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Buy Used

The Inexpensive Way To Be Cool

Photography by Philip Royle


It’s time to bite the bullet and purchase a better car. We know the feeling. At any given time, there is at least one MAX staffer ready to forego his present ride for something newer, quicker, more refined, and explicitly German. An excellent reason for disregarding your present vehicle and chasing your dream ride is that the cars you drooled over three years ago are for sale again. They’re more affordable now than ever, and in most instances they’re still in great condition.
Hunting for the ideal used vehicle, especially lease returns, allows for a cheaper initial buy-in while giving you the ability to seemingly live above your means. (That’s a good thing.—MAX.) That’s not to say that buying cars that are older than three years is out of the question, but if you head out to purchase a ten-year-old car, there are things to be wary of, such as accident damage and lest we forget the mythical rolled back odometer. Aside from the problems that need to be taken on a case-by-case basis, we thought we should arm you with the tools to go out onto the used car battlefield and not come back with too much debt or owning a lemon. In order to keep the costs down, everything mentioned in this article can be done for little to no cost, from product research to actually finding the ideal used car. In most cases, you don’t even have to leave your living room.


Choosing a Model
Many people dream of driving a BMW, but accompanying their first steps into a BMW dealership comes the abrupt reality of a $35,000 sticker price. Instead of heading straight to the nearest KIA dealership, look for the pre-owned section. Once there, you’ll be overwhelmed with the hidden utopia of affordable Bavarian dream cars. Mid ’90s E36 325i sedans and coupes can be picked up for around $20,000, and if you’re willing to go the hatch route, early 318ti models are now more affordable than new Sephias. Even E36 M3s can be purchased for less than a new 323Ci.
Pre-owned sections even turn the originally pricey VW Corrado into an any-man car. The G60 is not a bad motor, but it does have the unfortunate stereotype of a dying compressor. Thanks to that, used G60s can be found for as low as $5,000. The VR6 models hold their value better, and for $10,000 you can get behind the wheel of what is arguably VW’s ultimate supercar or, if you want an Audi A4 but the asking price of a new one is too much, try getting a ’97 1.8T and saving nearly 10 grand.
The point of these examples is to prove that the sky is the limit when choosing a used MRyde. Somewhere, someone more fortunate than yourself is trying to get rid of their ride and get into a newer, more expensive car, which is exactly where you need to be.


The Basics of Looking
A good rule of thumb is to be very leery of a modified car. Aftermarket parts are usually more sturdy than OEM parts, but the fact remains that aftermarket parts were probably installed for a reason, and that reason being the owner wanted to drive the car harder than the stock parts would allow. The ideal person to purchase a used car from is a little old lady who garaged the car, only using it to drive to the post office every third Tuesday. With the exception of a few cobwebs, that car is guaranteed to be in like-new condition.
Unfortunately, little old ladies have a tendency to hold onto their cars for many years, so utilize the old folks when searching for a great deal on a car that is a little older. Regardless, when searching for a vehicle you have a choice: You can head straight to the dealership, break open the newspaper, or log onto the Internet.
Dealerships are always tempting. Of everywhere used cars hide, dealerships seem to be the place where most of them flock. Heading to a dealership makes searching for a car quicker and easier, but the best deals are usually found when buying a car third party.
Another thing to consider is that although dealerships offer tempting guarantees and warranties, modifying your car will more than likely void the warranty, so think twice when you make it to the finance department. In addition, prices will probably be higher because dealerships have the added costs of purchasing the car, storing the car, and then there is always the coveted commission. What it boils down to is if you’re in need of a car quickly, dealerships are the place to go; if you want a deal, buy the car direct from the owner. Keep in mind, however, that for every rule, there are always exceptions.


