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Buying a Car

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Classic Cars

The business of buying a car is not necessarily as cut and dried as you may think. In this, the car's third century, there are many things to consider such as age, make, petrol consumption (is it a gas guzzler? Is it environmentally sound?) and general road worthiness of any vehicle before we hand over our hard-earned cash. It is for this very reason that we asked you, the h2g2 Community, for your invaluable advice on buying a motor. Here's what you had to say...

Budget Motoring

There are plenty of people who 'must have' a new car - on the basis that a new car is bound to be more reliable, cheaper to run, have a better image than an older car, and they're more environmentally friendly too. This is simply wrong.

An old car can be reliable - or at least far easier to fix if it does go wrong (not so many electronic gizmos). An old car will have done a good part of it's depreciating already - a major cost in car ownership. Many old cars have an 'image' which far exceeds the 'off-the-shelf' new car choices. It is decidedly wasteful to build new cars and then scrap them again after a few years. It's far more 'green' to run an old (but well maintained) car.

If you are interested in a classic car, the owners' club should give you top tips for what to look out for when going to look at a car. For example, with Moggies it is the sills... apparently.

Here's some budget motoring at its very best...

I once bought a ten-year-old Lada 1500 for my wife. We were skint, she needed a car, it was all we could afford. I paid £100 for it. It looked awful - it was rusty and had a variety of dents. It had no ignition lock - you just turned the switch (which was hanging loose from its wires) by hand - and my wife only ever locked it when she left her coat in it. It was no fun at all to drive, and people would point and laugh. All our friends made fun of it.
But it started first time. Every time. And it went. In fact it went rather well. We had that car for 15 months, during which time it required no work at all apart from routine servicing, and never let us down in any way. And then we sold it for £70. Don't let anybody tell you that Ladas are a joke.

And the following advice comes from a Researcher who certainly knows his motors. Look and learn people, look and learn...

I've had all sorts of cars from Lotus through BMW to Metros and I have also built two cars of my own - one a Morgan Replica, the other a Ginetta G27 (way quicker and more fun than my Lotus).
Without a doubt the best deal I've ever had on a car is a Sierra Estate I'm running now, which I bought three years ago for £500 to go to the Alps in to carry my hang glider and paragliding equipment for a three-week holiday. It did nine hours solid driving non-stop with all that equipment on top at a constant 95mph and returned 32mpg for the trip. It's now done 170,000 miles and all I've spent on it other than replacing tyres is £25 for a set of rear springs from the scrapyard.
I may not drive a car with a catalytic convertor (a positive decision because they are a con) but the cars I drive are the most environmentally friendly you can get short of an electric vehicle. The two I have built have been made from scraped vehicles from the 1970s and they are still running now and pulling heads. The Morgan replica never fails to get a friendly remark in a car park and the Ginetta trounces my friends BMW M3 and sticks to the back of any V8 Esprit Turbo through the most contorted of chicanes. What's best of all is they are both classed as historic vehicles (over 25 years old) and I don't have to pay road tax on them.
Modern cars? The biggest waste of money you can find short of buying a lame racehorse. As for environmentally friendly, well, I ask you how much energy does it take to smelt that steel, mould that plastic and then strangle the fuel efficiency with a filter on the exhaust? Of course ,the car makers and the government don't want you to believe that as they want all that profit and taxes off you!

So, the basic tenet of this argument is that if you're buying on a budget, ignore the boy racers who will scoff at anything lacking oomph and all-round-independent suspicion. Money on a car is ultimately money down the drain, so buy something functional and to merry hell with the image - keep the money for something worthwhile, like a holiday. Chances are, you won't get to work any quicker in a BMW.

The Little Things

Don't forget to check some of the little things when buying a used car. Listed below are a few things that may come in handy:

  • Do all the windows wind up and down? Even if you're usually the only one using the car, at some stage you'll have passengers in the back. It's not much fun if they can't get the windows down when it's hot, or back up again when it starts to rain.

