Back to the homepage of The Windseeker, Country Coach


Buying new or used

The decision to buy a car is an important one for most people, especially if you are going to tow it behind your motorhome like us, and each will have to make their own decisions as to what works best for them. Sometimes buying a new car with an excellent factory warranty and low interest payments on the car loan may be the best option, especially if you plan to keep the car a long time. But for short term purchases, a new car will depreciate very quickly during the first few years, and depending on the car loan, you may wind up owing more than the car is worth in a couple years. For many people, a good used car is a better option.

Most people traveling in a motorhome tow a daily driver behind them. Such a car is often referred to as a dinghy or toad (towed). There are many considerations here, but much depends on whether you want to tow '4 wheels down' or whether you want to tow the vehicle on a trailer or dolly. No real limitations if towing on a trailer, but to 'flat-tow' a car (4 wheels down), only certain ones will work for you. Jeeps are very popular for this purpose and if you have the towing capacity, a 4WD Chevy Suburban or Tahoe is an excellent choice if they have the 2 speed transaxle like ours. Here's a list of flat-towable vehicles for the model year 2015. A complete listing by year of flat-towable vehicles can be found here.

Almost all states require the dignhy or toad to have independent braking which works in tandem with the RV you are towing with. These must be used in conjunction with a good tow bar. Expect to pay $2000-$4000 for a heavy duty tow bar and auxiliary braking system. Some we have experience with include Blue Ox, Demco and Roadmaster. There are also many auxiliary braking systems to choose from depending on ease of use, portability and mode of operation. We like the ease of use and proportional braking capabilities of Demco's Air Force One or Stay N' Play Duo, or Invisibrake or Brake Buddy for stand-by portable reliability. Portions of both tow bar and braking mechanisms must be installed both on the RV and on the toad. Contact a good hitch shop like Hitch Pro and Tow in Eugene, Oregon for advice on which system will best suit your needs. This is not an "extra" - this is an essential.

If you are planning to be towing trailers with your car as well... a boat or utility trailer for example... then you absolutely need to consider some form of brake controller for the car as well. This is a much cheaper option that what was discussed above but also essential. Boat trailers usually have surge brakes which are usueful for emergency but not good for proporrtional braking, but electrical supplementary brake controllers are not good on boat trailers which get submerged with every use. For heavy utility or camp trailers you will want something like the Tekonsha Primus IQ Electronic Brake Controller that will actuate the trailer's electric brakes when it tows the trailer. Expect to spend a few hundred bucks and play it safe. For trailers with a heavy tongue weight, you should also consider a Weight Distribution Hitch to help equalize the weight from the tongue onto the frame of your tow vehicle. There are many styles and grades of WDH available... we have had good luck with the Andersen Weight Distribution Hitch easy to install and effective to use. and includes anti sway action as well.

A great place to buy ANY used car today is Craigslist. While you have to be careful of scams anywhere, a lot of legitimate transactions are conducted on Craigslist every single day, and so with a bit of care, it can be a great place to find a used car. Ebay is another online option which may work if you choose a local area search, but quite often ebay cars are NOT the pristine one owner cars you might hope to find. They are being auctioned off at low prices specifically because they are not as good as you might hope to find.

Other options include the Auto Trader, newspaper classifieds (although these are being used less and less because of the cost and the general decline of newspapers) and of course, used car lots. A good used car dealer can be an excellent resource, especially if they offer any kind of warranty with the car. However, in general, the lower priced the car, the more sketchy the used can lot will be. Top used car dealers will not even take a car more than about 6 years old, whereas high mileage quasi-junkers are bought up at auction by people of questionable integrity and flipped for a quick profit, giving you little or no recourse. In general, I would probably suggest checking reputable used or "pre-owned" dealers for new cars in hopes of find a really really clean vehicle with a warranty, even if you are paying a premium price... but sticking to private sellers for older used cars at low prices.

