Thursday, September 14, 2017

Are you about to buy a gem or junk?

Let’s say you’re going to see a van listed by a private seller. Let’s also say your mechanical knowledge comes only from having driven for most of your teen and adult life. You aren’t a gearhead. You don’t own tools. The names of engine parts mean nothing to you. How do you make a preliminary assessment of whether the van is probably in pretty good shape and worth having a mechanic check it out further, or whether it’s a pile of trouble and to walk away?

First of all, make sure the seller has a clear title in hand. If not, don’t bother going any further. If he says he does, then ask to see the title first thing when you go to see the van. Compare the VIN number on it to the one on the van. Again, if he can’t show it or it doesn’t match the vehicle, walk away.

Ask ahead of time if you’ll be able to take the van for a test drive? If not, move on. Go when there's plenty of daylight. Never buy a vehicle in the dark—literally and figuratively.

I think you can tell a lot about the condition of a vehicle from the condition of the owner and his surroundings. People who take care of themselves and the things in their lives tend to take care of their vehicles. There are exceptions, like the guy who is so focused on cars and trucks and all things mechanical that everything else is unimportant.

So, maybe you could let slide a weedy, junk-filled yard and bad hygiene, but let’s look at the van itself. Has it been prepped to sell? Does the seller care enough to clean it out and wash it? Better yet, does it look like it has always been kept neat and clean? Does it look like a vehicle that has been used until, oh, the past couple of weeks, or does it look like it has been sitting for years? Are the registration and inspection fairly current or did they expire long ago?

Do the tires look properly inflated or mostly flat? Is the tread wear even? Are the tires old, dried out and cracked?

Look at the ground under the van. Are there oily spots or puddles of something other than rain?

Open the door and take a good whiff. What do you smell? Essentially nothing? Maybe the lingering aroma of cleaning products? (Not pleasant, but generally a good sign.) Or does it smell musty, mildewed, moldy? Like food gone bad? Like car-sick kids or incontinent animals/humans? Like something you never hope to smell again? Does it smell like the engine compartment? Like exhaust? It shouldn’t.

Did all the doors open easily and swing without binding or creaking? Look at the weatherstripping around the doors and windows. Is it in place or hanging loose in spots? Is it flexible or dry and brittle? Do the windows roll up and down easily? Do the doors lock and unlock easily—with the buttons and with the key? Are there at least two keys?

Look at the upholstery and carpeting. Does it look clean or like a disease farm? Is the wear and tear consistent with the vehicle mileage?

Speaking of mileage, beware if it’s an older vehicle with the type of odometer that has numbers on little wheels. They can be turned back. Also, if there are only five digits other than the tenths, you have no way of knowing (other than the seller’s word) whether it’s 73,294 miles, 173,294 miles, 273,294 miles or more.

Is the driver seat sufficiently comfortable? Do the adjustments work? Do all the controls and buttons work? Lights, signals (get out and check), climate control, radio, power mirrors, power windows and locks (if so equipped)? Is anything missing, like knobs, buttons, levers, cranks, mirrors? Turn the steering wheel. Is there a lot of slack?

Does the van start easily on the first try? Does it turn over at all? A dead battery means the seller didn’t care enough about the vehicle to keep it running. A dead battery means the seller wasn’t really going to let you take a test drive. It means, at the least, that the van has been sitting a long time and, at the worst, there’s something wrong with the electrical system—something you probably don’t want to adopt as your problem. It could also mean the seller knows there’s something seriously wrong with other parts of the van and he doesn’t want you to find out by starting or driving it.

If it starts, does it idle easily? Does it rev smoothly? Or are there weird noises like clunking, grinding, clicking and whining? Any weird smells, like exhaust, hot antifreeze, hot wiring, or dead rodents in the air ducts? Does the climate control actually provide heat and cold like it should?

Turn off the engine, get out, and look under the van. (You brought a flashlight and something like a sheet of cardboard, right?) Is anything dripping? Smoking? Scoot as far under as you can. Does anything look wet with oil? Does anything look held together with duct tape or baling wire? How rusty are things? Poke around on the frame, suspension and van floor with a screw driver. Is the metal rigid or does it give way? Are there already rust holes?

Don't forget things above eye level. Climb up in the back doorway and examine the roof for rust or peeling paint. Check for rust around all the door openings.

Start the engine again and open the hood. You can’t see much of van engines, but what you can see should be dry, or maybe have a very very light oily sheen. Look at the underside of the hood. Does it look like oil or coolant have sprayed on it? Are there any of the weird sounds or smells mentioned earlier? Is there any smoke or steam, anything squirting out? Go look at the tailpipe. Is it smoking even after a couple of minutes? If so, what color is the smoke?

Now it’s time for the test drive. Does the parking brake release easily? Does the transmission shift into gear easily and precisely? Roll forward a little and use the brakes. Does the van stop? Was there any grinding? Roll faster and try the brakes again. Test the brakes in reverse, too.

If you’ve never driven something the size of a van, it will feel different. It won’t turn as sharply or stop as quickly. You’ll have more blind spots. It will feel top heavy. It will feel huge. But you’ll eventually get used to it.

Head down the road. Does the van accelerate smoothly? Does it feel strong or gutless? Does it respond to your gas pedal movements or is there a lag? Does the transmission change gears smoothly? Are there any mechanical vibrations or wheel wobbles? Does the van track straight or do you need to keep making course corrections to keep it in the lane? Does anything rub when you turn? Do the brakes grind or squeal when you make a hard stop? Do they pulse? Does the van pull to the side?

Check the gauges. Is the temperature in the lower half of the scale? Is the alternator putting out about 14 volts? Is the oil pressure around 40 PSI? Is the Check Engine light off?

Do all the electrical items still work, or do they flicker on and off when you go over bumps or change speed? Are there still no odd smells?

Okay, so maybe everything seems healthy about the van. Good, but still have a pro check it out before making any offers. A mechanic’s informed opinion can give you a better idea of the van’s actual value. And he can tell you what things might become a problem in the future.

Or maybe there are some problems. You don’t need to know the sources of the problems or what it would take to correct them. You just need to know they exist. If the seller says they’re all simple and cheap to fix, ask why he hadn’t taken care of them, then. Knowing there are problems, you need to decide whether to spend the money to have a mechanic check it out and tell you whether the repair costs are worth it, or whether to save the time and money and just walk away and keep looking.

Sometimes the hardest part of this process is remaining cooly detached about a vehicle. Don’t fall in love with its looks or the fact it meets nearly every criteria on your checklist. Don’t get stuck on a brand. Don’t let the frustration of finding a van you can afford get you overlooking or rationalizing problems. You want the most solid, dependable, trouble-free van home you can get. Nearly everything else on your wish list is far less important.


  1. That is the best damned advice for buying used I've ever read! For my post tomorrow, I'm gonna praise this and link over my readers.

  2. Now this is VERY useful - thank you !