Avoiding Lemons

Up until mid-July of last year, I had always had the same car – a 1999 standard transmission Honda CRV. When the rear CV joint went, I was cash strapped and just needed a vehicle to get me home to the Yukon from Naramata, BC, where I was working as a cherry picker.

I wound up with a real beauty of a machine – a 1997 Chevy Astro van with 375,000 km already on the odometer which I bought out a farmer’s field for $500. I lovingly dubbed it “The Ol’ Prospector,” because it had the disarming charm of a grizzled, crotchety old miner.

It was gas-guzzling rust-basket – the rust was so bad, in fact, that whenever I would slam the heavy sliding door, huge chunks of it would fall off.

You wouldn’t think it would take you to the corner store, let alone the 2,340 km between Naramata and Whitehorse.

But it did.

It groaned and creaked up the Cassiar. Then it rattled and banged to the Atlin Music Festival and Haines, AK. It swayed and moaned across the country to Ottawa,ON then to Gaspe, QC. It made it, huffing and puffing and wheezing back across the Trans-Canada and up the Yellowhead until it finally blew a head gasket in Edmonton, AB, dramatically bleeding out coolant and oil like a dismembered Tarantino extra. When I sold it to the scrapper, I thanked the horrendous, leaky grey beast – it had driven over 15,000 km for me.

The moral of the story is, don’t be fooled by appearances.

Since that time, I’ve bought and sold several cars, for myself and my friends. You can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get when you buy a used car, but you don’t have to be an automotive genius to have the best chance of avoiding a lemon. Here are some basic tips to use and questions to ask when buying a used car (especially on a budget).

Research Before You Go

When you know you’re going to be looking at a car, simply Google the make, model and year. All kinds of useful information will pop up, including consumer reviews, common problems, gas mileage and value. This alerts you to issues you should be looking for, as well as giving you an idea of whether or not a car is being sold near its market resale value. These things are powerful bargaining chips.

Ask Why They are Selling

Is there something wrong with the car? Are they simply downsizing? Has the vehicle been in an accident? If the vehicle has been in an accident, has it been safetied since? You should have a copy of the Yukon safety inspection guidelines with you, so that you can check the condition of the car against the requirements.

Look the Seller in the Eye

Does the seller seem nervous or impatient, or are they friendly and relaxed? Are they speaking casually, or talking very fast? Are they able to answer basic questions about the condition of the car? Like it or not, you’re dealing with money, which means invariably there is the chance someone might lie to you. A person who is relaxed and friendly, patient and knowledgeable is much more likely to be giving you an honest deal.

Has the Vehicle Been Modified?

Don’t get me wrong, modified cars can be totally awesome if they are done by experienced people who know what they are doing – it’s just that when mods are bad, they are REALLY bad. Sometimes it can also indicate that the vehicle has be rebuilt, which again, needs to be done by people who know what they’re doing.

I once tried to test drive a Custom Ford F350 which had the five speed transmission torn out and replaced with a three-speed – known colloquially as a “three-in-the-tree” transmission. That’s cool and all and a three-speed has its benefits, but the truck had bench seats, and when they put the tranny in, they moved the stick shift back against the bench. The end result was that I couldn’t actually drive the truck, because I couldn’t move the seat far enough forward with the modified transmission to reach the clutch; if a vehicle has been modified, it’s definitely something you need to talk about with the seller before you buy.

Look Under the Hood

Pop the hood. Check the oil first. If it’s grimy, thick, black and needs changing, the car probably hasn’t been well maintained, which can lead to problems down the road. Is there a lot of brake fluid, power-steering fluid, coolant, etc. in the reservoirs? If there isn’t, again, it might not be maintained well, or there might be a leak somewhere. Researching the model before hand will allow you to find these things.

Look Under the Car

Is it rusty and awful down there? Cars that have come from Eastern Canada, where they use a lot of road salt, often have a shorter life because the rust eats the undercarriage. Always look.

Take a Test Drive

Drive the car around a bit. Listen to the engine. Does it sound good, or is it clunking along? When you speed up, how does the engine rev and shift? Are the breaks firm or loose and worn feeling? When you get out, take a sniff – does it smell like anything is burning or hot?

Don’t Be Afraid to Haggle

Sellers almost always price cars at more than they think they are going to get, so don’t be afraid to offer less than the asking price. Don’t be shy. Simple say, “Would you take this?” and work something out. Haggling is expected here. Don’t be afraid to walk away, either.

Be Realistic

If your budget is $1,000, you will not get a problem-free care. Be prepared to make repairs and be educated about costs before you go into something. Knowledge is power and ignorance is expensive.

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