Occasionally you may come across guys who specialize in going to car auctions and buying only top quality cars, usually with low mileage, which they can resell for a modest profit. I have bought several cars myself from such a fellow who advertised his gems on Craigslist and I been extremely pleased with the results. I am happy to pay him a reasonable profit for his efforts. However the lower priced the car, the less likely the guy doing it will be a reputable fellow. Caveat Emptor or buyer beware in these situations. Listen to your own intuition and take a pass if the fellow or the story seems at all questionable.

In general, the better the deal on the car, the more quickly it will sell. If you are searching Craigslist, do so several times a day and try to find the very latest listings and make arrangements to go look at them right away. If they have been for sale for weeks or even days in some cases, the chances are greater that the deal is not as good as it may seem.

Any time you call on a used car from a private individual, ask why he is selling it. Listen carefully between the lines and try to judge the veracity of his story. "This was my wife's car, she drove it very little, and it has always been garage kept and serviced regularly. We just bought her a new car for our anniversary." This is a great story if you feel like you can believe it. Try to meet the wife and see the garage where it was kept. And ask to see the service records.

Of course we always want to spend as little as necessary in order to get something that works for us. But often the "great deal" can turn out to be a "great headache" and so you want to bear in mind some basic principles as you consider options.

Checking the title

A great option today is Carfax. A Carfax report may cost a few bucks but is well worth the money, especially for an older car, as it will show the history of the car including how many times it has been retitled... i.e. how many owners it has had. It will also show if the title is clear or whether it may have been stolen, wrecked and so on. According to the Carfax website, a vehicle history report will provide Vehicle registration info, Title information, including salvaged or junked titles, Odometer readings, Lemon history, Total loss accident history, Frame/structural damage, Accident indicators, such as airbag deployment, Service and repair information, Vehicle usage (taxi, rental, lease, etc.), and Recall information.

A Carfax report will show the car's accident history with pretty fair reliability. A little fender bender is not a big deal if the car is in great shape otherwise, and it may not even appear on the vehicle history. But if was wrecked and had major repairs, then a lot depends on who did the work and how well it has held up. Major repairs done 5 years ago can be judged a lot better than repairs done 6 months ago.

Before you put out any money you'll also want to actually look at the title if the seller has it. Make sure it has no liens recorded against it. Depending on the state, he may not have the title in hand if it is bank owned. Be wary of handing over downpayments on a car until you can inspect the title. Also be aware that if a lien must first be satisfied on the car, this can complicate the purchase process and it may take a bit longer.

You can save money on cars with a "reconstructed title". This means the car was totaled by the insurance company but someone bought it and put it back together. This is often the case with a car that was totaled in its first couple years. Someone with mechanical ability and a paint shop can buy it cheap can put it back together and make money on the resale, but here again, you have to be wary of how well the work was done. Again, if it was done 5 years ago and the current owner has owned it ever since, there's a fair chance the work was done pretty well. Still in all, a "reconstructed title" will command a lower price when you buy it, but also when you go to sell it... so keep this in mind.

One place you can do a quick title check for free on the title is the National Insurance Crime Bureau. On this free website you can check the car's VIN number to see if the car was wrecked, stolen or perhaps a flood victim that was "reconditioned" by someone. Flood victim cars are pretty common in states prone to hurricanes, torrential rains and the like. In general I would steer clear of flood victim cars, even if they look clean and drive well. The water gets inside everything and will eventually cause failure of many, many components. If it passes this first test, then I would strongly suggest a Carfax report for more details, unless you are dealing with the original owner who has all the paperwork from when he purchased it and can show you all the service records.

Before you put out any money you'll also want to actually look at the title if the seller has it. Make sure it has no liens recorded against it. Depending on the state, he may not have the title in hand if it is bank owned. Be wary of handing over downpayments on a car until you can inspect the title. Also be aware that if a lien must first be satisfied on the car, this can complicate the purchase process and it may take a bit longer.

Automotive brands and luxury options

Certain cars command a premium price for comparable age, comfort and value. Obviously I cannot provide a comprehensive list but I can provide an example. I am reminded of a friend who needed an inexpensive car. He really loved certain year Chevy Camaros, but many people prize those, so they may be in high demand and they may cost perhaps twice as much as they should relative to other cars. This was many years ago, but we found him a very cherry little Ford Maverick for less than half of what he could buy a decent Camaro for.

