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How to buy used - mainly mechanical checks

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  • [All Models] How to buy used - mainly mechanical checks

    Here’s some tips on buying a used car – earned the hard way by many years of experience. I hope they are helpful to someone on here.

    Private or trade?
    Don’t assume that a trade sale is going to mean a better car. Trade sellers vary enormously. Some are decent honest people and buying from them makes sense because they’ve used their experience to filter out the lemons. Some are rogues and villains, buying from them is a bad idea because they’ve used their experience to conceal faults or make cars look better than they are. Ask around for people’s experiences of cars and aftersales service from various dealers, but by and large trust your gut instinct. If you feel uncertain then there’s a reason – remember, our ancestors survived by their instincts so they’re not to be ignored.

    A private sale can save you some money, but only if you bag a good car. So don’t be put off buying from a reputable dealer, you might pay a bit more, but if you get a better car and some warranty it’s money well spent.

    On the other hand, a good car bought privately can be a real winner – the trick is how to get a good ‘un. That’s where these tips come in handy:

    Start with your head in the right place:
    Buying a car can be quite exciting, sometimes nerve wracking, think it through before you start viewing cars. Too many people are so keen to buy their first car that they let their enthusiasm overrule their common sense. Start with the idea that the majority of the cars advertised are not worth buying. All you are doing is paying for previous owners’ abuse. Do not expect to buy the first one you see, or the second, or the third. Expect to reject.

    A few tips which apply mainly to private sales…..

    Before you go:
    Check the advert carefully. Look for adverts with the same phone number, is it a dealer pretending to be a private seller?

    Ask yourself what the advert doesn't tell you – e.g. ‘low mileage’ may mean low for its age – so a 12 year old car could still have over 100,000 miles on the clock.

    When you ring to enquire just say you are ringing about ‘the car’, don’t say which one. If it is a genuine private seller they will only have one for sale. If the person answering says, “Which car?” then they are not a genuine private seller.

    Ask how long they have had it. Cars that change hands frequently are probably duds being sold on.

    Ask why they are selling it. “Genuine reason for sale” on the advert may be true. The fact that the engine is knackered is a genuine reason for selling it.

    Ask about service history. Very few older cars will have a full or even partial service history. Try to find one that does, the more the better. A neglected car will cost you money and cause you grief. No service history means it hasn't been serviced. Buy it at your peril.

    Do not view a car when it is poor light or raining. Too many defects can be hidden. You need good light to view a car, and its surroundings.

    When you go to look at a car:
    Arrive early – if you catch them filling it with oil, jump starting it, generally messing about under the bonnet – keep walking.

    If the seller has several mates who hang around putting pressure on you then walk away. An honest seller will deal with you one-to-one.

    Look where the car is normally parked – pools of oil, patches of sand, coolant stains – they all tell a story. If there is a open garage door, have a peak in, see if there’s signs of bits of car, oil cans, etc.

    Before you jump in and get carried away, walk around it. Look in the boot, if it is full of oil cans or containers of water, ask why. Check everything opens and closes properly, all the doors, and the tailgate. Any creaks or jamming could be sign of a bodyshell out of alignment. Look at the hinges, properly serviced cars should have grease there. Rusty hinges mean skimped servicing.

    Inspect the panel lines. They should be regular and even, and match both sides. Irregular panel lines mean crash damage that has been badly repaired. Check also that the paint matches, no signs of overspray, especially traces of overspray around window rubbers, on bumpers, and around the filler cap.

    Take a good torch with you and inspect the underside. Look for rust, especially around suspension units or in the sills. Beware of fresh paint! A good trick is to apply a small magnet to the bodywork – it won’t stick to filler. Most modern cars are better protected against rust, but badly repaired accident damage can cause problems.

    (If you’re looking at a Corsa B the key places to check are the lower front crossmember where the tie-bars connect, the sills, the back of the sills just in front of the rear wheels, the areas where the front suspension is bolted to the chassis, the rear spring mounts, the suspension turrets. They rust on less critical areas as well, but those are the MOT killer areas.)

    Lift the boot carpet – check for dampness, rust, creases in the floorpan. Make sure there is a spare wheel, and that the tyre is legal. Is the jack present?

