6 Things Every Sucker Should Know Before Buying a Used Car
Buying a used car is like going to a dentist who wants to knock out your old teeth and sell you new ones. Everybody involved in the process is assuredly biased, possibly psychotic, and actively wants to do you bodily harm. More sad, dissatisfied people have left car dealerships than strip clubs, and it's no wonder: Cars are extremely complicated, terribly expensive, and for some reason every one is guarded by a small gang of pathological liars. It's one of the worst experiences of your life, and you need somebody trustworthy to help you. Unfortunately, you've got me. Lucky for you, I have bought and destroyed more cars than is technically allowable by the United States government, and am therefore legally obligated to actually try to help you in this column, which I do as a "service" to the "community." I think we can get through this, if you take my advice to heart.*
*Well, except for all the times I tell you to "flip the table on them bitches." That's just some good general advice I try to work in everywhere, and may not be applicable to the situation at hand.
Do Your Research
Never, ever walk into a dealership "just to see what they've got." Salesmen see that aimless stare on your face and they're like starving cartoon wolves -- they don't even see a person; all they see is a giant walking turkey leg. Most small and midsize dealerships will have online inventories. Check those out in advance and start looking up the models you're interested in, then read up on each one: Comb through car sites like Edmunds, click on forum posts by owners, get the specs and find out about users' experience with reliability -- hell, go to Wikipedia and bone up on the entire history of the model and the powertrain you're considering. Back in school, you'd do the same amount of research for a book report on Huck Finn just because an older lady in a paneled skirt threatened you with the alphabet -- you can do the same legwork for a multi-thousand-dollar purchase you're going to entrust your life to every time you leave the house to get a burrito. Whatever you do, the point is to come in with a mental list: Do not let them steer you outside of that list to a car that you're not familiar with. Adventure is wondrous and grand, but the used car lot is not the place to listen to strange old men in tattered clothes whisper of magical chariots.
"It's dangerous to go alone. Take this Daihatsu!"
Now this is the important part, so pay attention: No matter what anybody tells you -- no matter how respectable the source -- never, ever, ever buy the Kia. Regardless of dealership affiliation, every used car lot on the planet has a dull red Kia out back that they want to show you. It's going to feel wrong, somehow, like the air around it has gone stale. That's the universe trying to warn you. There will be rational arguments, and your brain is gonna be all like, "Hey, it sounds like they've gotten a lot better lately," and, "Look, even the car magazines think they've got some decent models." But there's a very simple explanation for this illusion: It's a vast government conspiracy and everybody is in on it but me. They are terrible cars that will explode and betray you, no matter how meticulously you care for them. Isn't that right, Optima, you fickle bitch?! You broke my heart! And for what? A measly 15,000 miles? I thought we had something! I spent two years inside of you. Does that mean nothing?!
Dealing With the Dealer
You need to treat the first few moments at a dealership like an old-timey mobster being interrogated by the coppers: You don't say nothin' about nothin'. Financing? What's that? Trade-ins? Ha, what a hilarious portmanteau of gibberish! Price range? I don't even speak English.
The first step is just and only to find the car you want, go over it carefully, take stock of any work that needs doing, and barter out the final price. Only when that's all settled do you talk about trading in something. Why would you discuss trade-ins right up front if you haven't even found a car you like? You're not even sure you're shopping there yet. The grocery store doesn't pull you aside when you walk in the doors and ask how much you're planning to spend today. So why do dealerships always want to know your price, payment and trades first? Because it gives them leverage against you: "Oh, well, if we're going to do you a favor and take this trade-in off your hands, you have to buy one of these pre-selected vehicles." Or, "Oh, you're financing? Those aren't our finance cars. Our finance cars are all dull red Kias; let's go out back and take a look."
"Ignore the disembodied voices telling you to flee. That's a ... feature. Ghost-voicing. Costs extra."
That's bullshit. Everything is a finance car. Just like everything is a cash car. The car does not care how you pay for it. It is a car. Even if it becomes sentient, it's mostly only going to care about fighting crime and ramping shit, like K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. And brother, if that happens: You let it. You buy yourself a leather jacket and a perm and get the fuck out of there; your car search is over.
There are a few basic things you can check, even if you know nothing about cars. First thing you want to do is get right up close against the side of the front fender. (This should also serve to draw out any potential sentient-car crime-fighting partners, as they cannot resist wisecracking and will likely say something cute like, "Geez, buy me dinner first." If so, then you're done: It's all cowhide coverings and curly hair for the rest of your days.) If there's little to no rapport between you and the vehicle at this point, just sight down the trim lines to make sure they're straight with no fluctuations -- offset doors, fenders, and uneven lines could indicate frame damage. Look around the engine bay at the spots where the metal struts come together -- the joints should be straight, with no signs of recent welding. Take a look underneath the car and watch for rust on the rails, in the wheel wells, or basically anywhere else. Be afraid of rust. Rust is the mind-killer. You'll think you can take rust -- it's just some pansy little oxidation, right? But you can't. Rust is better than you. Rust will laugh at your feeble angle grinders; it will spit at your steel wool and mock your puny acids. Rust will shrug off all your mightiest efforts and then, when you are broken, it will take your woman in a way that you never could.