An important factor for many people today is fuel efficiency. In general later model cars tend to be more fuel efficient than comparable older cars. And in general small four cylinder cars will be more fuel efficient than bigger heavier ones, but as a rule, this is only one relatively minor factor in the cost of ownership. Often, the money you spend on fuel will be pretty minor compared to the total cost of ownership, so keep that in mind. An older high mileage car which "gets great gas mileage" can wind up costing you 10x as much to drive in repair bills as a low mileage car which is not rated so highly.

In general, you should stay away from cars that were originally very expensive if you are trying to find an inexpensive used car. In general, the higher priced the car originally, the higher the repair bills will be. People sometimes want the "status" of a European luxury car so they buy an old Mercedes or BMW, only to find out when something breaks that it cost 10x what a Ford would cost to repair the same thing. Even 20x. That is no joke... I am reminded of a Mercedes I once owned which needed new spark plug wires, an item that would cost about $20 for a Ford or Chevy at the time from an Auto parts place. But parts like that for a Mercedes are not available from an auto parts store, and the dealer wanted $450 for a set of 8. I kid you not. If you ignore this advice, do so at your own peril as you may wind up buying an old Mercedes for $6K only to find your first major repair is $12K.

Besides the obvious Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar examples, even Japanese cars, especially Lexus or Acura or another high end option, can cost a lot more for replacement parts than comparable American cars. Some people say they break down less often... I think that used to be more true than it is in the last 10 years, but this is kind of subjective so I only mention it as a consideration. My goal here is to discuss factors which influence purchase of any car and not to recommend one brand over another.

Aside from the brand, a general axiom which holds true is that the more bells and whistles on a car, the more there is to go wrong. The deluxe models with every electronic option have more things to break down and these can be very expensive to repair. It can be very convenient to have 6 way adjustable seats, but when the electric motor goes, you may be looking at hundreds of dollars to fix it. A little lever under the seat to slide it back and forth and another manual lever for the tilt will probably last the life of the car. Air conditioning is great, especially in warm climates, but it can easily cost you $1000 on a luxury car if the compressor goes out. Even a simple refrigerant service on the A/C can run a couple hundred bucks.

Modern GM cars have an "ECM module" which controls many different functions in the car electronically. These are basically an automotive computer. I have seen it happen where the visor vanity mirrors stop working and the repair involves "ECM module" replacement at a cost of more than $700. You have to be the judge of which conveniences are important to you, but the more options a car has, the more there is to go wrong and the more it will cost you to maintain.

It is generally best to stick to automotive brands that are still being made. Cars that are now out of production like an Oldsmobile or a Pontiac for example, may be a lot harder to get parts for down the road. GM is still around but I would stick to current brands if it were me. I am personally a fan of Ford and have owned many of them over the years and always been satisfied. Ford is not going to go away any time soon. This is a personal preference, but Ford is made in America, and replacement parts are relatively available including plenty of used options in scrapyards, Ebay and the like, as well as from Ford dealers, NAPA, Pep Boys, Autozone and others.

Odometer miles

Try to find something with low mileage showing on the odometer. This is often overlooked. High mileage cars may look "clean" and well taken care of, but repairs will be needed more frequently going forward, and these can quickly outstrip the original cost of the car, especially in lower price ranges. You may get a great looking car that is very comfortable to drive for $4500 with 150,000 miles on it, only to find that it blows a valve and a rebuilt engine costs almost that much again! Obviously you don't want to invest another $4500 in a car which has a book value of $4000. When you go to sell it, even if you advertise that it has a "new engine", you will not get nearly that much more for it.

"New Engine" doesn't mean too much to an experienced car buyer. This could refer to a replacement engine from a scrapyard and you have no idea how many miles were on it. It could mean it had a valve job and nothing more... so timing chain, water pump, ignition system, pistons and rings, crank bearings... these are all original. And even if it is a complete rebuild top to bottom, a lot depends on who did the work. A really good quality rebuild (which can cost quite a bit) may last another 150,000 miles... but a shoddy job may blow up after half that or less. There is just no substitute for low mileage. Even if you have a new engine, there are MANY components to a car which can cost almost as much as an engine. A new engine does not equate to a new car. There is the transmission (easily $2000 on a modern car), torque converter, rear end, differential, front end suspension, brake system, electronic ignition, etc etc.

