tips for buying used cars




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Cars?? What the hey?
We’ve had some interesting car experiences in our 15 years of marriage and some major car problems the last month, so I’m getting it off my chest today and sharing some advice. And money for cars affects money for homes, so it’s legit. Our policy has been to buy older used cars and pay cash and it has worked well until this experience so maybe this can help someone else.


About a month after we moved here my husband was hit and they declared the Honda Accord  totaled. He was fine, but we were sad because a) we brought it clear across the country, darn it! b) it was a great car that  we found at a great price in Virginia c)I loathe used car shopping. I feel like you never know when people are being honest or if the car is just going to turn out to be a lemon.
Photo: RIP '93 Accord. Everyone is ok, their insurance is paying, but she was sure a good car.
Here’s the story: We put off car shopping until Thanksgiving break and finally bit the bullet and went and looked at some cars we had seen online. We found a 2002 Toyota Avalon for a great price with 130k miles on it. That is high mileage but it would be a commuter car, we could pay cash, and my husband’s father has an avalon with over 200k miles on it. We took it to a mechanic, everything looked good, checked the carfax, it was clean but had 3 previous owners. We got it and our goal was for it to last 5-7 more years.
Anyway, a few weeks after we got it, the oil light kept coming on saying it was empty. We took it to our mechanic and he looked further into the engine and said there was sludge in the engine which indicates poor maintenance.  *sigh* So, we put some more money in it to try to clean the sludge out with additives in the engine. It seemed to be doing better and I drove it up to Montana to be with Kristin after she had her baby.
montana avalonlast picture in the Avalon
About 3 hours from being there, I was accelerating back onto the interstate and heard a clunk, clunk, BANG. The engine completely stopped and I coasted to the side of the road. A tow truck came and got us and the next morning the mechanic said the engine had completely seized up and was done for. It wasn’t bringing oil through properly and was dried up. Our car was done for and they gave us $410 for parts.
It is sooo maddening to have thousands of dollars just flushed down the drain, here are some tips that I would share for buying a used car:
1. If the price seems to be too good to be true, it is. Something is wrong with it.  There is a reason no one else will buy it.
2. Check Consumer Reports for the years of cars you are looking at.Their best buys for cars have always been spot on for us. Our first car was a Pontiac Grand Am – it had lots of expensive problems and consumer Reports had black dots on it for our year.  Another time we got a Nissan quest van from a co-worker and that had lots of problems as well. As soon as we started paying attention to the consumer reports our cars have been wonderful for us. But…
3. Know the maintenance records also. Carfax sometimes shows them if they have been serviced at the dealer, but many people selling privately have folders full of maintenance records. We wish we would have passed on the Avalon because it had 3 previous owners and we had no idea of how it was maintained and we paid for it big time. I would pass on a car if there was no indication of how it was maintained.
4. Take it to a mechanic. They won’t  usually go really in depth in a used car inspection, but they can tell you if it looks like there is water/flood damage, and how the major components work.
5. Check the reputation of the dealership. Read those reviews online and how long have they been in business? I wish I would have checked the place we got the car at more closely. Numerous complaints of people who had the engines fail a month or two after buying there and accusing them of adding things to the engine to hide noises, etc. It was just a bad deal, even when we felt like we covered our bases. Go with nice families that have the maintence records, or dealerships that have been around a long time and care about their reputation and those online reviews.
What about you? Have you had any nightmare used car experiences? What advice would you give? Or, a used cars that have been awesome for you? Or, do you choose to buy new and have the peace of mind?
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24 comments:

  1. We buy used with cash too, and a great source of used cars is your state auction. We have purchased several cars through the state auction and my brother has gotten his vehicles this way for years. What you get are state owned vehicles that usually have had regular maintenance. They come from all different departments of the state, transportation, road commission, even state universities and they often have maintenance records right in the glove box. Check online to see when your state has an auction, usually once or twice a year. They will list the cars and trucks online with year, make model and mileage. It's easy to look up comp prices and go with an idea of what they are worth and our state allows a day or two before the auction for people to come look at the vehicles, start them, check under hood etc.

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    1. Great tip, Kathleen! Thank you.

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  2. Ewww, i just had to face this when buying my own "first" car. I had my car from high school graduation, but I didn't pay for it, so I was extra cautious when thinking of committing to a loan long-term! And, sadly, the first one was just like you said, too good to be true, it wouldn't pass SMOG (had been tested before) and had all kinds of problems. Luckily I had purchased the "lemon opt-out" option and approx. $1k later I walked away having learned a valuable (financially painful) lesson. But I ended up with a much better car and I'm happy now. But the shopping is miserable! Hertz Car Sales is where I ended up getting mine and they were awesome (super happy with the process and also the car itself). I won't buy new, I can't see throwing that kind of money away especially when I just had a friend "buy new" for that reason and her car has had major issues. Sometimes ya just can't win;-)

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    1. You were smart to go with the lemon opt-out! I've never thought of going with Hertz either -- thanks for letting us know about that.

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  3. Melissa when we lived in Nebraska they would sell used mission cars too. It might be worth seeing if they do that here in Utah too.

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  4. Does your rent-a-car sell their older models? Here the rental car places sell their older models and they have to be in good shape to sell. No experience with used as we always buy new to avoid these problems but we keep them 15-years or more. Hope you find something reliable.

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    1. Smart! Why have I never seen one? We found another Toyota Avalon, with the maintenance records! Fingers crossed....