"F ... from behind? I don't know, man; I'm just a chemical process."
Also remember to CHECK. THE. FUCKING. FLUIDS. Don't just stare at the engine with your dick in your hand, wondering if you could stop the flywheel with your cock (no matter how awesome it would be to seize a V8 with nothing but your willpower and steely erection, this is not the time for it). Pull those dipsticks out and check the reservoirs. Brake fluid is, in an ideal world, clear to slightly yellowish. But the world we live in is broken and flawed, so it's usually tea-colored. If it looks like strong coffee, you're going to need to bleed the brake system, at the very least. That's a few hundred dollars right there. It doesn't require a lot of know-how or expensive parts, so you're going to want to do it yourself.
Bleeding brakes is exactly as traumatic as bleeding your only child, only it takes like, four times as long (depending on size and age of child). Check the oil: If it looks like a Wendy's chocolate Frosty, just turn around and run. Run as fast as you can. Hop into your car and tear ass out of that dealership like The Dukes of Hazzard. That means a blown head-gasket, and it is death. If somebody assures you, "It'll still run," you can respond, "So will a man with no legs, if you shoot at him enough; that doesn't mean he'll get far." (The casual murder references let 'em know you mean business.)
"Hi, Bob. Nice to meet you. I've killed four men. Every one of them stole from me."
Make sure the coolant is clear, the transmission fluid is red or purplish (just not black or oily) and all the belts and hoses are free of cracks. Finally, if it's a new car or a big expense, you buy yourself a copy of a program like Torque, then go on eBay and get an ODBII scanner. Plug that into the car (the ODB slot is usually beneath the dash on the driver's side) and you can see literally everything about its engine in real time, right there on your smartphone. Do me a favor and look at the salesman's face when you do it: See that expression? That's what hope looks like, as it leaves the world. He's just realized he's not going to win this one, because you're from the future -- you've already done this deal.
Flip the Table on Them Bitches
Right in the middle of conversation. Mid-sentence. Just smile nice and big, reach under the lip, and flip that table up in the air. Then sit back down and coolly state, "I'm sorry -- you were saying something?"
The Test Drive
First of all: If in doubt, ramp it.
Ramping is the ultimate test of a vehicle, from its ability to accelerate, to the integrity of its suspension, to its indefinable aura of testicular fortitude. You don't want a vehicle that pusses out when it really counts, like some prissy little Jetta, do you? If they won't let you ramp anything, at least take it on the highway. And don't be gentle: A used car isn't spouse material just yet. It's a hot piece of ass at the bar; don't be afraid to give it to 'em rough and weird, because you're probably never going to see each other again. Accelerate hard, corner sharply and brake quickly. Make sure it's not shaking all over the place at high speed -- that could signal a bad alignment, control arms, bushings, tie rods -- or a bunch of other silly words that can cost you hundreds of dollars. If the pedal feels spongy while braking hard, that could mean bleeding again. If it's stiff and unyielding, it might be a bad brake booster. If the pedal shudders beneath your foot, it could need new rotors. It doesn't matter if you know or understand those words right now -- just throw them at the dealer like lawn darts at your little brother. If you still want the car despite the issues, at least it gives you ammo to drop the price later.
"Oooh, this has keys? That's no good. Let's knock a few hundred off ..."
If it's an automatic and it jolts into gear when you accelerate evenly, the transmission is probably bad. You just hop on out of that car, spare a couple of polite middle fingers for the nice salesman, and run to Mexico and sweet freedom. That is not fixable. Nobody understands transmissions -- not even a mechanic. All anybody can do about a transmission is just try to keep it happy, and try to shield our loved ones from its horrible wrath if we fail. Watch the oil pressure, battery and temperature gauges -- you probably won't be out long enough to trigger them, but they're your last resort. If something is so wrong that the gauges start maxing out during a short test drive, that car is about to transform into Shittimus Prime, the shit robot, who will shit all over your life until you are dead.
After you've done your due diligence, cussed and punched your way through a few dealerships, combed Craigslist and found it to be full of potential rapists, and attempted to appraise the integrity of every single system in a giant, complicated machine that you've probably never seen before -- you're finally ready.
You're ready to go home.
Oh, not with a quality used vehicle -- nobody promised you that. If you're smart, and you've followed this guide to the letter, you've just realized that every single vehicle for sale is an utter piece of garbage; overpriced and fundamentally broken, guarded by a zealous tribe of conmen who would rather chop off their own junk than come within spitting distance of a blue book. No, the only intelligent thing to do now is to leave with your dignity intact. Don't forget to turn dramatically at the exit and promise that they'll rue something -- almost anything will do: "The moment you met me," "the decision to cross me," or even just the boilerplate "this day" are all fine, as long as they know they'll be ruing something. Don't worry; it's all part of the dance.
It just gives them something to remember you by, because you'll be back here doing this again the next time somebody gropes you on the bus.
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.