Low mileage defined: Basically anything under 10,000 miles a year is often referred to as low mileage. So a 6 year old car with 59,000 miles on it is low mileage. It is not difficult to find other cars the same age and model with twice that, or 120,000 miles. Caveat Emptor. In general I like to find used cars in the 45,000 mile range or less. I would rather pay $6000 for a Ford with 38,000 miles than I would pay $4500 for one with 80,000 miles. Especially if I plan to keep it a while. But even if you sell it a year later, it will be much easier to resell if it now has 55,000 miles than if it has 90,000.

A lot also depends on how the miles were put on. In general "highway miles" produce less wear and tear than stop and go traffic. People will often advertise "highway miles" but again Caveat Emptor. How do YOU know how those miles were put on there? Also it depends on the roads traveled... if they were rough and beat the car to death... or smooth well maintained highways. Look to see if the car has a trailer hitch and if so, is it chipped and bruised like it has had a lot of use? Towing is harder on a car than not. A lot would depend on what was being towed, of course. A heavy boat or other trailer will cause more wear on the engine and transmission than a light utility trailer. Also if the towing was done through the mountains or on flat lands. But how do you know what was towed and where?

Mechanical inspection

All of the above are important factors in determining a car's value but there is still no substitute for a careful inspection. A professional mechanical inspection is usually a worthwhile investment. This can cost you several hundred dollars, depending on how thorough they are, but can save you many times that for a small oversight on your part. Still in all, your first step is a personal inspection and the more you know what to look for, the easier it will be to decide if a professional mechanical inspection is worth the investment. So I will try to provide some basic tips as to what to look for when buying a used car, in the hopes it will help you find something reliable with good value for the money invested.

Transmission choices

Automatic transmission versus manual transmission is another key consideration. Many people have a personal preference here, and based on current availability it seems most people prefer automatic transmissions today. Especially if you drive in a lot of stop and go traffic. Using a clutch in heavy traffic can be a really annoying experience, and this is also a primary cause of premature failure. Even if you love shifting a car manually, bear in mind it will often be tougher to resell the car afterwards.

It used to be the case that repair on a manual transmission cost a lot less than an automatic. I remember when you could have a clutch replaced for under a hundred bucks. It is likely to cost you closer to $500 today. And clutches always wear out. Typically within 70 thousand miles or so... but a lot depends on how they are driven. For example, "riding the clutch" and other questionable driving techniques and can cause premature wear on a clutch and require replacement.

The clutch is something for a professional to evaluate if you want to buy a car with a manual transmission, but in general if you touch the clutch pedal lightly with your foot and hear a whirring noise, that is likely a throwout bearing, which means a new clutch... or how far it engages from the floor, and if you notice any slippage when shifting quickly with a lot of acceleration - these are easy ways to diagnose if a clutch replacement is needed. Automatic transmissions are certainly not foolproof, but if driven carefully and maintained properly they can easily last you 100-150,000 miles without any trouble.

Body and Paint

In general if at all possible, try to stick to cars with original paint. The color is a lot less important than the quality of the paint job. The older the car, of course, the more likely it will be that some portion of the car has been repainted from a minor accident. A minor accident like a little "fender bender" is not cause for major concern in itself, however bear in mind that factory paint is a lot more durable than a repaint. Here again a lot depends on who did the job. If this is a cheap quick repaint to resell the car, you would be well advised to steer clear.

If a top quality shop did the work and used quality paint with proper surface preparation and a good clear coat on top, it will probably hold up for years to come, especially if you are able to keep the car in a garage much of the time. But bear in mind that factory paint is baked on the naked shell of the automobile at high temperatures before all the parts are assembled, and modern processes can create a highly durable long term finish which will retain its gloss for many years to come, even with a lot of exposure to the elements.