  • Do all the seatbelts work?

  • Make sure the spare tyre is where it should be, and that it's the right size tyre for the car.

  • Never go car hunting in the rain. You're always in more of a hurry when it's raining and don't tend to take the time to look around. Never rush yourself and never let the staff rush you. So what if someone else slaps the deposit down while you're still making your mind up?

  • The boot is a good place to start. Look for scratches on the rim of the boot, where things would have scraped the paintwork while being loaded/unloaded. These will probably have been touched up so that they're hard to see, but for some reason dealers often forget to touch up the paint on the back of the rear seats. Also make sure that the carpet in the boot matches that in the rest of the car. Look to see if there are any empty brackets and things in there. It's been known for tool kits that were supposed to be part of the car to go missing during the life span, and dealers may just remove the brackets so it seems as though they shouldn't be there.

  • Unless you know anything about mechanics don't bother with more than a cursory glance under the bonnet. Let's face it, you either know what you're looking for or you don't, and if you don't the dealers will soon notice that you haven't noticed things. As long as the engine sits solid in it's casing.

  • Inside the car, check for the stereo. Okay, not the most important of things but that depends on your opinion. Is there a stereo there for a start? If not, check the wires behind the casing. Are they easy to understand? Do they have the right connections to add a new stereo? Or have they just been cut? Also, don't forget also to look for speakers. No use having a stereo if there are no speakers. Don't be afraid to turn the radio on and listen to the quality. Take an old spare tape along with you and check that the tape deck actually plays tapes, rather than having a taste for them, and chewing up anything you put in. Don't forget to check for an aerial. Modern aerials are either electrically retractable, or more commonly screw off and on, so that they don't catch in the car wash. A lot of dealers will remove the aerials while the car is on the lot, for the honest reason that they tend to get nicked. But make sure that they have the right aerial for the car and know that they have to put it back before you take the car away.

  • Another thing to check while inside is the upholstery, check for things like cigarette burns and tears. Re-upholstering a car isn't cheap. And let's face it, the chances of finding the same material are virtually non-existent, so you will be re-upholstering the whole car, or putting up with a ripped seat.

  • Listen for any bangs or clicks or rattles on the test drive.

  • If possible have a look under the carpet inside and look for rot. Feel under the wheel arches, check the sills (the strip running under the doors). Lift the bonnet and look at the wings and suspension posts.

  • Check the gearbox is sound as they can be very expensive to replace. Make sure it doesn't pop out of gear when you are driving. (Do some kangaroo hops.)

Dealing with Dealers

The most important thing to remember is that you are in a very strong position. They have a showroom and factory full of cars which they've got to sell and you have the choice of who you are going to buy from. It's up to you to get the best deal you can from them.

It helps if you don't have a specific make/model in mind. Make a list of all the features you want in the car and give them a points value. Take a couple of weekends and visit as many makers showrooms as you can and see what generally provides what you want. Get brochures for all the models which come close to your spec.

Go home and study the brochures in detail - you will often find pluses and minuses hidden away in the small print. Modify your wants list in light of what you find in the brochures. Compare the features offered with your wants list and pick the three or four which score best.

Go back to the dealers and spend a lot of time looking at - and sitting in - your chosen models. If the dealer doesn't have the exact model you are considering ask them to get one from another dealer for you to see. Find out about servicing costs, warranties, courtesy cars, etc. Test drive the cars as often as you need to and compare them with each other. If the salesman is unhelpful, don't accept this. Get up and walk out. You're better off with your third choice from a good dealer than your first choice from a bad one.

Don't be afraid to play one dealer off against another to get the best trade-in and discount deals you can and don't be conned into taking a 'cash-back' deal where the dealer gives you a cash sum and you take out extra finance. You lose out and the dealer makes extra commission on the additional finance you take.

Always remember as the buyer you have the final say. You don't need their car but they desperately need your money. Use this to your advantage...

