Tips on buying a used car
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  These days, college can be quite an expensive undertaking. Books, tuition, rent and other costs are always there competing for your cash it seems. Another necessary college expense is one's mode of transportation. Here at the U this is an unavoidable fact of life since most of us commute to school and then on to jobs and/or family responsibilities. This necessitates reliable and flexible transportation to meet our busy schedules. Hence the necessity of a car. Sorry UTA, but you don't quite cut it for most of us. Car buying can be quite a painful experience, or a pleasant one depending on how well of an informed purchase you make. So follow along as we outline some basic steps one can take to buy a reliable, affordable college car and avoid getting stuck with a lemon.

  Before you rush down to your local car dealership or start hunting through the classifieds, you need to set some criteria for your car. For our purpose, (college transportation) we'll need one that is affordable, reliable, good in snow (for when Machen doesn't cancel class on those stormy winter mornings) and gets good gas mileage. This would call for a front-wheel drive compact or midsize car with a four of six cylinder engine. To keep affordability a factor, said car would also be used. Remember though, a car to get you through college is one that will not appreciate or rise in value. Expect to sell it for much less than you paid for it originally. Also, don't be desperate. There's always someone desperate to buy or sell a car. Make sure you're not the desperate buyer-that's how lemons get passed off. Lastly. Set a budget for yourself and stick to it.

   Once you have found a car that meets all your criteria, you need to make sure its mechanically sound before you part with any money. The easiest way to do this is to have a mechanic put it through a state vehicle emissions and safety test. This might seem odd to do before buying a car, but it has its advantages. First off, for only a $35 fee you'll be having a certified mechanic checking out all the important powertrain and safety equipment of the car. This determines the roadworthiness of a car. If the car fails the test, it could be anything from a bad brake pad (this would be manifest in the safety part of the test) to a severely worn out engine or electrical system troubles (this would be manifest in the emissions part of the test). The mechanic should be able to tell you whether it will require minor or major repairs to pass. If it s minor, you still might consider buying the car if you like it. Just factor the repair cost into the final price. If major repair work would be needed to get it to pass, you might have a potential lemon on your hands so pass on it and keep looking. According to one S.L. Area mechanic: "There is no way that some of the cars on the road would ever pass an inspection yet their registrations are current. This happens because the test readouts from a passing car are assingned to an otherwise failing car by a dealer or repair shop." So make sure the car in question can pass the test when inspected by a mechanic of your choice; you don't want to buy a car whose roadworthiness might be questionable! If the dealership or owner won't consent to letting you have the car tested, don't give them your business.

  While many hundreds of thousands of volumes have been written on how to inspect a used car, we will now consider five important things to look for in the test drive of any used car, our criteria notwithstanding.

1. Brakes. During normal driving, listen and try to feel for vibrations, pulsations (from the brake pedal) and noises. All would result in brake maintenance requiring attention and repair within three to six months if not sooner. A good brake service should cost from $60 to $200 depending on degree of wear.

2. More not-so-good vibrations. Take the car on the freeway and accelerate to 65mph. Any vibrations you can feel at this speed could mean anything from an out of balance tire to major structural problems resultant from an accident.

3. The straight and narrow. While driving the car on a straight, level road, let go of the steering wheel momentarily. Does the car pull to one side or another? If it does it could need an alignment ($30) or a steering linkage replacement ($200).

4. CV joints (for front-wheel drive cars). From a complete stop, accelerate hard, turning to the left or right. Front-wheel drive cars utilize a centrifugal velocity (cv) joint to transmit power from the transmission to the drive wheels. It is common to have the protective rubber boots which they're housed in to become torn and allow moisture to enter the joint. This wears on the joint and would be manifest by knocking or popping noises. Expect to pay +$200 for cv joint replacement.

5. Under the hood. Once you've driven the car, its time to inspect the engine bay. You should inspect rubber belts and hoses for wear if you can see or get close enough to feel them. On most newer cars it is difficult to see any critical engine parts. If you can get to it, under the engine will be the telltale signs of problems: fluid leaks and seepage and other possibly worn components of the car. If you don't fancy crawling on the ground, get a mechanic to check out the underside during the emissions and safety test. Also, dealership cars will have detailed engine bays to make things look newer so beware.

   Giving a car a scrutinous once over with the eyes is just as important as a good test drive. First, check the doors. They should shut and seal with little effort when closing. If much effort is required, it could be due to sagging door hinges or the result of a bad accident. Also, the hood should have no noticeable gaps where it meets the fenders. The interior's condition is also a good indicator of abuse/use. If the seats are overly worn or stained, chances are the previous owner treated the rest of the car (I.e the mechanical parts) the same way. If you've made it this far with your car of choice with no major hang-ups, buying it is the next step.

   First make sure you know the current value of the car. This can be done by consulting pricing guides such as the Kelley Blue Book, available in bookstores and newsstands. Pricing guides are also available on the internet. Be sure to take into account when pricing optional features and any body damage. Add to the price for things such as a CD player (from the factory, not aftermarket) air conditioning and other power accessories. The guide should quote specific amounts to add or deduct dependent upon the particular car. Also deduct for high mileage and wear of any kind. Remember, 13,000 to 15,000 miles a year is considered normal for a car.

   Keep in mind that a car with +100,000 miles is like a ninety-year old man; he might live to be one-hundred or he might live to be ninety-one. If you must finance your purchase, look for interest rates in the area of %6.9. Avoid double-digit percentage rates. If the best percentage rate you can get with your credit rating is %10 or higher, save more so your payments are lower or alter your budget.

  Particular cars to look for would be a recent Toyota Corolla or Honda Accord. Both have proven reliable over the years and the have a decent resale value ( not in our criteria though, just a fringe benefit!). Hopefully by now you've got a good idea of what to look for in a college car so get out there and find yourself some stylin' wheels! Good luck.

Buying a used car | Protecting your car's finish | Cars you can't buy in the U.S. | Home