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Expert Series: How to Buy a Great Used Car

Pre-owned, pre-loved, pre-driven … whatever you choose to call them, used cars are pree-tty good at making us nervous buyers. We know they make great business sense; a new car loses so much of its value the minute you drive it off the lot. But we also feel that buying used poses a risk.

Is it better to buy from a dealer or privately? Is it true that former rental cars should be avoided? Do we really need to get a mechanic to check out a potential purchase? I had so many questions for mechanic Paul Piacampo, owner of Guelph Auto Tech.

I was surprised when he told me that 95 percent of the cars on Kijiji are now dealership cars, not private sales. “But it doesn’t matter if you buy from a dealership or a friend,” he says. “If the car wasn’t maintained, it will fail eventually.”

That’s why your original research is so crucial: some models are well known for certain failings or problems. If they are known for those issues but you’re willing to overlook them, don’t do so without getting an accurate sense of how much the repairs or replacement parts will be. Some are astronomical – and hard to find.

Even if the car you’re looking at has a splendid safety and mechanical rating, you should always try to get that vehicle’s service records. Piacampo had recently printed out 30 pages of such documents for one of his customers who was selling her car. (That’s another advantage of having a solid, regular mechanic, I think!)

In addition to service records, he points us to CARFAX. There, you can enter the vehicle’s VIN number and find its history. That will include title information (including salvaged or junked titles), odometer reading (because sellers can roll them back), frame or structural damage, whether it has been used as a taxi or rental car, and pretty well everything else imaginable. CARFAX will even do a warranty report for you. No, the reports are not free ($39.99 for one), but the helpful car-buying guides on the site are.

It is still very much worth taking any car you are considering to your mechanic for an objective examination. “It’s always best to have someone you trust look at the car, and not just in a parking lot,” Piacampo advises. “Have it put up on a hoist, because there are things underneath you just can’t see from above. Are there parts under there that have been repainted? Why? Was there an accident they’re not telling you about? And rust – rust is very, very costly. Your mechanic should also check the colour of the fluids to see if things are up to date with maintenance.”

Piacampo chooses to do these inspections for free for some long-term customers, and most others’ rates will surprise you, too. Some mechanics just charge $40 or $50 to spend 30 minutes giving it a once-over. “It’s well worth it for peace of mind and to know you’re buying smart,” he explains. “And if the buyer isn’t willing to let your mechanic see it, walk away. What are they hiding?”

As for the age-old question about whether former rental cars are a good idea, Piacampo doesn’t generally see a problem. The rentals tend to be sold at 50,000 km, often at auction, where they’re bought by dealers. They’re sold before problems can arise, and dealers legally have to advise you of the car’s rental history. A lot of those vehicles still have an original warranty — a nice bonus, because significant problems with any car (rental or not) don’t tend to kick in to 80,000 to 100,000 km.

Piacampo closed our conversation with a cautionary note about purchasing a new warranty with your new-to-you car. Those second- and third-party providers are very specific with what is and is not covered. There’s a lot of fine print to go through, and Piacampo urges you to go through it very carefully before signing anything. A number of people have brought vehicles to his shop believing they were under warranty, only to find out that the common part or problem was, in fact, not covered.

“Don’t spend money for nothing,” he concludes.