A cheap repaint will start to dull, flake or peel after just a few years. This is especially true if inadequate surface preparation was done and there was any evidence of rust on the body before the repaint. Quick sanding and Bondo may look okay in the short term but it will not hold up very well.

A quick way to try to determine whether it is original paint or if parts have been repainted is to look around the edges. Lift the hood and the trunk and open all the doors. Is the paint on the outside a perfect match for the paint on the inside? If not then it is a cinch that this area has been repainted. Also look at moldings, wheel wells and the like. A cheap paint shop will simply tape the rubber or chrome moldings, repaint and then peel off the tape. This is pretty easy to spot by the straight line or slight ridge visible. Often you can lift up a pliable rubber molding around the doors or windows, for example, with your fingernail and see if such a line or ridge exists. A good paint shop will remove the moldings, repaint and then replace the moldings, but of course this costs a lot more.

If the owner had a good insurance company and used a good auto body shop, then it should have been done right. Look for instances of overspray... another sure sign of a cheap paint job. Again, original factory paint is always best if it has been well taken care of, but a top quality repaint for minor damage, especially if you will be keeping the car out of the elements should last a pretty long time.

Effects of the elements

A general rule of thumb is that cars from colder climates with a lot of snow and ice, especially where they use salt on the roads to melt the ice, are going to be a lot more susceptible to rust. Not only on body parts but mechanical and suspension components as well. In general a car from a warmer southern climate like Texas, California, and Florida will be a better bet, especially on older cars. Beware of cars from coastal areas however, as salt air can be very corrosive, so you will want to do a thorough inspection for signs of rust.

Inspecting the car yourself

Before spending the time and money to take a car to a professional mechanic for a thorough inspection, a quick mechanical inspection is always a good idea. It is always best to inspect a car when the engine is cold. Before it is started lift the hood and put your hand on the radiator to see if it is warm. If it is cold then you will get a better idea of how it starts when cold, rather than with a car that has just been run recently.

Don't be misled by a really clean engine, especially if it is an older car and it looks freshly powerwashed. First of all this can cause problems if not done right, and it may have been done to disguise or hide obvious problems like oil leaks. However a really filthy engine is probably a sign of problems or minimal maintenance, so look at it with a critical eye. Use your judgement here and don't be afraid to ask the owner about it as well.

Check the car's oil on the dipstick... is it up close to the full mark and clear and clean or black and dirty? Smell it and see if it smells burnt. And rub it between your fingers for any sign of grit which can often mean internal wear and premature engine failure. Note that regular engine oil is fairly clear with a greenish tint when clean, but many synthetic oils like Mobil One are black right out of the can. So the results here will depend on the oil used.

Do the same with the transmission dipstick. Transmission oil should be cherry red and have little or no smell. If it is brown and smells burnt this could be sign of improper maintenance and possible impending failure. Normally transmission fluid needs to be checked for proper level when the engine is hot, however a cold shack should at least show it somewhere on the dipstick. If it is not visible there at all when cold, the level is probably low. Check your other fluids like power steering and brake fluid to see they are at proper levels. The reservoirs for these are usually clear and you can see the level through them.

Take a look at the battery. Does it look new or ancient? Often batteries have some indication of age... a date stamp or something. Auto batteries, in general, are good for about 4-5 years with proper maintenance, and new batteries today can cost $70 or more depending on the make and power of the battery. Look for any signs of white crusty corrosion around the terminals. It may be a sign the battery is old and will need to be replaced.

Sometimes the air filters on modern cars can be very tricky to access, but if you can do it easily, it's worth a peek. If the filter is clean there's a reasonable chance the car has been well maintained. If it is black with grease and dirt, this is a sure sign the car has not had good maintenance.

Next, go around and run your finger along the inside of the tail pipe. A good running engine will not leave much residue on your finger. If it is black and greasy, this means the engine burns oil and a good reason to stop right there. If it is just black and sooty this means the engine may be running a little rich and a tuneup could be required. Though not a real red flag, you can probably use this to negotiate the price down a little.

