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Always get a mechanic to look before you buy used?


I have been looking for a used car for a bit now (weekends and some evenings). One thing both my dad and Tom and Ray recommend in their book is that you take a car to a mechanic before actually buying it. I’ve been trying to do this, but I’m getting resistance from the sellers. since I work during the day, I have to see the car at night on on a weekend, which means a second trip to take the car to a mechanic. The sellers are antsy when I mention this, saying that they have other people who want to look at it (probably true)and say ‘can’t you see there’s nothing wrong with it’. I don’t want to lose a car but, since I’m not great with cars, I want a mechanic to look at it as well. Am I being over cautious? do most people simply drive a used car (private party) and then buy it?

I think this is especially a problem since I am looking at cars that are older and in the $3000 range, not your ‘used’ 2007 or 2006 models.

Should I continue to insist on having a mechanic look at it ?

Unless you feel totally competent to assess the overall condition of the vehicle it could turn out to be the best money you have ever spent.

Are you looking at private party or dealer cars?

Unfortunately, most people do indeed just drive a car around the block before they buy it, if that. That’s part of the reason why many private party sellers will be caught a little off-guard by you requesting to get an inspection. It’s definitely a case where you need to be polite but firm-- be aware that unless they sell a lot of cars, it’s probably not something they were expecting to have to deal with. Make every effort to make the inspection as convenient as possible for the seller and work out some sort of collateral you can leave with them that you’re both comfortable with.

With cars in the price range you’re looking at you absolutely should get it inspected because they’re at an age where major problems may or may not be coming up soon depending on how well it’s been treated. If a seller isn’t going to let you do an inspection with an independent mechanic working for you, it isn’t the car for you. Move on-- there’s plenty of fish in the sea!

It’s always a good idea to have a used car checked out if you’re not mechanically inclined.

Many sellers may not want you to do this because there are a certain number of people who will skip town with it, take it and trash it, or even change a few parts out and bring it back with a “Na, I don’t want it” comment.
Many years ago a friend was going to sell one of his 2 motorcycles and in a moment of carelessness allowed the buyer “to take it around the block”. The buyer skipped and it was only because the word went out that some serious physical violence was going to be inflicted on the buyer did the person bring it back when it was discovered that both buyer and seller mutually knew some of the same people.

Maybe an alternative could be to ask the seller if they would take it to the mechanic that you have selected.

You should also keep in mind that there are various degrees of inspection (how deep and how much do you want to spend) and even the most thorough inspection of a car does not mean that problems will not surface even if given a clean bill of health.
A used car is a collection of used parts and any of them are subect to failure at any time. An inspection helps but is no guarantee.

The other alternative since you’re not mechanically inclined is to take a long test drive in it and pay close attention to how the trans shifts, engine noises, whether the temp gauge stays down and the oil light off, etc.
A 2 mile drive is not a test drive and reveals little; it should be more like 50 miles.

Chrisfs: A close friend and associate of mine is a very highly qualified engine rebuilder mechanic. I have asked him on a number of occcasions as to what he would look at in considering the purchase of a vehicle. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix answer. You may be lucky enough to spot oil leak coming from the crank seals, white vapor from the exhaust, burnt smell to either the engine oil or tranny fluid, or evidence that STP was added. You could possibly pass all of these features with approval but buy the vehicle and go down the road and immediately throw a rod or spin a cam bearing. Those only cover the potential engine issues. What about the tranny, the breaks, the alignment, tire condition,exhaust, etc. etc.

From the strictly amateur point of view: ask why they are selling the vehicle, I never get rid of something having no problems. Check the trunk and see how many empty bottles of additatives are there or empty coolant bottles. Check the maintenence records, like how many oil changes and what were the intervals. When were the brake pads changed, when was the muffler replaced, etc to name but a few items you can check on.
Lastly, I tell my kids (8) or friends, if you need to purchase used, go to a farm auction where the farmer has deceased and they are settling the estate. Chances are pretty good the vehicles being auctioned might be ok, but we usually avoid the vehicle with the forsale sigh on it. Why sell a perfectly good car? Avoid at all costs the abandoned police auction, usually not a good sign.
How is that for a short answer?

I would highly recommend it for a $3000 car. Leave a deposit or something else while you take it out for the scheduled checkup.

If the seller is antsy they have something to hide.

I will only state a mechanic won’t find everything. But can check suspension condition (can be over $1000 in repairs there), brake condition (can be expensive there), read the codes if the seller recently shut off CEL but did not address the problem(codes stored if condition not fixed), and exhaust condition.

Many checks even the best mechanic on this site cannot perform with putting the vehicle on a lift.

Your mechanic should be able to get that thing up in the air and have you out of there in 15-20 min not including a test drive. Not a big deal at all. Make sure it gets done.

I wish I had a mechanic checkout my first car purchase. I was 18 and buying a used 1964 Dodge Van. My road test only involved the typical “drive around the block” routine. Unfortunately that didn’t get the engine hot enough to uncover the piston slap, which got louder as the engine got warmer. Ironically it was fixing this “bum engine” that got me interested in pursuing my early auto mechanics career.

You say you only want to buy something in the $3000 range. It’s very easy for a used car like that to need $1000->$2000 in repairs. Wouldn’t you rather know that information before you hand over the money rather than afterward?