In my last installment, we spoke about preplanning when buying a used car. If all the steps were followed, you should now have a pretty good idea of what you are going to spend, as well as what vehicles are offered in your price range. This is a great place to start, as you now have the hardest part complete. Well, this is the hardest part for me anyway, because I despise anything that has to do with banking (obviously, my wife is the family accountant) and there are so many cars I want to own that the mere act of choosing between them could cause my face to melt off. Now that your face is mush and you have a skull-splitting migraine from talking to your bank, it’s time to have some fun! That is exactly what phase two of the used car buying procedure should be: loads and loads “put ‘em through the paces” (safely and legally) fun! Grab yourself some driving gloves and a buddy, because now it’s time to kick some tires.
Once again, we have to start with some prospective before setting foot on a used car lot. Not every used car salesman is a greasy slime-ball out to buy a brand-spanking-used Rolex by swindling you out of far more money than you planned on spending like they are often portraying in movies. In fact, in over 20 trips to used lots in my life, I’ve never met a single greasy slime-ball salesman. Not one. If you ask for bottom dollar, they will give it to you. If you ask for oil changes for a year, they can work it out. If you ask then to have their mechanic look something over (although it never hurts to have a third-party mechanic do it), they will. Buying a used car in post-“cash for clunkers” America is much easier than because there are fewer good used cars than before, so naturally, the competition is much fiercer between dealerships. Much like any other retail business, dealerships have to concentrate more on customer service and other incentives to attract customers. This is evident in the genuine computer-signed form letter I received just this week offering to buy my Suzuki SX4 for “up to $500 over Kelly Blue Book” even if I didn’t buy my next car from them. (Yeah right, remember when I said no good business will intentionally lose money?)
Next, take your list of available cars for sale from the preplanning stage and narrow it down by geography, price point, color choice, and whatever other factors you consider important, and make yourself a nice little list of dealerships to visit. I choose to drive through these lots initially after hours or on Sundays (they don’t sell cars on Sundays in Indiana), so I can have an uninterrupted chance to physically scan over the car. This first impression can often rule out several cars and dealerships without even needing to talk to a salesperson.
After inspecting the vehicles you are interested in after hours, narrow your list further by ruling out the ones with obvious issues. Next, it’s time for the test drive. I have several personal rules regarding the test drive. First, I always take someone with me. It pays to have an extra set of eyes. I once passed on a bland white Nissan Versa with a hideous beige interior simply because when I asked what my wife thought of it, she replied “It’s ugly.” Good thing she was there, because I would have spent the next few years driving it with her ducked down into the passenger-side foot well to avoid being spotted in an ugly egg white car with an interior the color of human skin. An honest second set of eyes can help avoid purchasing a car you may not be happy with a year or two down the road.
While on the test drive, be sure to take you time. I will scratch a car off my list if a salesman tries to hurry this process. In the small town I’m from, everyone knows, or is related to everyone else, so most dealerships there would allow me to take the car for the weekend before making my decision, however, most won’t in the much larger town I live in now. (Remember, dealerships only get paid if they make the sale, so it can’t hurt to ask.) If this is not an option, ask if you can take it for a few hours at least. Be sure to take the car to highway speed. If the car makes “clunking” sounds while accelerating or doesn’t track strait on the highway, this could be signs of costly suspension damage. Any vibrations or droning sounds on the highway could be a sign of tire issues. Either way, these issues become much more noticeable at highway speed.
Lastly, do not forget to ask the salesman for a copy of the vehicle’s vehicle history report (Carmax or Autocheck, for example). This report will give you a detailed and accurate history of the vehicle. Major maintenance history, accidents, repossessions, and other pertinent information should be listed on this report. I make it a rule that if the dealer refuses to produce this report, then I will refuse to purchase the car. After all, nearly every dealership I have ever known of uses this very report when appraising your trade in. If they don’t produce one on request, there may be a reason.
Now that you’ve test driven the remaining cars on your list, you should have narrowed the field to a few solitary gems that pass your inspection. I like to have at least two vehicles in mind when moving to the negotiation phase. This way, I can force both dealerships into healthy competition for my business. Once again, after Cash for Clunkers and the auto industry bailout years ago, dealerships are far more inclined to compete than ever before. This puts the consumer at the advantage, so have some fun, drive some cars, and get ready for the dreaded negation …