    Check the tyres for tread depth, even wear, make sure there are no bulges or cracks in the sidewalls. The minimum tread depth is 1.6mm – anything less than 3mm is in need of renewal. Make sure the tyres match, i.e. they are all the same size.

    Look at the pedals – if a car says it has done 56,000 and the pedals are worn smooth – which do you think is telling the real story? Check also that the numbers in the mileage are straight. If it has been messed with they are often out of line. On cars with a digital odometer it is easy to reset the mileage using readily available equipment - but the ECU will remember the real mileage. If you've got something like Opcom take it with you, a genuine seller won't mind you checking the car thoroughly.

    Inspect the lights, breaks in the lenses are an MOT failure.

    Make sure the car sits level – not leaning to one side. Press down on each corner to compress the suspension, and release. It ought to bounce once and stop. If it keeps bouncing the shock absorbers have had it.

    Look for dents and scrapes. If there are a few that’s probably good, it means the car is original, not tarted up to sell.

    Make sure all the windows go up and down properly. Test the lights, horn, indicators etc.

    Check the fusebox – you probably won’t be able to tell if all the fuses are the right ones, but they ought to be various colours. If they are the same then it could be that someone has bunged in the max rating to cover up electrical problems.

    Under the bonnet:
    Firstly make sure the engine is cold. If the seller has warmed it up ask why. A warmed engine can hide a lot of faults that are apparent only when started from cold. Check the fluid levels to make sure they are topped up. A seller presenting a car with low levels shows they either don’t know or don’t care about routine maintenance. Check the coolant at least looks as though the antifreeze is present. Plain water means there’s probably an ongoing leak. Look for signs of oil in the coolant, visible usually as a scum in the header tank. Look also for ‘pebbles’ in the header tank – residue from leak sealant.

    Check the oil – on the dipstick look at the condition of the oil. If fresh is will be a light golden colour. Normal engine oil will be brown. Thick black is a bad sign. Water droplets on the dipstick are a bad sign. Look in the filler cap, a bit of ‘mayonnaise’ is not uncommon of cars used for short journeys in the winter. But if the cap is clogged either the owner is careless or the headgasket is going. Check the oil is within the usual levels, if it is overfull it is possible that extra gearbox oil has been added. This is thicker and will help quieten a worn out engine.

    Switch on the ignition until the dashboard lights come on, but do not start the engine. Make sure all the lights are lit. A dodgy seller might have taken the bulb out of the engine management light or the oil or brake warning light to hide a problem. Make sure they light up. When you start the engine, make sure they all go out promptly.

    Start the engine, it should start cleanly with no clonking, tapping or strange noises. Don’t just sit there revving it hard – it’s not your car and it doesn't do engines any good to be over-revved from cold. It also means you won’t hear what you need to listen to. On old higher mileage engines a few light taps on startup are not the end of the world, providing they settle down quickly, and without the engine being revved. All it will be is the valve followers filling with oil. If they keep on tapping then either oil changes have been neglected and the followers are clogged, or the oil pressure is low.

    Listen to the engine at idle as it warms up. Any odd noises will be obvious, even to the untrained ear. If the seller starts to explain things, “That’s just …..” Then be suspicious.

    Walk around the car, check particularly the exhaust gases. Some steam on a cold day is usual, blue or black smoke is not. Put your hand over the exhaust tailpipe whilst it is still cold. With the tailpipe blocked you will hear if the exhaust is blowing. The pressure should force your hand off within a few seconds. If it doesn't then gases are escaping elsewhere.

    The engine from cold should rev at about 1200rpm (depending on how cold a day it is) within a few minutes the revs should begin to creep down as the engine warms and the idle control valve gradually closes. Jerky changes in revs show a problem with the idle system.

    Test drives:
    The seller may not let you drive the car if you are not insured for it. That is reasonable, but if they drive the car make sure they use all the gears, brake in a normal manner, use the handbrake etc. A seller can drive in such a way as to hide a defect – such as they never engage reverse. Make sure they are changing gear smoothly – no signs of gears crunching or the clutch dragging. Ask them to vary the revs – if they always change gear early ask them to let the revs rise – and vice versa. Make sure they aren't driving around a problem.

