 10 years old or older that are in excellent condition, and make excellent buys.
Sounds great but what’s the catch?
A used car is — well — used, previously owned and driven. Those other owners may have driven the car sensibly, or not. They may have taken good care of it and maintained it as recommended by the manufacturer, or not. They may have damaged it and had it repaired by professionals, or not. They may have driven excessive miles, or not.
A car is a mechanical machine and all mechanical machines suffer wear and tear with use. They can have problems, some serious, some not.
Some makes and models tend to have more problems than others. Consumer Reports magazine, in the annual Auto Issue, publishes the results of a survey of thousands of car owners. It rates and ranks each model according to number and type of reported problems.
Furthermore, every used car is different. No two are alike. One can be a jewel that has low mileage, has been driven and maintained properly, and never wrecked. Another of the same make, model, and year can be junk with hidden problems, excessive wear, and poorly repaired damages.
What does this mean to a used car buyer?
Of all the possible issues that might prevent one from buying a used car, only a few are obvious to an average buyer.
It’s not obvious how a car has been driven or maintained by a previous owner — or owners. It’s not obvious that it might have been wrecked. It’s not obvious that it might have had reliability problems in the past, and will continue to do so. It’s not obvious why the previous owner is getting rid of his car. It’s not obvious that there might still be an outstanding lien.
The two major things that most buyers first focus on are 1) appearance condition, and 2) mileage.
First, appearance can be deceiving. There can be hidden problems not apparent to the eye. Second, mileage is not a good indicator of a car’s condition. A car with high mileage can be a good car, just as one with low miles can be terrible.
Many buyers look at Carfax or AutoCheck vehicle history reports as a way of researching a used car purchase. However, these reports are often inaccurate and incomplete, and don’t say anything about a car’s all important current condition.
What to do?
Although it’s possible to make some determination of a used car’s condition by asking the owner or dealer questions, test driving, and doing a cursory inspection; this is generally not sufficient.
The best way to know the actual mechanical condition and future reliability of a used car is to have it inspected by your own professional mechanic before you buy.
He can give you a detailed problem report that you can use to make a decision about buying. It can cost $75-$150 but is worth it if it prevents you from making a big mistake.
Let’s sum it up.
Buying a used car is much different from buying a brand new car that has never been driven, has no problems (usually), has never been wrecked, and has full warranty protection from the manufacturer.
There is more risk when buying used, which means a buyer must take more care and expend more time and effort in making a good decision. If done correctly, it can result in getting a great car for a great price.