It’s the primary fear in the used-car shopping process. It keeps used-car shoppers up at night. It makes them wonder if they’re getting a good deal, if the seller is hiding something, and whether the vehicle in question will provide years of worry-free operation. Was the vehicle loved, respected and appreciated? Or was the new ride you’re considering neglected or abused or treated like a toddler’s play-thing? Was it maintained? Beaten up? Driven hard? Deprived of all-important fluid changes?
Remember – if in doubt, a mechanic can give your potential new ride a quick and affordable inspection that examines the condition of major systems and components for signs of expensive trouble. Your favourite mechanic can also expertly look for warning signs that the ride you’re considering was once owned by any of the following folks. If that’s the case, move to another model in a jiff.
Name: Neutral-Drop Ned
Bio: Ned likes vaporizing other people’s tires, Metallica, staying out late, Fubar movies, and chirping his buds. He hates his parents, stop signs, the local police force, and traction control, which is a total buzz-kill when he’s trying to spin his tires out of the Tim Hortons drive-through exit.
Ned might drive the family Camry, but that doesn’t stop him from engaging in racecar-style antics every chance he gets. Ned is like a motoring Honey Badger – he doesn’t give a hoot. He loves the smell of burning tires, loves the sound of the rev-limiter, and has minimal between-the-ears horsepower when it comes to understanding vehicular longevity and repair costs.
Often, Ned gives into peer pressure, possibly engaging in neutral-drops to impress his buddies, and especially the ladies, by engaging maximum revs in neutral and then slamming the transmission into DRIVE for a wicked-awesome burnout. Further, Ned operates the throttle, steering and brakes like on/off switches and has no mechanical sympathy for the components engaged.
Warning Signs: Neutral Drop Ned’s car likely has some degree of transmission damage, tire and brake wear – and isn’t likely to live as long and healthy a life as if someone a little more, er, gentle, drove it. Pay close attention to transmission shift quality, noting any slipping, surging or clunking. Be sure the shifter moves smoothly between all positions, and note that a knocking noise from under the hood could be the result of a baffed motor or transmission mount. Scrutinize the tires and brakes to be sure Ned hasn’t been driving the model in question. Check the transmission fluid for signs of excessive contamination, or a black, burned look or smell. Ned’s dad wonders why he has to replace the rubber every few months, but this time around, he’ll try and pass the bill for new tires onto you. If you or your mechanic suspects that Ned has had some seat time in the model you’re considering, move to another model for maximum confidence.
Name: Oblivious Olivia
Bio: Olivia loves yoga, Payless BOGO sales, gardening, Pinterest and cherub figurines on doilies all over her coffee tables. She dislikes gluten, her daughter-in-law, and especially, visiting her mechanic.
Olivia knows the important thing about cars – that they have keys that you turn to make them go. To Olivia, operating a vehicle requires starting the engine and driving off, with occasional stops to refuel. Simple! She’s not too concerned about oil changes, maintenance, brake servicing or fluid flushes. In fact, she doesn’t know what engine oil, maintenance, brake servicing or fluid flushes are. Her last oil change was in 2007, her brakes have been squealing for two years, and her air filter is more full of crap than the dog park after the spring thaw.
Warning Signs: Olivia’s car hasn’t been subjected to the regular maintenance required for a car to live a long and healthy life. Usually, an owner’s manual has a schedule or log in the back, where the dealer mechanic can record the factory-prescribed maintenance jobbies as they’re performed. Olivia’s owner’s manual is still wrapped in plastic. Her engine oil is grimy syrup being pumped through a contaminant-encrusted filter. If that doesn’t cause catastrophic engine damage, her timing belt, which could snap at any moment because it’s never been changed, might.
Olivia’s car has limited stopping power because the brakes have never been serviced, and it’s probably achieving dismal fuel mileage too – thanks to that dirty air filter and filthy spark-plugs. Best defense against buying a car formerly owned by Olivia? Look for a model with full service records available, or ask a mechanic’s opinion as to whether the vehicle appears to have been well maintained. If not, thank Olivia for her time, and run.
Name: Collision Carrie and Smashy Shonequia
Age: 23 and 25
Bio: These sisters love their spray tan, shoe-shopping, TLC albums and designer micro-mutts carried around in designer purses. They also love texting, selfies, texting their selfies, and taking selfies of themselves texting. And, what’s the best place to take a selfie to text to your girls? In the car on the way to the shoe store at 110 km/h. Duh!
Warning Signs: Carrie and Shonequia’s selfie-texting leaves little time for paying attention to the road ahead. As a result, their Mustang Convertible has rear-ended numerous vehicles, side-swiped a few others, and lost control, at least once roundhouse-kicking a guardrail in the face. Daddy’s insurance rates have skyrocketed, but thanks to the sketchy, low-budget body shop next to the mall, the girl’s beloved ride gets re-painted almost as often as their fingernails.
Carrie and Shonequa’s Mustang, therefore looks pristine outside – but beneath the skin, damage to the vehicle’s frame, alignment, and other issues lie in wait. The vehicle’s finish will peel, flake off or age prematurely. Bondo and other fillers are used excessively, and poorly re-attached bumpers, and other issues, will all cause future problems. Look carefully at this ride, ensuring that all panels line up, that it passes the ‘magnet’ test for the presence of body filler, and spend the few bucks on a Carfax or similar report, just to be safe.
Name: Beige Betsy
Bio: Betsy loves church, sweaters, springtime, Matlock, when people speak up while talking to her, and things that she remembers. She’s not so very fond of teenaged nincompoops, noises, and driving in general.
