So you have now found the car, and you’re ready to start finding your actual car. This takes place in two steps: Contacting the seller, and doing the test drive.
Before you start: a word on emotions. Again, choose your emotions wisely. Think of yourself as confident, cold and distant, evaluative, looking for the long term reward of making a solid decision, not one based on near term infatuation with non-meaningful reward cues.
Also, remember the old maxims: nobody sells a perfect car, and there are a lot of cars out there. Unless you want a particularly rare car, there is no need to settle for one that has not been taken care of.
Let’s say you found a good car on craigslist and it is time to contact the seller. Start with the following questions:
1. Why are you selling the car?
Good reasons: A. I am moving and need to sell it. B. I bought another one just like it. C. I have another car and this one is no longer needed.
A. “My son/friend is off to college and I’m selling it for him.” It is a risk to buy the car from the person who is not the owner. They will not know the history of the car, and it will be tough to evaluate the owner and how he/she took care of it. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is not ideal.
B. “I need the money.” Selling a car because they need the money can be a red flag–it means that basic maintenance was unlikely to be performed. It will depend on how long they have been financially struggling; I know this sounds a little mean, sorry.
2. How many owners has the car had?
This indicates how much the car has been pampered, if it has had a lot of owners in a short time, it may carry a lot more baggage. I’d say three or four owners for a 6-8 year old car is probably the maximum.
3. Is the car smogged already? (in California, the seller is responsible for smogging the car). Unfortunately, many sellers try to use smog as a bargaining chip, and it is difficult to find sellers that have smogged their car in advance. The cost to smog it is their duty, that is the law. You can do it if you want to, but you must negotiate the cost of the smog (~$100) from the asking price. If the car does not pass smog, you’re going to have a bad time. It is a good policy not to pay for the car until it has passed smog. Sellers will pretend that you’re some kind of jerk for this, but shrug it off. It’s the law, and it is amazing how few sellers know this.
4. Do you have the title in hand? (you don’t want to mess around with a bill of sale or any such nonsense. If they’re financing the car and selling it to you before the end of their finance agreement, clear everything with their bank before you commit to anything).
5. Do you have the maintenance records for the car?
6. Would you mind if I take the car to a mechanic to have it inspected? (You will pay the mechanic).
Since you are now interacting with a human being, we can use a little bit of “~neuroscience” (meaning, not actual neuroscience). Be friendly, polite and start looking for cues to see ways in which your decision-making may be hijacked by distracting emotions. They may say, “Well, it’s not smogged yet, it didn’t pass smog last time, but I’m sure it will pass smog if you take it.” You may feel a sense of relief at their reasoning: ‘Oh phew, it will pass smog he said so, I’m fine now” but don’t buy into that relief, and don’t buy this car. You may also feel a sense of social bonding with the seller as he reminds you of your favorite teacher or something. This social bonding will make you more likely to accept an unreasonable offer (true fact!). Don’t bond right away, stay cold and polite–use different feelings, use the feeling of being a cold analytical punkass. Remember: there are a lot of cars out there. Don’t buy into one seller’s story and your own story about how the car is great, if the red flag flies, follow the rules and find another car.
Okay good, so the owner answered in complete sentences and seems like a reasonable human being (remember, a crappy email is not worth following up on–there are too many cars in the world).
Now you can set up a meeting time to look at the car in person. You have a lot of options here: you can go alone or with a friend or knowledgable car person, you can meet in public or you can meet at a mechanics. The best way, in terms of selecting a good car, is to meet them at their work or home, when the car has not been driven yet that day. This is so that you can see how the car runs when it is cold–which is a better indicator of the car’s condition. A cold motor will smoke more than a warm motor, or will have a more difficult time starting if it is in poor condition.
When you arrive at the car, you need to walk around it first; resist the urge to jump in and drive it. Ask these questions:
1. Does the paint all match, or are certain panels a different shade? Is the paint shiny?
2. Are the tires in good condition? Bend down on the ground and look at every tire to see if the treadwear is even across the width of the tire and that the tread is deep. Stick a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head pointing down into the tread, if you can see his whole head, the tires are just about completely worn out–you can be more conservative than that, but this is a loose guideline. Also look at the condition of the sidewall to see if there are any cracks. If there are cracks, the tires need to be replaced. If the tires are mismatched, i.e. from a variety of different brands, they need to be replaced.
