Lessons in Car Shopping

For the past few weeks, I’ve been occupying many of my spare moments shopping for a car.  I admit that reading up about different cars and debating advantages and disadvantages can be fun, but the actually mechanics of poring over craigslist ads is generally less exciting.  In the process, I’ve also learned a bit, both about cars, and about the often bizarre process of buying and selling them.  Here are a few observations on that second point.

CarFax is not all-knowing.  In principle, the CarFax report is the savior of buyers and sellers alike, allowing one to quickly and accurately get a complete picture of any service a car has had done on it.  But while CarFax is often very helpful, it would be a mistake to assume that it is complete.  Some repairs do not make it onto CarFax.  One car I was considering had basically no mention of repairs, yet the mechanic who inspected it noted that it had been almost entirely repainter, and that the bumper had been completely replaced.  So trust, but verify.

A mechanic’s inspection is inexpensive insurance.  Continuing from the previous point, paying a mechanic $100 or $150 to do a full look over the car before buying is simple prudence.  Even if CarFax were omnipotent, it still can’t tell you what sort of repairs will be needed in the near future.  Lots of things wear out, and it’s important to know up front if you will need to budget another $1k for motor mounts and struts, or tires or brakes or whatnot.

‘Driver’s cars’ are a mixed bag.  By ‘driver’s cars’ I mean cars that are generally acknowledged to be fun to drive.  On the upside, they are indeed fun to drive.  And when you drive a lot, that counts.  However, they also tend to attract certain types of owners – often people who like to tweak and modify their cars, not to mention drive them hard.  In theory there’s nothing wrong with such non-stock vehicles, but such mods aren’t always performed correctly, and even when they are, they may have annoying side-effects (e.g. a muffler that’s a lot louder than you really want).

Secondhand pricing takes many things into account.  Early on I was looking for a small, reliable-brand car, and settled on Honda hatchbacks.  I was more than a little surprised to discover that such vehicles were often rarer and more expensive than notably fancier models (BMW coupes) in similar condition.

Private sellers aren’t always.  This is primarily a craigslist thing, but there appear to be a decent number of people who make a living as ‘unofficial’ secondhand car salesmen.  They advertise the cars as theirs, but usually explain that they’re selling the car for a friend or relative when you meet them.  And of course, they always have a reason to meet in a random parking lot, rather than at home.  Aside from the awkwardness of dealing with somebody who isn’t what they say they are, there’s the problem that these people may or may not know the state of the car very well.

Clean cars are clean everywhere.  Engines are dirty places.  All sorts of grime and grit accumulates there, which makes it an obvious place to check to see what the real condition of a secondhand vehicle is.  Some clever souls have thus taken to steam cleaning under the hood.  But even steam cleaning can’t get everything, and on several cars that seemed otherwise sparkling, I brushed my finger in corners under the hood only to have it come out blackened with grease (yes, I probably should have worn gloves).

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