Technical Article

How Not to Buy a Used Car

By James Williams
Advantage BMW

Rolling along my usual path going home one evening, a BMW parked facing traffic caught my eye. Located in front of one of the many nameless, faceless Houston body shops, sat an '83 733i. The windshield sported the come-on "MAKE OFFER." Hmmm.

Three days passed and I saw this car six times. My mental list grew. Poor black paint, windows tinted too dark, right rear window stuck down and/or broken. It had been raining for a week. "MAKE OFFER", it still pleaded, white shoe polish now running from the rain.

Sunday morning on a return from a doughnut run, I decided to stop now that the rain had moved on. Indeed, the right rear window was gone and the carpet and seats had that funky mildew odor. The black paint was not factory and had more orange peel than an orange. All four headlights were broken and the grills seemed to not line up to anything. All four wheels had been curbed, the tires were worn out El Cheepos. I bounced all four corners of the car to check the shocks; the front felt marginal, and the rear kept bouncing. Not one body panel on the car was untouched by Bondo and some rust-through was still present.

The final blow came when I lifted the hood. The engine had a few small parts missing, vacuum hoses plugged with screws, and many non-factory parts. The black paint was applied under the hood as well but poor preparation allowed paint to flake off in places. The left shock tower still had the factory sticker that said Bronzit and the original paint shone through. However, the right shock tower had red paint showing through! Oh, no! Chop Job! I left in peace, at one with my cash. MAKE OFFER? How about $10 to park this thing where I can't see it when I drive by?

So, what should you look for? First on the list, check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) plate. Is it original and not tampered with? Late model cars have VIN stickers on all major components including engine, transmission, fenders, etc. Replacement parts from BMW have stickers that read DOT-R or Department of Transportation-Replacement.

Check the body panels by sighting down them length-ways, almost parallel to the side. The reflections in the paint will spot defects in the panels. New paint does not always mean better, sometimes faded original paint is better than new incorrectly applied new paint. $250 a gallon paint is no better than the person who blows it on. Plastic body fillers should at no point be thicker than 1/8".

Check the wheels for curbing or flat spots and dings. Look closely for excess negative camber (wheels tilted in too much at the top). Also check for tire wear; one corner of a tire worn more than the others indicates an alignment problem.

It's a good idea to lay down on the ground to look under a car because this is a prime way to see how a car has been maintained. Fluids leaking from engine, transmission, steering rack or box, hoses, brake lines, fuel lines, shocks and struts will help you decide your purchase. Also check for dents and scrapes on oil pan, exhaust, cross members, suspension parts and the fuel tank.

Check the interior starting with the top. Are there water stains in the headliner near the sunroof? Are the carpets wet? Check the shifter for excess play, as well as the steering wheel. Turn the key to ON position and check the instrument cluster warning lights for operation. Some warning lights do not come on until the key is turned to start, but all warning lights are lit as a test in one of those positions before the engine is started. A bulb removed from " Check Engine" or "Brake Failure" can mask a real problem.

Lift the hood and check for original parts and factory replacement parts. Check all fluid levels and the condition of those fluids.

Drive the car (if it runs) with AC and radio off. Listen for bearing noises from wheel bearings and drive shaft. Also listen to each gear for funny noises in a manual box, check for slippage in top gears in an automatic. Automatics should also be checked for proper up shifting and kick-down, as well as if it shifts properly to first gear when stopping and taking off again. Does the car go in a straight line? Does it stop in a straight line? Could this be tires or alignment or in the case of stopping, brake problems? Any thumps, clunks, squeaks or rattles from suspension will indicate more money to be spent.

The fine balance to the used car purchase dilemma is a three way tug-of-war: Want, Need and Price. Want and Need are the hardest to decide, while price is the final factor. Is this car worth time, effort and money or is it a rolling parts bin?

Be familiar with what you want, as well as the current market price when finished. If you Want a car, but don't know what you are looking at, chances are higher you will buy unseen nightmares. Know the value first!

So next time you see an old, tired, wet and hungry Bimmer staring at you from some obscure parking lot, maybe this will help you separate the Wants from the Needs. It's possible your offer may be kinder than mine.