How A Mechanic Buys A Car

As some might have glimpsed a previous post–my tribute to the vehicle we felt compelled to trade in due to a welcomed lifestyle change–I should have expected this post to follow.

And we had the perfect weather to go car-shopping: There were at least several inches of snow on the ground and still more coming down as we hit the streets. However, our search did not begin Saturday morning. We had begun several nights before.

First, because our soon-to-be new arrival will require a car seat, we opted for a four-door. We would have liked something with four-wheel-drive but had to admit was not in our budget. Therefore, based on our geographical location, we narrowed down our selection to vehicles offering Traction Control Systems (TCS) on top of traditional ABS. We knew what brands we desired based on our mechanical experience. German cars are essentially Greek to my husband and I so we could cross those off our list since we would very much enjoy doing the light maintenance repairs ourselves on whatever car we purchased. Thus, we narrowed our list by crossing off brands with which we were less familiar. Finally, we visited and received frank reviews on the makes and models we were considering.

Armed with a list of cars, we hit the online market and saw what remained in our price range from a number of dealers, starting with as a reference point. We also perused a few local dealer’s websites. I speak for my husband and myself but would not be surprised if others of the profession feel the same way, but we appreciate simplistic designs in our transportation machines. When I was in parts sales, I’d see ads for new features on cars and immediately thought of the parts involved, the training required to repair them, and the thorough diagnosis process to nail down potential issues. It is so much easier to diagnose what is wrong with a manual roll-up window than a power window. For example, a power window involves wiring to power and ground as well as to one or several switches. Electrical bugs can be hard to track down along the lengths of wire and connections, and it could be caused by power source which is contributed, finally, by engine power. A manual roll-up window’s system, however, is exclusively housed in the vehicle door (instead of running throughout the vehicle) and a glance can identify if the gear has lost teeth, the cable has snapped, or something else final and definitive in its mechanical workings which causes it to seize up. But those days are beyond us. Many–most–vehicle systems are powered through electric sources. To make an extended point brief, my husband and I searched for models with limited features (except those we consider essential to us such as ABS and TCS); we avoided moonroofs and leather seats; were not impressed by complex audio systems coming with all the trimmings. We wanted a machine that would transport us, and our precious cargo, safely and reliably. With these personal preferences in mind, we were able to further narrow-down our search.

Finding a local dealer with a healthy inventory matching our list, we hit the road on Saturday morning, plugging through the snow. At the salesman’s desk, he laid out the options with attached CarFax records. We considered if the vehicle had been a rental, how many owners, had there been accidents, and so forth, keeping it in the back of our minds but not letting it be overly influential. What had to be weighed, in my mind, were miles versus age. Based on our location, our roads get heavily salted throughout winter and rust becomes an issue. Therefore, a newer vehicle with a few more miles was preferred over an older vehicle with less miles, because, for our situation, we could trust the rust to have only infiltrated so far in the newer choice (which we’d make sure of later in the selection process). When it came down to picking which to test drive, we went with what was readily available as we waited for them to bring another from their other store.

Besides the high-speed driving on the interstate, testing for any obnoxious vibration issues as well as alignment (how long does the car stay driving straight without needing wheel-correction?), we hit the side streets testing the vehicle’s ability to perform in a panicked stop then quick acceleration. Finally, we searched for snowy, icy patches to give a good test-run of the Traction Control … and tires. (If tires were worn, we wouldn’t let that deflect our choice but, perhaps, might have tried to use it in negotiating price. For any vehicle to perform at its best, tires need a satisfactory amount of tread as I mentioned in a previous post.) In the wet, slick conditions, at safe distances from curbs and other vehicles (like an empty parking lot) we hit the brakes and nailed, within reason, the gas. Here was why we welcomed the heavy snow. We could test the vehicle’s response in snowy conditions before ever taking it home. Sales Departments have been known to encourage car-shoppers to get out there and shop when weather conditions are not at their best. You can be that much more comfortable with your choice after you leave their dealership.

Before making our purchase, we considered our comfort level with the salesman and/or dealership, what level of vehicle inspection was done on the vehicle, we searched specifically on the web for the transmission inside the vehicle we were considering to see if we received an onslaught of complaints for repairs needed, and we opened up the owner’s manual to see what kind of maintenance schedule was recommended for the vehicle. We wanted to know if we could handle the costs of normal, expected maintenance and what was to come down the road such as timing belts, spark plugs, and major tunes.

Finally, we asked them to put the car in the air, get it on a lift so we could glance the undercarriage. Here we checked for the level of rust and were thankful this dealership did not try to cover it up with a can of spray undercoating. We found the amount of rust to our satisfaction in its minimal appearance. We also checked a few more technical items which is where you might prefer to take it to a mechanic you trust to give it a once over instead. Because the inspection done by the dealer was fairly basic–along the lines of covering safety alone–we knew to check the air filter, which did need replacement but was not an expensive matter and easily addressed for us when we got home. We could assume the cabin filter was in the same state and we could apply the same rules as we did for the air filter. We had a record of the inspection and saw brake pads and rotors were replaced as well as a basic transmission seal. Based on maintenance schedule, we imagined coolant and transmission fluids should also be addressed since they were not part of the basic inspection. Fluids are vital components to systems. A lot of transmissions depend on fluid condition for their performance, and it makes a difference when replaced regularly as long as it is replaced with the PROPER fluid as recommended by the manufacturer, any off-brand is a sacrifice to what your vehicle can do. That is my preachy moment for this post.

When it came to negotiating our trade-in value (since more dealers are leaning toward price-lock with their sales prices, trade-in is where negotiation is still an option), we came prepared by visiting and for their recommended trade-in values of our vehicle. We emphasized what recent maintenance and repairs had been done to the car, if tires were good, if it had a clean record, and what original systems it still had such as radio or if there were any original equipment accessories installed (certified by the manufacturer dealer). We told them what we expected number wise, and they came back with an offer unfavorably lower. However, the salesman left to discuss it with the manager, and we were ready to try another place if he came back with an answer with which we were not comfortable. As customers, we have the power to walk-out. We have the nearly limitless resource of the internet and numerous dealerships dotting towns all around us. It may take a drive but should be well worth it. As for us, at that time, we had only begun to tap the potential vehicles available us. In this case, we remained where we were because they decided to deal with us (snow influenced their decision a bit).

Is this my endorsement for the right way to shop? No. I’m merely offering how we went about it and can assure you I felt fairly empowered before walking into that potentially intimidating sales department. I knew what I wanted, what was out there, and where (with how much) I was willing to deal. In being prepared, you look prepared, and the ball’s already in your court at that point. There is a study among my suggested sites showing how appearing informed can truly influence prices. The article applies to repair costs, but I want to emphasize it as well as what peace of mind (confidence, empowerment, whatever) you can obtain by doing a little online legwork and asking questions of yourself about what you want before you hit Dealer Row. (And do it when the weather is not perfect but perfect for car-shopping!)


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