Buy your next car in autumn or - even better - in winter when business is low. The buzzword here is 'anticyclic'. Just think of it, everybody's dreaming of a convertible when the sun is shining and one is sweating in a traffic jam, while normally nobody in their right mind buys one in winter.

So remember:

  • Never buy a car on your first visit to a dealership.

  • Their 'I can only offer you this price today' sales pitch is a load of bull.

  • Haggle with them, get the best price out of them that they're willing to offer and then walk away.

  • You can think more clearly outside of the showroom at your own leisure. Buying a car is a big decision and needs to be made rationally.

  • You can take their price to another local dealer and say 'Dealer A offered me this model at $X, can you beat their price?' If not and you're happy with the price, walk back to Dealer A and buy it. They always honour a price they set beforehand.

  • If you are girl this is five times as important, you could be Chief Mechanic for a Formula 1 team but they will see you coming and wonder what are their chances of ripping you off.

A Dealer Speaks

Now here is some very special advice from one Researcher. Prepare yourself, you are about to enter hallowed turf and peek inside the mind of a car salesman:

I used to be a car salesman in the UK, and would like to add to the comments already made by your very cunning Researchers. These tactics for putting one over on the dealer don't always work. Why is this the case, do you think?
An example in point: if you were selling apples to the public, and buying them for 10p each, what would you say if someone strolled up to you and offered you 5p per apple? My guess is that you tell them to 'coconuts'. Dealerships only have a fixed profit in cars. Some, admittedly, have more profit in certain cars compared to other cars, or even other dealerships.
So it is completely fair to attempt to get the best deal that you can. But to think that you can get free air-conditioning thrown in is living in an altered reality.
Dealerships cost money to run. They invariably have stakeholders, in the form of shareholders or partners. They are not charities, and will not attempt to lose money. The best way to get a good deal?
Do your homework. Don't annoy the salesperson by 'taking as many test drives' as you see fit. Have some respect for yourself and for the person or people you are dealing with. And most importantly of all, think about where the dealership is making most profit. That is where your bargaining power lies.
To the other contributors who think they can bully dealerships into getting what they want - you would not have liked to have met my sales manager. He would have shown you the door. And before you flame me to death, we were one of the most successful dealerships in England. Why? Our customers kept coming back year after year. Respect. That is what it's all about.

Car Dealers in the USA

Car dealers in the US, have a very thin profit margin on new models. So where do they make their profit? After the deal is done.

Just when you think you've won the battle by haggling them down to the absolute lowest they can go (you can tell when this happens because they just shuffle the numbers around to the same old deal to make it look like less, like stringing out the payments for another six months), you agree to sign, let out your breath, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. But now you've made a major investment, and they start offering all sorts of things to protect it. Would you like undercarriage rust-proofing? How about an alarm, or anti-theft ignition-lockout system? How would you like to extend that warranty for another two years?

That's where they get you, if you don't know what you're doing. Undercarriage rust-proofing is almost completely unnecessary, unless you drive on the beach. In any case, it's a simple spray-on chemical treatment, worth about $15. They'll charge you $150.

How about that alarm, or anti-theft device? They'll install it for you, but the electronics are a $45 value for the spectacular ones. They'll charge you over $200 for it. Extended warranty? Not worth the paper it's printed on. There are so many loopholes that you'll be lucky to get anything fixed under that agreement.

Buy the car, turn down the extras, and if you require any of that sort of thing, have it done by someone else. Dealers are not the time and place for such things.

From A to Z

Below is some invaluable advice that will lead you through the whole process, step-by-step, ensuring you get the best deal possible and don't end up buying a dud.

  • Always go to see the car in daylight.

  • If you are considering spending a lot of money on a car, it is worth the investment on having the car professionally inspected - the major motoring organisations offer this service. If the seller doesn't want you to - why not?