Betsy is a fan of beige. Her clothes are beige. Her 1950’s era living room furniture is beige (and flowery). And, of course, her LeSabre is beige, too. She often parks by touch, never accelerates, and never pushes her luck by driving near the speed limit like a squirrely hooligan. Neither Betsy nor her family worry much about her car being maintained, since she drives about 87 kilometres a year.
Warning Signs: Some of the concerns with Betsy’s car will be easy to spot. Check the body, and especially the bumpers, for signs of damage. Above-average levels of scraping, denting or scuffing can be taken as warning signs. Further, although Betsy’s car is likely very clean and low mileage, a full check for rust, especially in pesky, hidden areas like the inner, lower edges of the doors and trunk, should be considered mandatory. The exhaust system, which has collected moisture but never been hot enough to burn it all off, may be excessively rusty, too.
Betsy’s car might suffer from electrical component issues caused by an improperly-charged battery – since it only gets driven occasionally and for short periods. Check Engine lights or fussy operation of certain vehicle systems, especially on a newer model, are key warning signs. And, since Betsy’s engine is likely to be carboned-up from years of frustratingly gentle throttle application and limited time spent at operating temperature, be on the lookout for signs of a rough idle, hesitation or inconsistent power delivery which can be caused by clogged injectors or valve-gunk buildup.
And remember – although oil changes are typically done after a given mileage, oil can absorb moisture and other contaminants in a car that sits for extended periods – so be sure to check the condition of all of Betsy’s fluids. Best defense against buying a car formerly owned by Betsy? Ask a mechanic to look at the battery and charging system, exhaust system, and all fluids, for peace of mind. At least the seats will be pristine, since they’re all covered in doilies.
Name: Mud-Bog Mike
Bio: This feller is a big fan of winches, big-ass obnoxious auxiliary lighting, truck-nuts, off-road tire noise and his sister. Conversely, he hates cleaning things, city folk, and those pesky crossover SUVs.
Mike loves his 4x4, and unlike most pampered city folk, he takes his ride out for a mud-bath with his buddies every weekend. Mike lives for getting stuck, flinging turf from his tires, and bragging about getting farther into a field of rutted slop than his buds. Crossing deep water, whacking stuff with his machine’s underbelly and climbing steep things are all done on the daily. He’s had a few inches of muddy water in his cabin, more than once, thanks to various off-road whoopsies.
Warning Signs: Mike’s truck will probably clean up real nice. He might even take the pressure washer to the underside to clean off the sand, impacted dirt and grass hanging from his frame. And he’ll blast out the wheel wells, shampoo the engine and clean the cabin carefully, too. After all – nobody wants to buy a truck that looks like it spent 360 days a year as some slack-jawed yokel’s beloved mud-rocket, right?
Thing is, there’s probably muddy water in his differentials, and maybe his transmission. This is very bad news. Electronic components inside the vehicle may have been submerged in water when Mike tried to cross that stream his buddies swore “wasn’t that deep”. As a result, they’ll likely operate with limited consistency and cause frustrating and difficult-to-diagnose issues down the line.
Wheel-bearings, axle seals, driveshaft joints, brake caliper seals and other pricey bits may have been exposed to excessive wear from use while surrounded by mud, dirty water and sand, and the underside of Mike’s truck likely has numerous dents and scrapes that’ll invite premature rust. Dampness may be apparent in the carpeting, and dirt, sand and rust may be present beneath it.
Best defense? Trucks and other 4x4 vehicles should be put in the air on a mechanic’s hoist for a full underbelly inspection. Have the mechanic note any signs of damage, rust, leaks or other issues caused by careless off-roading. Further, have him check the condition and level of all fluids, just to be safe.
Name: Tuner Timmy
Bio: Timmy likes Ferraris, Lamborghinis, sticker-wraps, Altezza lights, smack-talking haters and underglow lights. He mostly hates cars that are stock, cars that aren’t custom-modified imports, and running out of plasti-dip.
Bio: Timmy has high-performance car aspirations but works nine hours a week and frequently eats at a restaurant with a 99-cent menu. He can’t have the 458 Italia or Aventador from the poster on his bedroom/parent’s basement wall, but that won’t stop him from buying all sorts of low-quality add-on parts and half-assing them onto his Cobalt or Sentra for extra cool factor until he hits it big one day.
So, Timmy’s car has xenon lights, a body kit, lowering springs, a custom stereo system, a magnaflow exhaust, intake, bright red spark-plug wires and maybe even a turbo kit, all fabbed-up and installed by him and his buddies in the driveway.
Warning Signs: On the surface, some of these parts make nice add-ons, though buying a vehicle upgraded with low-quality parts, low-quality installation and unprofessional modification of its systems is a great way to wind up with a serious headache.
Improperly installed parts can pose a safety hazard, fire hazard, and adversely affect fuel economy and durability. They may even be illegal. Low-quality parts, including that set of seventeen-dollar xenon projectors from eBay and that body-kit from Uzbekistan that was painted with a few cans of spray-bomb, aren’t likely to last. And, hacking into a vehicles wiring for aftermarket lights, stereo equipment and the like, especially on newer vehicles, can be a disaster waiting to happen.
Turbo kits installed to a non-turbo car can be a naughty bit of fun. Or, when installed on a budget without proper supporting modifications and engine re-tuning, they can send rod number 3 through the side of the block when you try to peel out of your high-school parking lot, which is embarrassing.
Best defense? Avoid a modified ride where possible, unless you’re up on the tuning scene, the parts, and how they’ll work with the model in question. Some ‘upgrades’ are safe and should cause no alarm. Others aren’t. If in doubt, move to another model or ask a mechanic for a closer look.