Vehicle Purchasing Wisdom

With spring here I have had more than a few clients looking into their stables and wondering if maybe this is the time for some spring-cleaning with their vehicles. 

With the economy being what it is there are some real opportunities in the used car market – the trick is to be certain you know what you’re getting.  To do this get a good pre-purchase inspection performed by a qualified technician interested in your needs and well-being.  At Integrity First Automotive our Pre-Purchase Inspection is an industry-leading program – check out a sample by clicking here.

The Bad Honda (or, what NOT to do):

I had a client refer a friend of his about a year ago with an early 90’s Honda.  They bought it used for their niece who was a new driver.  By most accounts a used Honda is a pretty good vehicle for this use – I think they paid something like $2000 for this car.  Not an uncommon solution for a new driver.After purchasing it they then went to an inspection station to get its safety and emissions certificates.  This, unfortunately, is where their troubles began. 

An honest safety inspector did his job and looked the car over to see if it complied with the Utah Highway Patrol’s safety standards.  Unfortunately for the budget this uncovered approx. $1000 in repairs needed to make the car safe.  Once these repairs were complete the vehicle started having problems with overheating and, in their frustration, my client was asked who would be an excellent technician to figure this problem-vehicle out.  I was called and the vehicle was towed to my shop.  Sadly, the overheating issue was due to internal engine problems and they ended up selling the vehicle for salvage instead of spending the $3000-4000 needed to replace the engine. 

They lost over $2000 in the process and it was clear to all involved that a pre-purchase inspection would have saved them this money as well as a lot of heartache, and hassle.

Utah Safety and Emissions:

There is a percentage of the population that think the safety inspection and emissions test needed to register a vehicle in Salt Lake County is enough of a test to determine if a vehicle is worth purchasing.  Although in theory this holds some truth, even when those tests are conducted correctly, there is much more about vehicle’s condition that you need to know to determine if its purchase price is a good value.  Brakes, for example, only need 20% of their wear-surface remaining to pass – but on most European vehicles we service at Integrity First Automotive, this means the vehicle will need brake pads and rotors in the next 6-12 months.  This service (on a modern European vehicle) averages approx. $400 but can get as high as $1000.  Obviously this information changes the actual value of the vehicle.

The F-150:

I once had a client whose son was excited to purchase his first vehicle – he wanted a newer F-150 pickup.  He found some nice looking trucks and brought all of them to me for a pre-purchase inspection.  The one he wanted to buy was the most questionable of the bunch. 

The driver’s door didn’t seal properly at the top and the main engine computer, located under the hood, had its entire wiring harness spliced (over 20 wires spliced together with wire-nuts!).  The dealership selling this vehicle was offering a better price than most based on mileage, age, etc but I was convinced this truck had been rolled and the computer wiring hack was certainly going to cause untold grief over the years as that wiring caused poor signals to reach the computer.  The truck did pass the required safety and emissions tests and came with a certificate of such from the dealer.

How to Get a Used-Car Dealer to take back their Lemon:

Which reminds me of another story:  Again involving a first-time vehicle buyer.  This girl bought a used Chevrolet from a car dealership and it died on the street the next day.  In her frustration she called a client of mine that she baby-sat for and I went to get this car off the street and checked it over.  Again this car came with a safety and emissions certificate from the used-car dealer.  In this case the certificate was fraudulent.  The tires were bald, and completely unsafe by any standard.  Likewise the front brakes were in terrible condition.  The drivability problem that caused it to stall was some critical problem with the engine that I can’t even remember.  What I do remember is that the dealership was not interested in having this vehicle returned.  However, once we inquired as to who did the safety inspection (so we could alert the Utah Highway Patrol to the errors in it) the dealership, fortunately, decided that it would be better for them to just take the car back.  She was lucky.

I urge anyone shopping for a used vehicle to take the time to have the vehicle inspected by a good technician who is interested in your well-being and you receiving good value for money.  There are good deals to be had on used vehicles but unless you know what kind of condition it is in you will likely not know the true value of what you’re considering purchasing. 

CarFax and Kelly Blue-Book:

Don’t rely exclusively on services like CarFax or other computer database information.  These systems do not tell much beyond how many owners a vehicle has had, if the odometer readings are correct, and if the vehicle has had damage enough to give it a salvage title.  This information is useful but far from complete.  Moreover it becomes less useful as a vehicle ages since things like the actual mileage are less important in determining the value of the vehicle.  Do a vehicle valuation for a car over 10 years old, then add 50,000 or 100,000 miles and re-evaluate – you’ll notice how little impact mileage has on vehicles in this age category.  The reason is the more a vehicle ages the more its value is determined by how it was looked after – not by how many miles it has.

Kelly-Blue-Book is a good resource for helping you determine a fair price.  However, if you have an eBay account, you can search eBayMotors for completed auctions and get a better sense of what the ‘street’ value of a car is.  Be aware that there are regional differences in prices. 

A Good Pre-Purchase Inspection:

A good pre-purchase inspection should include a good comprehensive report.  As I frequently tell my clients I WILL find something wrong with the vehicle but usually this information is more for you to use as leverage in your negotiations than as something that should disqualify the vehicle.  Typically this leverage will more than offset the cost of the inspection.

Another sign of quality in a pre-purchase inspection is that the technician performing the inspection will tailor his/her focus based on the vehicle.  For example, newer cars or sports cars should have more attention paid to the condition of their bodywork than more utility vehicles like older minivans or SUVs.  The bodywork is still important but less so on a car more subjected to door-dings and scratches from the kids’ bikes.

Engine Health:

A pre-purchase inspection should include some means of determining the health of the engine.  This, at our shop, means we perform one of the following tests:

– cylinder compression test

– engine vacuum test (usually done with the above)

– exhaust gas-readings

– ignition spark analysis

 Click here for a sample of our Pre-Purchase Inspection Report

Watch Out for Recent Computer-Resets:

Additionally, if the car is newer than 1996 the shop should do a computer scan to check for any error codes and to determine if the computer has set the vehicle emission readiness-flags to ‘READY’.  (If the flags are not in Ready status this could indicate that the computer was recently reset to switch the check-engine light off in the dash and to hide an underlying emissions or engine problem in the vehicle).

European vehicles particularly, should be scanned with factory-level computer scanners since their computers (a modern BMW or Mercedes-Benz can have as many as 25 active computers in the vehicle) can report much richer data about the vehicle’s electronics and controls than the simplistic OBD-II scanners used by none-European specialty shops.

There is much involved in finding a good used vehicle but, rest assured, there are some great values to be found.

Want Further Education?:

Unfortunately the less-informed consumer – usually the first-time car buyer – is the most vulnerable to the traps out there.  At Integrity First Automotive we recognize this and make ourselves available for evening or weekend training classes to help educate these buyers.  If you have a group of 10-20 people interested in such training, we would be happy to setup a community service class, here at our facility, to teach them.  Contact us for additional details.