Choice Auto Repair

Shiny object syndrome – How to manage the perils of used car buying!

Pre-purchase inspection

[This is a guest post by one of our customers, Karen, who recently bought a used car – she shares her experiences here…]

NASometimes you plan for a new car, think about updating your older car, and take lots of time to do the research to make the best decision for you.

But what if you have to move quickly? And you don’t have an unlimited budget?

In my case, the transmission on my car was failing, and I needed a car quickly. When I started, I didn’t know if I wanted new or used; I hadn’t had a new car for a long time, but the thought of having a large car payment was not a happy thought.

So I started down the path – not sure whether I was going to end up with a new or used car. I thought the Internet would give me a huge advantage in both finding cars and pricing them. But the Internet can’t do it all, and I was still going to have to talk to car salespeople, which I dreaded.

I had a friend who offered to do some negotiating for me, so I started him on the path towards possibly leasing a new car. I picked out what I wanted and let him call dealers to work on pricing. At one point, I thought we had a deal, put down a $500 deposit with a dealer on a Saturday, and then was told Monday that in fact, they couldn’t possibly give us the number that we thought we had on Friday. So there went that deal.

Overall, I just didn’t want to go so far into debt for a new car, and was leaning towards a good used car. What I wanted was what one sales person told me was a “unicorn” – a late model Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4 with relatively low mileage at around $10k.

I was getting closer and closer to a hard deadline where I either had to buy a car or start renting one. So I identified some cars that looked great online, called several dealers, looked on Craigslist and made appointments to see them, spent a lot of time running from dealer to dealer to mechanic to mechanic. In 4 days, I had four cars evaluated by two mechanics in two cities. Three of the four cars were from mainstream dealers – names that you would know. One was from one of those small mom-and-pop dealers. Three of the four cars failed inspection by my mechanics, and the fourth was given a tentative, but lukewarm, okay.

And these were cars that looked great on the outside. They looked good on the inside too – really looked new, even though 7-9 years old. How could they be in such bad shape underneath the hood or underneath the car? And they were really bad. One had probably been in some sort of unreported accident, but there was enough putty underneath the bumper to indicate significant body work. One had nearly bald tires that would need to be replaced immediately. And one had a power steering rack that was leaking, although the dealer had tried to clean up the leak all around the seal. Two showed signs of rust; one was so bad that my mechanic was afraid to look at the air filter for fear of having the screws just crumble.

Here’s what I learned. Most dealers who take in cars on trade-in don’t really spend much in evaluating the cars for sale; they just basically clean them up and put them on the lot. Some dealers say “Oh, we do a this-number-of-points inspection on each car,” but they leave out some major systems. One salesperson told me straight out that it’s just not cost-effective for them to spend a lot of time looking for problems in each car.

There was one salesperson who told me that the cars that come in from trade-ins have to “pass the shop” before they’re put onto the sales lot, and that a lot of cars go straight from trade-in to auction.

Also, as soon as a car comes in, most dealers automatically put it up in inventory, even before a car is truly ready for sale. So for a couple of cars I called on, although they were on the dealer’s website, I found out that they hadn’t passed the dealer’s evaluation, and would be going to auction. So that’s frustrating; if I see something on a dealer’s website, then yes, I think it means it’s ready for sale.

I also had to make a couple of trips in person to dealers to check out the a few models I was interested in. And the sales people were mostly just as I expected – “how can we earn your business” – everything just short of “what would it take to get you in the car today”? Yuck.

Early on in my process, Alton at Choice Auto had put me in touch with someone who actually looks for cars for people. You tell her what you want and then she reaches out to her own network to try to find it. I didn’t call her for a long time into the process, and so by the time I did, I was really tight on time. She did a great job, and found me a RAV 4 very quickly. I committed to that, but unfortunately, the dealer sold it out from under her, so that one went away. Finally, another RAV4 came available, which is the car I ended up with. Whew – happy to have that process over.

What did I learn?

  • Never, ever, ever buy a car without having a mechanic check it out. It’s not enough to have a shiny engine and good interior detailing. No used car is going to be perfect, but at least with a mechanic’s report, you can decide what’s most important to you, and what you can tolerate. I would have bought the car that needed new front tires because I loved the style, and color, but it had other issues that just could not be overlooked. 
  • It’s nearly a full-time job to find a good used car if you’re on a tight deadline. I showed up at one dealership for what was supposed to be a quick pick-up to take the car to my mechanic, and it was truly nearly an hour before I got out of there. They couldn’t find the key, and then they wanted to talk price, and then they had to go put gas in the car, which required leaving the dealership. Then they pulled up in the wrong car. And we had to start the find the key, put gas in the car process all over again. So frustrating. 
  • Everything is negotiable. You probably already know this, but no dealer truly expects to get the sticker price. And dealers selling the exact same model quoted me prices that differed by 15%. 
  • Social media is great for research, finding out what people are paying for new cars, as well as leases, but there’s still no way that I found to completely avoid car dealers. <Sigh…>