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How to Buy an Older Car

August 26th, 2010

1957-chevy-older-car.jpgBuying an older car can be a great way to get a working set of wheels on a budget. Whether you’re in a tight financial situation or your son or daughter is turning sixteen, an older car can be a very smart choice. Many people tend to stay away from older cars because they don’t want to end up with a rusting money pit, which unfortunately happens all too often to those who don’t know what to look for when buying an older car. The truth is, if you have the time and the knowledge, you can end up with a reliable set of wheels for an extremely affordable price.

The first thing you should know about buying an older car is that the older a car gets, the more its life expectancy depends on the care and driving habits of its past owners. That being said, it is impossible to compare two cars of the same model and age based on an odometer reading and a price. An important thing to consider is the number of previous owners the car has had. A car that has been driven and maintained by a single person its entire life is far more likely to be in reliable working condition than a car that has had several owners. You can find this information through vehicle history report services such as Carfax by submitting the vehicle identification number (VIN), which the seller of the car will be able to provide you with. The vehicle history report will also provide you with important information regarding accidents and liens as well as maintenance records.

There are a few things to know while browsing online listings or dealer inventories for an older car. For the most part, in the eighties and nineties, Japanese and German cars proved to be much more reliable than American cars. This doesn’t mean you should exclude American made cars, but it is a good thing to keep in mind when purchasing a car of that age. The mileage of the car is also an important thing to look for. It is a good idea to look for a car with less than 200,000 miles on it because any car with mileage that high is near the end of its days, regardless of age. On the other hand, a twenty year old car with 30,000 miles on it has probably been in storage for much of its life. Things like hydraulic brake lines and vacuum hoses can deteriorate when a car is in storage for a long period of time.

So you’ve located a potential “new” car and now you’re on the lot looking over it. The first thing to look for is excessive body rust. However, don’t expect to find a rust free car if you live in an area where road salt is used during winter months. Minor rust on the fenders and wheel wells is nothing to be worried about, but it should not be in any danger of rusting through the body or floor panels of the car. While you’re walking around inspecting the exterior of the car, it is a good time to check the suspension system. Apply pressure to each corner of the car and create an up and down momentum in the coil spring and strut assembly. When you stop “bouncing” the car it should bounce two to three times on its own before stopping. Repeat this test on each corner of the car. Another important thing to take note of is the amount of tread left on the tires. The last thing you should do while still outside the car is inspect the underbody and the ground under the car for any signs of fluid leaks.

Now it’s time to pop the hood. Look at the general condition of the engine. Rust on the engine block and exhaust components is normal. Inspect vacuum and coolant hoses for cracks and signs of drying. Also inspect the hydraulic brake and clutch lines for rust or corrosion. Check all fluid levels. A low fluid level can indicate a leak, even if there is no evidence of one under the car.

If everything checks out, it’s time to start the car. Pay very careful attention the first time you start it, because a cold start can reveal problems that are masked when the car is started after just running. The car should start quickly and confidently. Listen for any sputtering or grinding noises when starting. With the car idling, get out and inspect the engine as it is running. Listen for any odd noises or inconsistencies in the operation of the engine. Even the slightest tick or knock can indicate a potentially serious internal problem.

If you’re satisfied, get back in and take it for a test drive. Be sure the gear shifter moves smoothly through all gears before driving the car. This is especially important if the car has a manual transmission. If the car has an automatic transmission, it should shift smoothly and consistently while driving. If you notice excessive vibration in the gear shifter, this could be a sign of a transmission problem.

The next thing to check is the braking system. The brake pedal should be firm and the car should be able to stop with authority. Apply the brakes with your hands off the steering wheel to see if the car drifts to one side. This ensures that braking power is being distributed evenly to all four wheels. You can take your hands off the wheel while driving without braking to test the wheel alignment. It’s also a good idea to test all the electronic components of the car such as power windows and power locks, as well as the air conditioning system.

Be sure to test the car at highway speeds, because many suspension and engine problems don’t appear until it is going somewhat fast. Be observant of any vibrations in the steering wheel, the shifter, and the car itself. If you are satisfied with your test drive, request to see any maintenance and service records the dealer may have for the car. Important things to look for are frequent oil changes, at least one timing belt replacement, and frequent air filter cleaning and replacement.

In the end, you could be driving around in a reliable vehicle for much less than you had envisioned. An older car is an excellent choice for a tight budget or if you want cheap, reliable transportation for a new driver in your family.

This article was supplied by Erich Shuman from Constant Content.

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