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Used Car buying - guides say to check transmission fluid - but don't say what to do with the results

A relative of mine is looking to buy an old used Subaru Forester and has found one she is interested in. It is a 2001 with 135,000 miles. Basic VIN check shows no salvage title.

Guides online ask:
transmission fluid (does it smell burned and look brown rather than pink?).
This one’s fluid does look brown, and the automatic shifter is hard to move back and forth and squeaks / creaks (like plastic stuck to plastic noises) when you shift it from park to drive. The actual test drive gear shifting seemed smooth, it’s moving the actual lever that is hard.

I recommend a pass on this, but wanted some better backup from more knowledgeable people - is this transmission a showstopper? Or is it we would oil something and change the transmission fluid and potentially be fine for a reasonable time.

The difficult movement of the shifter likely has nothing to do with the transmission itself. One too many lattes and scones spilled on the center console often can cause the shifting trouble you describe. Depending on how discolored and smelly the fluid is, it may not be cause for alarm. Do you have a regular mechanic who could do a pre-purchase inspection for you?

Can you find out if the car has had the scheduled timing belt service done? If not, the price should go down.

Also, Subarus of this era tended to develop head gasket leaks of oil or coolant. Ask if there’s any service history available.

As asemaster mentioned, my biggest hesitation would be about the head gasket. If it hasn’t been done yet, there’s a good chance it will need to be at some point.

The transmission was probably never serviced. This is also terrible, but not necessarily damning. Unfortunately, what you’d really need is to have a transmission shop drop the pan for a look-see. An experienced tech can tell you a lot about a transmission based on pan contents.

“The transmission was probably never serviced. This is also terrible, but not necessarily damning.”

If the car is on its original transmission fluid at 135,000 miles, I would not buy it. If it was changed once around 70,000 miles, that may be OK.

I agree with jtsanders.
In many cases, a trans that was not serviced on schedule (every 30k miles) is ready for that vast automotive graveyard anytime after 90k miles. By ~120k miles, an unserviced trans is truly living on borrowed time.

Even just one trans fluid change could make the difference between a vehicle that is worth considering and one that should be rejected. Just think–if the owner never serviced the transmission, what other important maintenance items were also skipped? The first owner may escape the consequences of lax maintenance, but the next owner will wind up paying big time.

Tranny rebuild is $3000. No big deal.

…especially since the book value of that car is likely to be ~$3k.

Yup!
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as effectively doubling the purchase price by having to do a major repair shortly after purchase!

My rule. Don’t buy a big Subaru with that many mles on it unless you want problems. Subaru machanics don’t let friends buy Subarus.

You should also inspect the final drive oil level in the tranmsission as that is often overlooked and can be very critical. This is NOT the ATF.

If the final drive oil level is low and there are no apparent external leaks then it’s possible that the oil could be low because of one of several reasons.
Someone in the past has inadvertently drained it by mistake while changing the engine oil and did not fill it all the way back up.
It has an internal seal leakage problem. This causes the hypoid oil to mix with the ATF and the only cure for this is to remove the transmission,disassemble the final drive to some extent, and replace a number of seals.

The head gaskets and timing belt issues are always a concern if that has not been taken care of previously and much could depend on exactly how much they’re asking for the car.

An '01 Subaru with 135K miles sounds like a car you’d better have some money $1K to 3K available for repairs. I’d pass on it.

A bit more info - it’s going for 4,500.

It turns out it does need a head gasket, though apparently my relative knows a subaru mechanic and she thinks they can do it over a weekend for 200 or so in parts? I will recommend they keep looking.

Also, as much as I like Subarus (new) I recommended she check out some non-subaru cheapy old cars. Anyway, she isn’t afraid of having her boyfriend + friends work on a car, wants something she can take out into the fields and isn’t worried about denting etc, and costs less than 5,000… So maybe I just expect too much to help buy an old beater …

You’re a good relative to have. You’re doing a great job helping.

I personally recommend never proceeding with a car that has known problems unless the fixes don’t involve major surgery (like a headgasket does) and the price is dirt cheap. the problem with repairing anything that requires opening the engine is that once you do so you can find unexpected surprises, like a warped head that needs machining or a groove eroded into the head surface that needs machining. The cost has the potential of growing rapidly once you open the motor.

Another “red flag” for me is anything having to do with the brakes, the chassis, or body rot. All of these could be serious.