You know your kids are growing up when they write and say, “Dad, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of a mini-van. How can I find a good one?”
My kids aren’t the only people who ask car questions. I’m meeting one of our congregation’s widows today to advise her about her next car. Last week I checked out another member’s car, one of the most terrifying examples of automotive inspection malpractice I’ve ever seen.
My church knows that I was an ASE certified technician before I was ordained. I like helping people with their cars and I really hate it when unscrupulous dealers and technicians take advantage of my friends.
Car buying is one of the most stressful things Americans do. It is also one of the most costly. If you’d like to know how to save money and get an excellent used car, this article is for you.
The first step to saving money and having an excellent ride is, well, saving money.
Pay Cash If You Can, Borrow Smart if You Can’t
The late Larry Burkett had a great maxim for car buyers, “The cheapest car you will ever own is the one you’re driving right now.” I’ve seen the exception, but the exceptions prove the rule.
The costs of operating a car in this country will continue to rise. Borrowing money to finance a new car over many years will cost much more than the average repair bills for the same car if you keep it five to ten years after it is paid off.
Cash is the best way to pay for a car. Driving isn’t free, so why pay the bank and kiss off all that interest? Make car payments to yourself, even after you pay off the one you’re driving now. In five years you will be able to afford a nicer used car. If you can’t pay cash, borrow smart. Home equity loans usually have better interest rates than car loans. Credit Unions are also good bets. Shop the lenders and remember most used car lots that provide their own financing make more money loaning money than they do selling cars. The interest rates are exorbitant. You don’t have to pay them if you’re willing to shop.
Most private sellers have migrated to CraigsList. My two favorite sites are Autolist, which has a very usable smartphone app, and AutoTrader, which doesn’t.
Tap the net for reliability ratings. Consumer reports.org offers a one-month subscription to its auto ratings web-site. Their reliability ratings are the best and most objective in the business. Look for red bubbles under engine, transmission, brakes, and air conditioning, as these are the most expensive repair items. Stay away from any cars with black bubbles in those areas. The higher the rating, the less the car will cost in the long run. Also, the higher the mechanical reliability, the higher mileage car you can purchase. A ten-year-old car with 110,000 miles on the clock can be 25% less than a six-year-old car with 90,000 miles on it, and the difference in quality and reliability is negligible. Older cars are also cheaper to insure and incur lower taxes.
Look for ‘One-Owners.’ When buying from a dealer check the CARFAX and look for one owner cars with no damage history, clean titles, from low corrosion, low flood probability parts of the country.
The best used cars come from the best owners. A guy who bought it new and had all the maintenance done as per ‘the book’ is rare, but he is the best because he can substantiate its history.
Talk to the owner. The seller’s character is as much a part of the deal as the new tires he may have installed as incentive. Take someone along who is a good judge of character if you aren’t. You aren’t just buying a car; you’re buying a maintenance history. After I’ve picked a make and model I shop for the guy who’s been taking care of it for me for the past six or eight years.
Have it inspected by a competent technician. Have him provide a list of potential problems and costs. If he has any serious reservations, walk away from the deal. Also, use him for regular oil changes and ask him to keep an eye on critical systems. He will save you money and increase reliability by doing required maintenance that can be budgeted and scheduled, rather than waiting for an expensive breakdown.
You can save thousands of dollars per year on the costs of driving. You don’t have to be a mechanic, and you don’t have to drive a ‘junker’ to do it. All it takes is a little homework and a little discipline and you can enjoy a great car as well as a higher standard of living.