    Most test drives are far too short, once round the block, with the hopeful victim, sorry buyer, nodding politely. By all means be polite, but be on your guard. Ask the seller to find a stretch of duel carriageway and drive at 70mph – check for vibrations or odd noises.

    Make sure that the temperature gauge works and rises as it should. (Most Corsa B's, for example, tend to read low for a while, so might seem to take a while to reach normal temp. Check the fuel gauge works.

    Ask to find a place where you can get behind the wheel – even just an empty car park will do. Try the gears and clutch. Test the brakes – make sure there is no grinding noises when you press the pedal – drive to about 20mph then, with a very loose grip on the steering wheel, apply the brakes. The car should stop in a straight line – not pull to one side. Apply full steering lock to the left and drive slowly forwards, do the same to the right. Any clonking noises are the universal joints in the driveshafts wearing out.

    Apply the handbrake firmly, then in first gear try to drive away using moderate revs – like a gentle pulling away. The car should stall. If the car moves forward then the handbrake isn't holding. If the car stays still, and your foot comes off the clutch, but the engine still runs, then the clutch is worn out.

    Test all the wipers and washers.

    By now the engine is fully warmed up, check the exhaust again, there shouldn't be any steam. If there is still steam suspect a possible problem with the headgasket. Open the bonnet and listen to engine at tickover. If the engine is worn, and gearbox oil has been added to quieten it down, it doesn't last long. Hence you want a long test drive, and to listen to a hot engine for noises that might start to emerge.

    Make sure the tickover is stable. A little up & down in revs is usual – but not shuddering or racing.

    If possible let the engine tickover until the electric cooling fans cuts in. You want to know that the thermoswitch and fan are working. If they aren't the engine has probably overheated, and that is bad news for the headgasket.

    Look underneath the car – any signs of drips, hissing, things that shouldn't be there?

    So – if so far everything seems good – and you are keen – then check the paperwork is in order. Read everything carefully – a glance is not enough. Make sure the details are all correct, that the seller is listed properly, that the MOT certificate is for this car, that the logbook describes the car as presented to you. Check the chassis code – it is stamped under a flap alongside the driver’s seat.

    Don’t forget to do a HPI check, especially on private sales.

    Make a point of asking if the car has any faults. An older car is bound to have a few issues, better to know them and it’s a way to see how honest the seller is. Also, if you ask if there are any faults and the seller withholds known problems then you’ve got more comeback later on. (See below)

    Then the haggling – if you make a lower offer that is accepted very quickly be cautious – someone flogging a dud may be too keen to get it off their hands. If you offer is rejected don’t be put off, if someone has looked after their car, spent good money servicing it, then they will want a fair price.

    What if a problem emerges?
    If you bought a car from a dealer then usually they will offer some form of warranty. Warranties can vary in both length and what they cover. Typically an older car may come with a three month warranty that will cover major components, it probably won’t cover things like central locking or the stereo. If a problem arises go back to the dealer straight away. Don’t ask a mate to mess with it and then take it back, the dealer isn’t obliged to honour a warranty when someone else has been tampering with the car.

    Keep a record of all paperwork, note problems and the date reported to the dealer, ask for a full explanation of what has been done to rectify the problem. If in doubt ask on here if the work they’ve done sounds like a proper fix or a short term bodge.

    If you bought privately you won’t have a warranty but you are still protected by consumer law. It is against the law to sell a car with known faults, remember the bit about asking if there are any faults? That’s another reason to ask. If a problem emerges within a short period the chances are the seller knew about it and that’s why they were selling the car. If you’ve asked and they’ve withheld then you stand a better chance of getting your money back.

    Instincts & head – your key tools….
    Most of the time when people buy a car that turns out to be a dud all the signs were there but the buyer just ignored them. That’s why your best tools are your instincts and having your head in the right place. The guy who buys a car unseen off ebay and is then surprised when it turns out to be a bit of a dog doesn’t deserve a lot of sympathy.

    Be patient, check and re-check, ask questions, expect to reject. It’s an important decision that can bring you a lot of pleasure, or a shedload of woe.
    1972 Viva restoration thread - [url][/url]

  • #2
    Nicely done Taurus
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