Get on your knees and look underneath the car for any signs of oil leaks. If the car is wet underneath there are probably leaks, and engine and transmission seals can be very expensive to replace. Look around the wheels for any signs of leakage of brake fluid there. If you can look at the car in its regular parking spot, like in a garage, look for signs of drips or leaks on the pavement.

Take a look at the car's tires. How is the tread? If you can stick your finger down in between the tread a bit there are probably plenty of miles left in them. Look for any irregular wear which can be signs of worn suspension components. On an older car if the sidewalls are cracked and look dried out, then the tires are unsafe and will need to be replaced. Every tire has a DOT (Dept of Transportation) Date Stamp on the side. Beside tire wear, age and exposure to the elements are also important. In general tires over 8 years should be replaced. A Date Stamp is usually a number like 2207 or 1110. These mean the 22nd week of 2007 or the 11th week of 2010. Again, even if the tires look good, if they are older than 7 or 8 years they need to be replaced.

Be aware that the trend to large wheels with low profile tires may look cool, but can often make new tires cost twice that of more normal size tires. 13 or 14 inch wheels on a small car and 15 or 16 on a larger one are pretty standard and are relatively reasonable to buy. Larger wheels like 17, 18, 20, 22 can cost you 2-3 times as much for new tires. They often produce a rougher ride as well, because there is less tire sidewall flex to absorb road shocks. Tire prices keep going up but you can expect to pay at least $70 apiece or more for small tires and twice that for the larger ones. The really big tires can easily cost several hundred dollars each. You need to replace tires in sets, front or rear and with the same size pretty much.

You can also check the condition of the car's shock absorbers with a simple test. Go to each fender above the wheel and try to bounce the car with a swift downward push. Good shocks should go down and come back up quickly with little or no bounce. If the car bounces up and down a few times, the shocks are shot. And while shocks on most American cars are not too expensive to replace, worn shocks may often indicate a similar condition of the more expensive components like ball joints, tie rod ends and other front end components.

Next, start the engine and listen under the hood. If it is nice and quiet that is a good sign. Listen for any telltale tapping sounds which might be a sign of worn valve lifters... or a grinding or whirring sound which might be due to worn bearings on one thing or another.

Take the car for a test drive. If the owner refuses to allow this, walk away and forget it. See how the steering is. On a level road at speeds above 40 mph or so, let go of the steering wheel and see if it pulls to one side or the other. If it pulls sharply this may be a sign of major problems. A slight and consistent wandering to one side or the other may just be an alignment issue and can be adjusted by an alignment shop. Watch for vibration. This can sometimes merely be a tire out of balance which is inexpensive to rectify, but it can also be a sign of more expensive problems. Any play or looseness in the steering wheel can be a sign of worn front end components which can be quite expensive. Any squeal or roughness when turning the wheel might be a sign of problems with the power steering.

How does the car ride over bumps and rough pavement? Does it absorb the shock pretty well or does it ride rough and make strange noises? Does it idle smoothly or is it rough at idle? Does it accelerate smoothly or is it rough on acceleration and miss or lurch? That may be a sign it just needs a tuneup, or it may be much worse.

Step on the brakes smartly and see how quickly and evenly it slows to a stop. Does it pull to one side or the other? Is the braking smooth or does the pedal pulsate under your foot? Any signs of brake squeal? If you have any question about the brakes, all the more reason to have it inspected by a good mechanic, but one thing you can try if it has disk brakes is to reach thru the spokes of the wheel with your finger if you can and scrape your fingernail across the shiny brake disc and see if you detect ridges which may mean it is time for a brake job.

While driving the car look at your gauges... see that oil levels, engine temperature and battery charging are all at normal levels. Obviously any red indicator lights on the dash are something which will require further inspection by a mechanic.

Again, a thorough inspection by a qualified mechanic is almost always a worthwhile investment, but a quick inspection on your part may produce some red flags that can save you the expense of a professional mechanic as that will almost ALWAYS be at your own expense whether you buy the car or not.

Service records

One worthwhile tip is to see where the car has been serviced. If it has always been dealer serviced, they are pretty thorough in reporting any impending issues and usually keep a thorough record in the computer. With the current owner's consent you may be able to access a printout of those records to see a history of what repairs and service have been done over the years.