3. Do the panels of the car line up? Are the doors evenly spaced at the front and back of the door? These are called panel gaps. If the panel gaps are uneven, it is an indication of poor body work.
4. Bend down and look at the brake rotor (pictured above)–the shiny disk behind the wheel. Run your thumbnail across the surface. It if drags on ridges, then the disks will need to be replaced. If the rotors need to be replaced, then it is likely the pads need to be replaced as well.
5. Look under the car where it has been sitting. Any fresh liquid on the ground? A little oil, which is dark brown, for an older car is maybe okay; coolant which is bright green is unacceptable; brake fluid, a clear fluid is also obviously unacceptable and you shouldn’t drive the car.
Now you’re ready to start interacting with the car. Go ahead and pop the hood and let’s look at the engine. At this point the owner will be probably be tense because they just want you to sit in the car and drive it already. Resist!
You don’t need to be a mechanic to know what to look for: you want to see a variety of clean and shiny objects, devoid of liquid, oil, sludge, etc. Just take 5 minutes to stare at it, look at all the borders where parts meet, just look at it like it is something that should be clean, and find the places where it is not clean.
Here is a nice link to a website detailing how to check all the different fluids.
If the fluids are not looking good, like the oil is frothy, or the coolant is black or brown. You need to leave and go find another car. If they are just dirty, we can negotiate that later, but the risk goes up as the quality of the fluids goes down. If you’re taking the car to a mechanic, make sure that there is a breakdown of all the fluids and their condition.
Okay, so the car is in good shape outside, and the engine bay looks fine. Time to fire up the car. Except, you don’t need to be in the car when it starts, actually, you’re better off standing behind the car. Stand behind the car where the exhaust pipes are, and have someone else fire it up. Does it take a long time to start? Does it smoke? If the smoke is just a bit of steam condensation, that’s fine, but if the smoke is thick and white, smells very bad, or is black, then it is time to find a new car. Leave this car and go get a burrito.
The car is now running, leave it on for a while so you can hear it idle. It should be nice and smooth, purring while you do a lot of the rest of the inspection. Now get inside the car, see how you feel in the drivers seat, look at all the interior surfaces, look for tears, cracks, etc. Again, you don’t need to be a mechanic to know what good condition looks like. How does it smell? If the car has been smoked in, then you should leave the car and find another one.
Now get in the car and turn on and off all the buttons, accessories, etc. Spray the windshield with water using the squirter, run the AC, run the heater, twist all the knobs, push all the buttons, open and close all the windows. If it’s a convertible, lower and raise the top. Push the window buttons on each door. Lock and unlock the locks.
Now, finally, after all this, it is time to drive the car. Plan on driving the car for at least 20 minutes, with a variety of tasks, from cornering, to accelerating, to freeway cruising. You are going to marry this car, you need to know that you like driving it and that it is comfortable driving you around. You need to like it, and it needs to fit you.
Don’t turn on the radio for your test drive. Listen for any bumps, scrapes, rattles, etc. When you’re getting on the freeway, push the acceleration pretty hard to see how the engine responds to full throttle acceleration. I once test drove a beautiful car, it ran perfectly, but when I went full throttle, the check engine light came on. It may have just been a little problem, but again, there are too many cars to deal with that sort of hassle. Now do some good braking, how does the pedal feel? Is it firm and responsive, or do you need to push it in too far?
Drive the car with a careful eye on all the gauges, make sure the coolant stays in the cool range, make sure the battery stays charged, etc.
Pay attention to how the car shifts through all the gears, there shouldn’t be any clunking, squirming, squeaking, etc.
In general, if a car starts, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t overheat, it will probably run for a while. Cars don’t tend to blow up, they just disintegrate over time, so if you get one that is in good running condition, without too many red flags, probably the car will be good to go for a while.
Drive the car around, see how it feels. Now it’s time for the art of the deal!