Aug 17, 2011

Used Car Buyer's Guide: Part I

For years, my friends and family have asked for my advice and support when buying a used car. After going through the process numerous times, I thought I would sit down and write out a guide for buying a used car. This guide will hopefully be useable for anyone from a first time car buyer to a seasoned automotive enthusiast.

Part 1: Visual Inspection

First things first, don't ever go to view the car at night or in the rain. Many flaws can be masked by water and low light. Go to see the car in the daylight. The first thing we will look for is any evidence of accident damage or paintwork. Even if a used car has a "clean Carfax," it is still possible that it has unreported damage. While paintwork or minor accident damage doesn't necessarily rule out a potential used car, it is always better to know what you are getting into. Take it all into account and put it in perspective with everything else you find out about the car. Start by circling the car from about twenty feet away. Check to see that the color of the car is uniform and even across all of the body panels. Slight differences in color can indicate paintwork and possible panel repair. See the below picture for an example.
You have to wonder why the front of the car is a different color than the rear. It is very likely that this car was in a front end collision.

Mismatched Color Indicating Accident History
Inspecting the paint is one of the most difficult parts of inspecting a used car. The key is to look for uniformity. The color, gloss, and texture of the paint should be uniform over the entire car. If part of the car is clearly glossier than the rest, it has likely been painted in that area. Most car paint will have a texture to it. It is commonly referred to as "orange peel." This can range from light to quite heavy. I have seen a few new GM cars that have had a surprisingly heavy "peel" from the factory. The following picture will show you what orange peel looks like. This is an extreme example, but demonstrates what to look for.

Orange Peel
As stated, whatever amount of orange peel the car has, it should be more or less uniform. Next, check the paint for any signs of sun damage. Contrary to what a seller may tell you, sun damage and oxidation will rarely, "buff out." Look for "cloudiness" in the clear coat or areas of flaking and peeling clear coat. These are very important things to look for because the repair cost is significant. See below for a few examples.
Peeling Clear Coat


Cloudy Sun Damaged Clear Coat
The next thing to look for are signs of bodywork. Look across all of the panels of the car and look for areas that do not follow the natural contours of the panel. If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't. Take a look at this picture. If you look at the area above the rear wheel and study the reflection, you can see that the line is not very straight at all. It is very wavy. Signs like that can indicate prior damage and bodywork.  
Wavy Body Work

Next, we want to inspect the panel fit of the car. Start with the hood. The gaps between the top of the hood and the tops of the fenders should be even and straight. The overall gap should be even on either side of the hood and should not change in width from the front to the rear of the hood. See the below picture. This is an example of a hood that does not fit correctly.
Poor Hood Fit
You want to inspect the doors and trunk lid for the same thing. The door gaps should be the same on all doors. The gaps should also be the same from top to bottom of each door. Also, check the headlights and taillights to make sure they are fit to the body securely and are not askew.

A car that has been wrecked or damaged can lead to a period of ownership fraught with frustration. Hopefully these tips will help you avoid buying a car that is hiding numerous issues. 

Take a look at the next part in the series, 



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