If the repairs and service were done by a local mechanic it is a good idea to visit the shop and talk to the mechanic... tell him the owner is selling the car, that you are thinking of buying it and that you would like to continue having him service it. While that is a not a bad idea if it seems like a good reasonably priced shop, even if you have no intention of taking it there for service, you will be more likely to get an honest appraisal of the condition of the car. You might still want to get a third party complete mechanical inspection of the car, but this can be a good place to start.

Evaluating the seller

Try to buy a used car from the original owner if possible and judge the type of person that owner is. Obviously there could be a big difference between a car owned by an older gentleman who always polished and maintained his 'pride and joy' and drove it carefully, versus one owned by some kid who hotrodded it mercilessly.

Look at the Carfax report... with a one owner car you can judge the owner and decide how well he may have taken care of his car. Did he keep it in a garage? Does he have a careful record of all the services done since it was new, etc? If he is even the second owner, then you have no idea how the previous owner may have taken care of it. A Carfax report will also show you the dates when it was titled. So if the original owner sold it after 6 months with only 4000 miles on it, then this is a lot easier to judge than if the previous owner had it 7 years and put 50,000 miles on it and the current owner has only had it a year.


Many cars in the past ten years came with 3 year 36,000 mile warranties or more. I have seen 100,000 mile factory warranties on major drivetrain components and obviously if a car is still under warranty you are pretty safe that mechanically, at least, it is sound. Any smart, honest owner will have things fixed under warranty before selling it.

Beyond original factory warranties, many cars may have some sort of extended warranty on them. Ford ESP warranty is a great option... Many owners will buy one of these just before their original factory warranty expires. These can carry out the coverage another 3-5 years and perhaps another 60,000 miles. I would definitely pay more for a car which had such a warranty than one without. Of course the older the car the less likely it is that it has any warranty, although some good used car dealers may give you a 30 day or even a 90 day warranty. These can cover many mechanical issues and at least give you peace of mind that the car is not going to wind up in the shop with major repairs a few weeks after you buy it.

Besides extended factory warranties like the Ford ESP, there are some excellent aftermarket warranty companies around. A good aftermarket warranty on a late model car just reaching the end of its factory warranty can cost $2-3000 but can easily be worth the expense. Here again though, Caveat Emptor. Do a web search on the company. In recent years many scam artists have started selling these warranties which may sound good on paper or on TV, but getting them to actually pay for the repairs can be almost impossible and many repair shops will not even deal with them.

A good approach is to actually talk to your local dealer or repair shop and ask them which after market warranty companies they recommend or which to steer clear of. In general it can be prohibitively expensive to buy such a warranty from a reputable company for an older car, but if you are buying a late model car with low mileage, especially one nearing the end of its original factory warranty, this can be a solid investment.

I have personal experience on several cars with National Warranty Company out of Eugene, Oregon. and can recommend them highly. I had inquired with both my local Ford and Chevy service departments and both of them agreed this was a good choice. My current warranty is for 4 years or 60,000 miles from date of purchase and covers almost all repairs, parts and labor, with ZERO deductible. A great warranty. There are certainly other good companies around, but be careful who you choose and read the fine print carefully. Also be aware that warranties typically do not cover normal service items like oil change, tuneups, brakes, battery and so on. Once again, I recommend that you read the fine print carefully.


One final consideration I want to mention is insurance. Sometimes people have dreamed of buying a certain sporty car and finally find the one they want, only to learn after they have made the purchase, that the insurance for it costs twice what it would have for a small sedan. A lot depends on where you live... metro areas can be a lot more expensive for auto insurance than more rural areas. But as a general rule of thumb, faster cars with bigger engines cost more to insure than smaller ones. But be sure to check with your insurance company for the specific car you are interested in... as safety rates, theft rates and other considerations can impact your insurance premiums as well.

I hope this summary has been helpful in your search for a good used car. If you have a friend with real mechanical knowledge and experience with used cars, treat them to lunch or a sixpack of beer and invite them to go along with you. There is just no substitute for experience in these matters.