By Dave Herman
A student called the other day needing help with checking out a possible car for purchase. He is young and doesn't have a lot of experience buying cars. We talked about the thought process necessary to keep from going helter skelter looking at every car listed in the paper or sitting on the car lot.
The first thing that needs to be established before we even start to look for a vehicle is the need. How will the vehicle be used: hauling materials, carrying family or friends, highway driving, backroads, or all of the above? How much driving will be done on a daily basis?
Repairs and maintenance come up quickly when you drive a lot.
Based on the use and estimated number of miles to be driven per year we can now look at how much we can afford to pay, or the logic of getting a loan, which will allow us to narrow in on makes, models and years.
When you get an idea of which models and years are attractive, you can use technology, and check out the maintenance requirements and reliability of the models chosen.
I can tell you, that even if you think you can afford a German car upfront, you may not be able to handle the required yearly maintenance costs, not to mention the cost of parts.
German engineering is not forgiving when you miss the scheduled maintenance on select models.
It's better to go with an Asian or American car to avoid unforeseen costly repairs.
Finally, call your insurance agent and ask for a quick estimate of the models you have chosen. For those under the age of 25, some models may cost you more for insurance than your car! Your age, gender, driving record, marital status, and even grades, believe it or not, also have a bearing on insurance costs.
Now that the couch analysis has been done, it's time for some fun, and we can go kick some tires and see what shakes out.
While in the driveway we can determine many things about a car prior to paying for a pre-purchase inspection, and even before a road test.
We can see if the body has been damaged and repaired. We also can see visible signs of wear to the interior, which can be indicative of mileage, leaks to the underside of the engine and transmission, motor mounts, suspension, hoses, fuel lines, brake pads/rotors, cylinders and tires.
All of these can be visually inspected for wear and indicators of expenses forthcoming.
Next we start the engine and listen for abnormal and normal noises. Take note of how well it starts, gauge readings or service lights for potential problems and check lights and accessories for proper operation.
Upon popping the hood, we investigate engine operation, noise, and running condition. In our case, we found the engine to be rough running and noticed oil leaks at seals and gaskets along with a smell of oil vapor.
The first thing to do is check the crank case ventilation system and valve for restrictions. If clear, remove the oil cap and check for excess blow-by due to high cylinder leakage into the crank case, emblematic of an engine with high miles.
In our case, we found high crank case pressure and oil vapor spewing from the oil filler, which means the car needs major engine repair or replacement.
For us, that means game over on this one, unless we want a project car. If, however, after popping the hood our inspection looks good we ask the owner for a file of his maintenance records. These records help us with those areas of the engine we canʼt see, tell us how well and how often the vehicle was maintained and what services are coming due.
We note the mileage on each service to make sure everything jives with the advertisement.
Once the car has passed the visual test the next step is to go for a test drive. This "on the road" inspection will further define the reliability of the car and possible upcoming repairs like major service, alignment, transmission work, clutch, steering box, water pump, belts, accessories, etc.
It is amazing how much information you can gather from a driveway and "on the road" inspection. Further, you can discern how much additional money is needed to go into the car once it is purchased, and what needs to be budgeted the next year depending on how many miles are driven and how they are driven.
Now we decide if we want to arrange for a pre-purchase inspection or go on to check out another vehicle. Itʼs difficult in this age of instant gratification to be patient and take your time looking for the right vehicle, but your perseverance will be rewarded in the end. As a teen I applied this logic and eventually found the car I always wanted and still have that car in my garage today.
All too often, the hunt can be more fun than the actual purchase. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Before his retirement, Dave Herman ran one of the largest independent German service centers in Northern Virginia. He has built, raced and taught racing to Porsche/BMW drivers. He lives in Shenandoah County, where he has opened a driving school. Email your comments and questions about anything automotive to email@example.com.