  • If you're not spending enough to make this worthwhile, take a knowledgeable and trustworthy friend (come on, everybody knows somebody who's a bit of a car buff) - and listen to them.

  • It is also worth getting a history check (again, the AA do this, and HPI). This may reveal that the car is stolen or has outstanding finance.

  • Check around the inside of the door frames - pull back the weatherstrip if you can - you are looking for weld marks. If you see any, matched on the opposite side of the car - walk away, it's likely to be two wrecks welded together.

  • Stand back and just look at the car from a few feet away and from different directions. Are all the panels the same colour? If not, why not?

  • Check the gaps around the doors, bonnet and boot/tailgate. Are they even and fairly narrow? Look at other cars of the same make to get a feel for this. If the panel gaps are uneven it's an indication that the car may have been in an accident.

  • Check the tyre wear - is it even? Uneven tyre wear can indicate all sorts of things including misaligned chassis - at the very least it shows insufficient maintenance.

  • Looking inside now - does the seller guarantee the mileage on the speedo? If not, look at the steering wheel and the knob on the gear lever - if these are shiny and worn the car has seen a lot of action. The pedals can tell a similar story, but pedal rubbers are cheap and easy to replace, not many bother replacing the steering wheel.

  • Is the drivers' seat worn, particularly on the side near the door? Look at the outside edge of the seat back, and the corners of the cushion. You would normally expect the back seat to be much less worn and possibly be cleaner and newer-looking than the fronts - unless the car has been used as a taxi. Are there any signs of radio or meter equipment having been removed - little screwholes in the dash?

  • Are there any burns in the upholstery or roof-lining? Interior trim is expensive to replace.

  • Now, under the bonnet. Is the engine dirty and covered in old oil? Check the fluid levels - if it has been allowed to run short of oil or coolant than it is probable that maintenance has been skimped. Nice clean oil is a good sign, but black oil isn't necessarily bad if the car is due a service.

  • Look in the boot. Is the spare tyre present? What kind of condition is it in? Check all around the inside of the boot under the mat/carpet for rust. While you're there, is the carpet/mat worn looking (especially on estates)? This could indicate a lot of load carrying.

  • OK, so this all checks out - time to go for a drive. If the buyer will let you, go for an extended drive. The car should be cold when you arrive (so you can try a cold start) - you should drive at least far enough to get it thoroughly hot. Watch the warning lights when you start the car. Do they come on with the ignition? And do they extinguish promptly when you start up? It's not unknown for the unscrupulous to wire the oil light to the ignition light. Are there any knocks or rattles when it starts?

  • Off you go, then. Does the car drive smoothly and quietly under normal conditions. Try the brakes. Does it stop promptly without pulling to either side? Try loosening your grip on the wheel - the car should continue straight, braking or not.

  • Find a fast road. Drive at speed - does it pull smoothly and strongly? Does it cruise quietly and smoothly? Now, try accelerating hard from low speed in high gear - any knocks or rumbles? Park up and try to drive off with the handbrake on. Does it stall? It should. If it goes, the handbrake is worn, if the engine revs and the car doesn't move the clutch is shot. Now, accelerate away. Keep your eye on the rearview mirror - when you lift off the accelerator - is there a puff of blue smoke from the exhaust? If there is, the car needs major engine surgery.

  • After your drive, keep the engine running and check the exhaust for blue haze. Ask whoever you've taken with to give the car a rev while you check.

  • If everything is still OK, check all the car's equipment - do all the doors open, close, lock and unlock properly? Do all the windows wind (especially electric ones)? Does the sunroof work? Check the heater blows and does hot and cold, check the air con if fitted, the wipers, lights, stereo - switch on and off everything in the car that goes on and off and make sure that it does.

  • If you find some minor faults this can be a good thing - you can use them as a bargaining point.

  • Don't be afraid to walk away at any stage, there will always be more cars to look at.

  • But if everything checks out, and you like the car - start haggling!

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