June 24, 2020

How to Buy a Used Car Like a Mechanic

We asked Andrew Parker, owner of Whistler’s Automotive in Glenpool, what to look for when buying a used car. He told us the best way to buy a used car is to find a vehicle you like and take two simple steps to help make sure your dream car doesn’t turn out to be a nightmare.

Get a Vehicle History Report

First, turn to CarFax.

“CarFax is a great first step in understanding the history of the car you are interested in buying,” Parker said. “CarFax gets information from multiple facets. They get data about cars tied to VIN numbers from dealerships and independent auto repair and maintenance shops.”

For $20-$40, the report will give you a peek at the car’s life history. What accidents it may have been involved in, repairs and maintenance that have been completed, and where the vehicle has “lived.” If the vehicle spent years in a coastal area or in a colder Northern state, there might be wear and tear from salt erosion or other environmental factors to consider.

You can also get a free history report from The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), but the old saying “you get what you pay for” holds true. The information provided by NMVTIS will usually not be as comprehensive as the information you would get from a paid report like CarFax or AutoCheck.

The good news is that many dealerships provide a free copy of the vehicle’s CarFax report to interested buyers—just ask! But remember, a CarFax isn’t always the whole picture.

“A CarFax report is only as good as the data that is reported to it,” Parker says. “So if the vehicle was wrecked and never reported or repaired by a shop that reports such things, the CarFax isn’t going to show that.”

Still, getting a vehicle history report is a smart first step in sorting out which used cars could be worth buying, and which are best to avoid.

“The CarFax will give you a good baseline,” Parker said. “You will know where the car is from, you’ll know if the maintenance has been excellent or spotty. But, you will only know what’s been reported.”

If the CarFax looks good, and you’re serious about buying, it’s time to bring in a third-party mechanic.

Getting an Inspection from a Third-Party Mechanic

A complete inspection by a third-party, independent, trusted auto mechanic is the final word on the real health of any used car.

“Every dealership or car dealer should allow—or even welcome—you to take the car to have an independent mechanic inspect the vehicle,” Parker said. “In fact, if they don’t—run! If they don’t want the car inspected, I guarantee there is a problem with the car.”

Parker says to make sure you’re getting an opinion from someone not connected to the dealership to avoid a conflict of interest.

“It isn’t good enough to have the dealer’s mechanic inspect their car—it must be someone who is not affiliated with the dealer in any way,” Parker said.

Inspections will run about $60-$100, so it’s best to wait until you’re fairly certain that you want to buy before requesting one. But keep in mind that the relatively small cost of an inspection could actually save you money—either by helping you avoid a lemon or revealing issues that the dealer needs to resolve before you purchase. If problems are found, it could give you room for further price negotiations or help you avoid a purchase you would have regretted.

What Do Mechanics Look for in a Used Car Inspection?

Parker gave us a rundown of his checklist for evaluating a used car purchase:

  1. “We’ll walk around the car and look at the body panels,” he said. “All body panels should match. We look at doors and hoods and the hood line to see if they are even and all the seams match up. Does all the paint match up? Has anyone painted or bonded any areas to cover up wrecks?”
  2. “We will look all around under the car as well to see if the previous owner hit a lot of curbs and bars and things they shouldn’t. Are the tires in good condition? Has this car lived on a gravel road with a lot of gravel damage underneath?”
  3. “We will review the entire engine. We’ll look for recent repairs or any engine leaks.”
  4. “We’ll examine the headlights and taillights and make sure all the safety features are in working order.”
  5. Overall, we can tell you how well it has been taken care of, what repairs it might need, and what condition the body is in and what might not have ben reported, if anything, to CarFax.”

“If the car is 30 years old or 2 years old, the inspection is the same,” Parker said. “I get a lot of joy when I see the car later for basic maintenance and they say, ‘I love this car,’ and I was able to help them make that decision.”

Quick Questions Checklist for Buying a Used Car

Here are a few questions to ask when buying used car. Even before you get to the test drive, it’s a good idea to ask the seller a few questions about the status of the vehicle’s title and any major damage incidents:

  • Do you have the CarFax report for this car?
  • Is there a good title for this car?
    Note: Do not purchase a car with a rebuilt or salvaged title. These cars have been totaled and repaired or been flooded or other disasters. In Oklahoma, rebuilt or salvaged titles are orange, while good titles are green. Be sure your title is green.
  • Has this car ever been in any type of flood or natural disaster?
  • Do you offer any service warranty for this car?
  • Where is this car from?
  • Can you find out these answers for me while I wait? (If the dealer doesn’t know the answers to your questions.)
  • Will I be able to take this car to be inspected by an independent mechanic?

Bottom line, Parker said, people shouldn’t be intimidated about buying a used car. Many used cars exist that are in terrific condition just waiting for their next owner. In fact, Parker said, the customer usually already knows when they bring a potential car to be inspected if it is a good car not.

“Their gut usually is right,” he said. “They knew before they came to see me. They just wanted me to say it too. Trust you gut—and then get it inspected. Sometimes you know more than you give yourself credit for.”

Buying used instead of new can save you real money, and as long as you take the proper steps to check your purchase ahead of time, you’ll roll off the lot with a good deal on a vehicle that fits your needs for years to come.

This article is for educational purposes only. Tulsa FCU makes no representations as to the accuracy, completeness, or specific suitability of any information presented. Information provided should not be relied on or interpreted as legal, tax or financial advice. Nor does the information directly relate to our products and/or services terms and conditions.