Determining a used car's condition

I am searching for a used car between $2000 and $5000 and reliability is the most important issue. So far, every vehicle I have taken in for inspection (at $83 each time) has come back as a “do not buy” due to poor maintenance. With the loss of time and money for the inspections I am wondering whether checking the fluids myself would give me a decent indication of whether the vehicle would pass a pre-sale inspection?

Regarding used cars from dealers, would a pre-sale inspection reveal whether the car has been touched up to hide evidence of poor maintenance? Would I need to go to a transmission shop in addition to a mechanic?

Consider the $83 inspections the best money you spent. I’ve done this many times and feel it’s money well spent. Most independent mechanics who specialize in the make should be able to diagnose transmission problems. You could also take it to an auto body shop to find any repaired collision damage. See my other comments in a similar post today.

Totally agree with TT’s good advice. DONOT slight body condition as it’s just as important. A $2-$5K car could have significant “unseen to the naked eye if you don’t look” rust problems. Even a new tranny in a year is doable on a cheap car. What will you do if it’s shortly unsafe because of rust. The cost of repair of that would be astronomical compared to it’s mechanics.
Give me a well maintained body every time…for the car or otherwise. :slight_smile:

You’re shopping in a price range where it just is not a good idea to buy from a dealer. The more expensive the car, the smaller, percentage-wise, the gap is between what you could pay from a private seller and what the dealer charges. Also, the cheap dealers tend to get the worst cars, and they may be more concerned with making a car look good than making sure it’s in the best condition possible. In general, this segment is populated by the worst of the worst in terms of dishonesty and manipulation. You should really be focusing on private sellers, and skipping dealers entirely unless you’re spending over 5000 dollars, or you know for a fact that a particular dealer is different.

And I’m not sure a pre-sale inspection is a standardized thing. What will be revealed depends on the nature of the problem and the experience and intelligence of the inspector.

It sounds like you’re interested in learning how to spot bad cars yourself, and that really is the best way to go.

Yes, fluids can tell you a lot, but they can’t tell you everything, and if a dealer has the good sense to change them before they put the car on the lot (where it probably isn’t being driven much) they won’t tell you much at all.

Here’s what you should look for:
Fluids: Know what the fluids should have looked like when they went in. Oil is like maple syrup. Automatic transmission fluid is like rasberry syrup minus seeds. (If there’s any solid bits in it it’s REALLY bad.) Power steering fluid is usually just transmission fluid. Coolant is yellow-green or orange and a little thicker than water. Brake fluid is colorless. They all should be clear. If they’re a little opaque it’s time for a change. If they look like chocolate syrup the car has been neglected a little. If they look like crude oil, it’s been neglected a lot. Any foam or film not colored the same as the fluid you’re looking at under the fill caps (particularly for oil and coolant) is a VERY bad sign. At best it’s a bad head gasket, at worst a cracked block.

A dirty engine is your friend. Dealers clean them for a reason. The dirt on the engine shows where the engine leaks. If it leaks liquid, you’ll see clean spots. If it leaks vapor, you’ll see spots where the dirt has been moistened.

Hoses and belts should ideally be in good condition, but they are cheap and usually easy to replace, so it isn’t a deal killer on a cheap car. Look out for cracks in the surface, no matter how shallow.

Test drive with the radio off. (Stereos are cheap, you don’t care what it sounds like) Listen for any sounds the car makes, and if you can’t explain something or at least make a guess at what the sound is, consider walking.

Pay attention to how the transmission behaves. If it’s a manual, there should be no difficulty getting in or out of any gear. If it’s an auto, it should shift smoothly through all gears and it shouldn’t “seek” back and forth between gears at near-constant speeds. Try to drive it on a hill, too, particularly if it’s auto.

When you’re done test driving, pop the hood and smell the engine. It should smell faintly oily, or like nothing at all. Any burning smells or strong oily or gasoline smells, and you’ve got problems.

Check for rust everywhere. You’re particularly looking at the area behind the wheels, at the base of the doors, and the entire underside of the car. Under the spare tire. Around the front and rear windows. Everywhere you can think of. Unless you live in the desert, there is no such thing as “surface rust.” Paint bubbling is always rust, and by that point, it’s BAD rust. Anything more than the barest hint of rust puts a car into methmobile territory. You don’t pay money for this kind of car, you pay a small quantity of drugs or a couple of sex acts.

Electrical gremlins are a bad sign, and could indicate flooding. In combination with carpet discoloration they definitely indicate flooding.

Look for anyplace…on the outside of the car or the underside, or under the hood, where the paint doesn’t match, even a little bit. That says accident.

Check for uneven tire wear. This is a sign of suspension problems, and could be a sign of a serious accident.

Speaking of suspension, check the condition of the boots on all the suspension linkages. This may mean jacking up the car, or getting your whole head under it. And check the CV boots while you’re at it. The same condition rules apply for these as for the belts and hoses. This stuff is a pain in the ass to fix the first time, and only moderately better any subsequent time (but you CAN do it yourself with only a few specialized tools).

Get a Carfax report. Even if it doesn’t show every accident and doesn’t catch every odometer rollback, it catches most of them. Almost as important, it tells you where a car has been registered. You don’t want a car that’s spent more than a couple years in Alaska, for example. You DO want a car that’s been registered in the desert southwest most of its life. (Except the clearcoat is probably on its last legs, particularly if the paint is a dark color.)

Buying a used car in the $2,000 to $5,000 range that is reliable is next to impossible. Even a good used car in this price range is going to have some break downs and part failures and they could start very soon after you sign the papers. Most cars in this price range are either newer very small and cheap cars to start with or bigger nicer cars that are about 10 years old.

If reliable is your most important criteria, then you should look at leasing a smaller car and keeping the monthly payment as low as possible.

Don’t stop the pre buy inspections, they have already saved you from 2 or 3 mistakes. You’ve gotten some great tips from other posters which you can follow so when you take a car to the mechanic for inspection it has a better chance of passing. Most owners tend to take better care of new cars. Once a car gets past 5 years old maintenance falls off. At 10 years old some folks just make repairs, put on cheap tires, and maybe do the oil changes.

The best way to get a reliable used car is to buy it new and drive it for 10 to 15 years.

Uh, no, it’s quite doable. Getting a reliable used car over 5000 dollars is almost trivial. This price range is where you have to start being wary. Under 2 grand is where you can expect to do at least one major repair in the first year. Under 1000 is where you can expect to do it immediately.

Oh, and a lot of sub-5000 dollar cars are less than 10 years old.

It’s just a matter of knowing what models to avoid, and what to look for in the good ones.

The only advice I can add to those great ideas given, is to limit your search to cars that have as few options as possible to limit your problems later. Manual(with working clutch) over auto, no frills power windows, locks etc, 4 cyl compacts. Look for a 2000-2002 Chevy Prism.

I’ve also found daily prayer helps when looking for and owning a clunker and the willingness to curse extensively when trying to fix a break down yourself.