A few weeks ago, I shared some tips for prospective new-car buyers. However, there are still many good reasons to buy used or--if you'd prefer the euphemism--"pre-owned" or perhaps "pre-loved." Even though there are many good, brand-new choices now, there are still some compelling choices to get a second- or even third-hand vehicle.
First, if you couldn't afford a particular model you wanted so much several years ago, perhaps now you can get a particular model year at its depreciated price. Second, maybe you have the cash to buy a used car and don't want to put up with several years of payments like you usually would with a brand-new car. Finally, maybe you just see more value in a used car than in a brand-new car, especially if you run a small business and see yourself saving more cash that way.
But buying used has its pitfalls. Unlike a brand-new car--with which you expect to have everything running perfectly--a used car's reliability depends on several things like the manufacturer's engineering standards, the mileage on the car, and the previous owner's driving and maintenance habits. Here are some things to consider before you take the leap:
1. The higher the mileage, the more parts will need replacing. From past experience, parts start wearing out at around the 60,000-70,000km mark. These can be relatively inexpensive like brake pads and fuel filters, but could steadily get bigger like a transmission overhaul, a new radiator or new A/C compressor. Get a copy of the car's periodic maintenance schedule to know what you're getting into.
2. You can't be cheap. You can be thrifty, yes, but delaying replacement of worn parts will cost you more. This is especially true for the cooling system where delaying a needed replacement will only create a domino-like effect. Take it from someone who held off on a new radiator several years ago until it finally cracked, causing the engine to shut down, and costing me a small fortune in not just a new radiator but an engine overhaul as well.
3. Have two budgets: one for the initial purchase of the car, another to make it truly roadworthy. My rule of thumb is you should have a "fix-it" budget that's at least 20% of the purchase price. So if you buy the car for P500,000, you should have a budget of at least P100,000 for parts that will need to be replaced. If you don't have this "fix-it" budget, I guarantee you will be very stressed when the temperature needle starts climbing, when the mechanic tells you it needs new rack ends, a new A/C compressor, a new this or a new that. (On the bright side, since the maintenance issues won't have the frequency of monthly payments for a brand-new car, it won't be painful all the time).
4. Research on the car. Talk to friends who have owned a particular model that you're eyeing, and Google the car's reputation. "Forewarned is forearmed," as they say. To get a feel for the market price of the car you're looking for, visit some used-car dealerships. Also, check the Internet for the cost of parts, and list down several shops that stock up on your prospective car's parts.
5. Inspect the vehicle thoroughly. Check the car in daylight so you can see the paint quality. Spots that don't quite match the other panels are a clue that it has been bent, scratched, touched up with body filler ("masilya") or putty, and painted over. These are generally minor issues, but check the engine bay and look for signs of filler; this is a clue that the car has been involved in a front-end collision (not good!). I got this tip from a dealer friend who told me what to look for in a particular van; after checking the body, I noticed the paint under the hood was especially new for a 10-year-old vehicle! I walked away. For the interior, tug on the seatbelts to see if they work, try out the seats if they still have cushioning, and check the instrument panel if all the gauges and lights work. Test the A/C at both its lowest and highest settings, and see how long it takes to cool the vehicle. See if the wipers and windshield washer work, too.
6. Check the tires. Mismatched tires should set off alarm bells in your head. It's not that you can't afford new rubber. If the previous owner was too cheap to at least replace these basic items in pairs, then what does that say about the other maintenance concerns?
7. Ask for the service records. Whether it's the log that's issued to every car, or an orderly collection of receipts gathered by the seller from having it maintained outside the casa, you need to have this information.
8. Test-drive. Aside from the usual drive around the neighborhood, some simple tests will reveal some things you'll need to know. Turn the steering at full lock left and right, and listen for knocking/tugging sounds; these indicate problems with the steering. Do a brief, full-throttle acceleration and listen to the engine and transmission for strange noises. Do a simulated panic stop to see how well the brakes work, or if the car tends to steer to the left or right. If you're not experienced enough to discern what a particular noise could indicate, hire a mechanic to come along with you so he can tell you what could be wrong with the car. List down all of these "issues" and evaluate whether you still want the car, and if you are willing to fix these problems. If you decide that you can handle them, you can mention these to the seller when it's time to negotiate the final price.
9. Consider the seller's disposition. You'll have to do a bit of psychology here when you meet up to check the car. Is the person unusually eager to sell you his car already, or quite cool about the whole thing, and possibly even reluctant? How good are you at spotting a liar? Don't be afraid to ask a direct question (politely, of course), like: "Has this car been flooded or crashed?" Look him straight in the eye. If he's evasive or has shifty eyes, then be on your guard no matter how enticing the car looks. Ask about the car's service history, and look for consistency in his answers. One time, I called a seller to ask about a van and he gave me a story about it being the family car and he just wanted to sell it because he needed a bigger one. When I came over to inspect it, another person (his nephew, he claims) said the van in question was actually owned by a Korean and they were reselling it!
10. Be adventurous. It helps if you have the mindset of making this purchase a "project car." Once you've bought the car you like and fixed it up, there are many ways to make it a really nice and fun project. For example, you could get a five-year-old 4x4 truck for half the price of a brand-new Ford Ranger, fix it up and modify it, and have a lot of fun tearing up some trails without feeling guilty about scratching a brand-new truck. You could get a five-year-old FD Civic, free yourself from the constraints of the dealership service rates since it's out of warranty anyway, and modify it for track days. Still, even if this will be your only car for everyday driving, you have to have a bit of a "cowboy" spirit when it comes to the used-car experience. It may no longer have that new-car smell, but a good, used car can be a lot of fun if you know what you're getting into.