Options
Once you’ve established the dream car you’re ready to own, you need to decide what options you can’t live without, and then find a car, with those options, in acceptable condition. This is where the differences between buying new and buying used becomes most prevalent. This part is also the area where you will ultimately have to compromise more than you would like. Fortunately, the aftermarket can usually make up the difference.
Set your priorities. Start with the major options and work your way down. For example, decide if you want a manual or an automatic transmission. For us, that is the ultimate deciding factor. If a car is an automatic, converting it to a manual tranny is more work than we want, so we walk on by. Next, decide which major features you need. By major, we’re not talking about power windows, door locks, or memory seat adjustments. Although these features are convenient, you can live without them or even retrofit them at a later date with minimal cost and hassle. What we’re talking about are power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning. These three features, although standard on most vehicles, are difficult and costly to add after the fact. If there is an incredible deal on a car without air conditioning, and a/c is a necessity in your climate, although the car may be $1,000 cheaper than one with a/c, it will probably cost more to retrofit the compressor.
After the major features are determined, in this case a manual transmission with power steering, brakes, and air conditioning, the rest is just gravy. Leather seats are always nice, and so are cruise control and a nice shiny red paint job, but these are areas of compromise; you won’t be stuck with a pea green paint scheme and orange carpet for the life of the car, since you can always have it repainted and reupholstered. In fact, use that at the bargaining table when trying to drive down the price.


Associated Costs
Although you may be able to afford the monthly payments on a three-year-old M3, you may not be able to afford the insurance and fuel costs. Additional items that suddenly send a car from affordable to a pain in the neck are called associated costs. The largest associated cost is usually auto insurance. You need insurance, and, in most states if you’re financing the vehicle, you’ll need comprehensive coverage.
Aside from that, if you purchase a high-performance sports car, also keep in mind that you’ll be paying for it every time you pull up to the gas pumps, as they tend to guzzle more expensive grades of fuel at a higher rate. Some states base vehicle registration costs on model year and original sticker price, too. Mechanics also seem to base labor and parts costs on the original vehicle sticker price. And then there is always the proven fact that the higher the speeds the car is capable of, the more speeding tickets you’ll get. But if you own your dream car, do any of these really matter?

Pricing a Car
By this point, you know what car you want and what features you absolutely can’t live without, so it’s time to get a good idea as to what your dream car will cost you. There are several means of doing this. The most obvious way is to pick up the classified section or head to a used car dealership and see what your dream car is selling for. The better way is to do some research first.
If you have the Internet, you can simply log onto one of the various sites that offer free pricing information. Two of these sites can be found at www.kellybluebook.com and www.edmunds.com. These Web sites allow you to input year, make, and model of the car in question and it will supply pricing. This is where you get the advantage over the dealer. (If you don’t have the Internet, both of these references can be found at your local book store.—MAX).
Dealerships have a nasty tendency to follow the Kelly Blue Book pricing. Most dealerships will even be so nice at to print Blue Book pricing sheets and hand them out or stick them on the windows of cars. If you head to any pricing Web site, you’ll see that most offer two separate price estimations: One is the price you should expect to pay at the dealership, while the other is the price you should expect to get for a car, if you were to trade it in. If dealers go by the Blue Book value, as they claim to, then the price they paid to get the car on the lot will have been no higher than the Blue Book suggested trade-in value. In many cases, the difference between the retail and trade-in value is as much as $2,000. That $2,000 is an area of negotiation you can use when at the dealership in order to reduce the cost of the car, as that money is pure profit for the dealer.
People selling their cars as a private party usually have two factors determining the sale price. The first is the Blue Book value, otherwise known as the Bible of automotive selling. The second factor that determines cost is the amount they still owe on the car. People selling a car will always want enough money to pay off what they owe on the car, and then leave them with enough to make a nice down payment on their next ride. If you can determine how much is owed on the car, then you know the lowest dollar amount they are willing to sell the car for. As most people are poor negotiators, they will generally tell you the amount they owe if you simply ask.


Peace of Mind
Once you’ve finally found the car you want, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Always ask if the car has been in an accident, or if there are any major mechanical problems you should know about. If at all possible, take the car to a trusted mechanic to have the car looked over by a professional. Spending a little time and money before you purchase the vehicle may end up saving you more in the long run.
When you’re signing contracts, always read them over thoroughly, and make sure you understand every word and phrase. Two key items are the vehicle price you’ve agreed upon and the interest rate. Make sure each figure is clearly printed on the contract and once everything is signed, keep a copy.
After you’ve researched, found, and purchased your dream car, take time to enjoy the car. Most people fret over purchases costing $100, yet for some reason dropping $15,000 doesn’t faze them—possibly because the amount is so large that it’s incomprehensible, unless you have $15,000 in your bank account to withdraw. For most of us, purchasing a car turns into a monthly payment that leaves us with enough cash to customize the car over time. The important thing to keep in mind is knowing you got the best possible deal on the car of your dreams, and in the end that is what truly counts.

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