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  5. We mostly buy cash. I drive a new Honda Pilot (my 2nd). Our first one we kept for 8 or 9 years. Never had a problem. My husband has a used Toyota truck but it was low milage (30,000) and one owner only, good records, garage kept. Good used cars are out there but you have to look hard...where you are is full of college cars, I'd stay away from those. I've seen the BYU and UVU drivers (my kids were there!)

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    1. Oh goodness, yes. We are definitely staying away from the college cars. We go for more reliable grandpa cars like Avalons :)

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  6. I'm in Utah too and I'm super curious which used dealer you went with! We bought from a newer used dealership in November and it was nerve wracking. Why do they all have to act so fake? Thankfully we haven't had issues with the car, knock on wood.

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    1. It was Auto Plus on State Street in Murray. Never again.

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  7. We learned, through sad experience, that a CarFax report isn't worth the paper it's printed on! CarFax reports only cover REPORTED accidents. We trusted a dealer and a CarFax, and bought a minvan that had been in a previous front-end collision and repaired "under the table." Three months after we bought it, all those "repairs" started failing and we found severe sub-frame damage. It cost us thousands of dollars to fix. In the future--I will buy used, but generally only directly from an owner who keeps good service records (which is what we did when we bought a new van to replace our lemon a few months ago).

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  8. Great tips! This will be a good guidance. We bought a 2000 Honda City for a great price, back in 2007 and thankfully, the car is still functioning properly. I'm a not a car expert so it's just because of pure luck that we got the car.

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  9. My son planned to buy a used car after his graduation, and we are still surveying for the best. Thanks for the tips, your tips might save him from buying a car that might turn out to be a lemon. =)

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  10. I agree with Korrie. I needed another car since my daughter was going away to college but didn't want the payments of a new car. We researched online and found a "great deal" on a 5 year old VW with less than 50,000 and the Carfax said it had only one owner. Since driving off the lot, we have had nothing but problems. Eventually my husband took it to a mechanic and we found out that it had been in a collision that wasn't reported to Carfax. Now, my daughter was in a collision and car was totaled so she has to drive the VW. I ended up buying a brand new Prius, so although I have a car payment, I am saving on gas and have the peace of mind of a new car/no problems. Can't say that about the VW that my daughter is driving. Smog check is due at end of year and dreading it will not pass and have to put money into it again since we can't afford another new car.

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    1. I am so sorry! We know what it's like to pray that a car passes state inspections.

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  11. Oh, Melissa, I'm so sorry! What a bummer--especially frustrating when you had a perfectly good used car and lost it through no fault of your own.

    It's good to know that CarFax is not infallible. I had no idea! My oldest son will likely be looking for a used car soon, so we'll be extra careful.

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    1. Thank you, Richella! In the grand scheme of things it will be small, but still frustrating. We found another car with great maintenance records and we are moving on. (we hope!)

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  12. Ugh...that stinks. Hopefully you find a new-to-you car very soon. We always buy used and pay cash. I cannot fathom having a car payment. We currently own an '05 Corolla with 278K on it and an '04 with 170K on it and couldn't be happier with them, although the Corolla's time with us is coming to a close. Good luck!

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  13. I'm sorry about your experience! We buy used, too. We love our Avalon. We've had it at least 10 years. We bought it from an older couple. The car has about 220,000 miles on it and it's still going strong. Good luck in your car hunt.

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  14. This might sound like a joke, but it worked in my case: marry a part-time mechanic!
    But seriously, I leased my 1st new car, a 1985 Oldsmobile Ciera from a dealer who'd been around forEVER. I had the transmission replaced three times in three years. Sure, at no charge, but the inconvenience!
    I bought my 2nd new car, a 1989 Honda. OMG. That car was FANTASTIC. Even after I had my first accident in it and it got repaired, it was phenomenal! I drove it until 2003. BF and hubby-to-be did all the maintenance on it and the body repair guy who fixed her up was in our wedding later.
    I bought my 3rd new car, another Honda in 2003. After the wonderful experience I had with my 1st, why would I look at anything else? It was a lemon. Transmission issues they fixed the first one or two times, but then it was out of warranty. Traded it in for my current 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe, which I love, along with its 10 yr/100K mile power train warranty!
    Hubby has never bought a new car. He buys all of his used, and even though he knows it all about cars, he's been, let's just say, disappointed in a purchase or two over the years. And 10 times out of 10, well, 2 times out of 2, it's because the seller Lied with a capital L.
    Yes, being married to someone who changes my oil every 2000 miles (and considers 2100 miles "late") is awesome. He knows what every sound is, knows how to fix anything that rattles, shakes, shimmies, fails, etc.
    Yes, marrying a mechanic worked for me, but in lieu of that option, if you get a good car, TAKE.CARE.OF. IT. (Although that applies to husbands, too!)

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  15. Oh, Melissa -- that's awful! :(

    My mom had an Avalon back in the early 2000s (might've been a 2000). Bought it new, got rid of it in under a year because it had SO many problems. I bought a used Audi, and oh my word, the car was in the shop on average one week/month! I had a warranty on it, but when we were approaching 100K miles and the end of the warranty, we sold it. Can't afford the constant repairs on Audis. $500 for a headlight? Are you kidding? :/

    I hope this next car is PERFECT for you guys!!!

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  16. Thanks for the useful tips. I have some experience on buying used car but your important tips helps me to think again. New buyer must be benefited from your post. Thanks for the info here!

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  17. Buying a used car is good option. But one should make sure that the vehicle they are purchasing should be in good working condition and does not have any faults. I have found your tips very helpful for me; these will help me to purchase my new model.

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