6. My Wheel Life – How to buy a vehicle

How to buy a vehicle and look as happy as this guy!

My friend on the 1982 Virago 920 he just purchased. It was his first motorcycle. Bought from the 2nd owner who had owned it since 1984.

My friend on the 1982 Virago 920 he just purchased. It was his first motorcycle. Bought from the 2nd owner who had owned it since 1984.

Have an agreed upon way to transfer money between you and the seller.
Bring a blank Bill of Sale to fill out to show you have ownership of the vehicle. (just google “bill of sale or use this link http://www.jogero.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Car-Bill-of-Sale.jpg )
Do a bit of research on the vehicle you are considering buying for price and common failure modes of the vehicle (weak points, ex: this engine had a tendency to blow head gaskets, or the paint was bad on X year of this vehicle)

The Full Monty

While watching racing or walking through a car show is fun, there is nothing like having your own pride and joy to ride, drive, race, modify or show off. That being established, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned from buying cars with my father, from my own experiences or guiding friends as they buy their first toys. To be clear most vehicles I buy are toys but most of the points in this article can be applied to toys or to basic transportation vehicles or even lawn mowers or tractors.

Often the first thing you will need to identify is how much money you are willing or able to spend.This will depend on the year of vehicle you are buying and your access to credit. I have been lucky to be buying vehicles less than 10 years old lately so I have had access to credit. If you are buying a car more than 10 years old or an ATV/dirtbike you will likely have to come up with the cash. When calculating what you are willing to spend on a vehicle remember there are usually a lot more costs than just the purchase price. You will have to transfer the title to your name. That will cost somewhere between $20-$100 (rough guess). When you transfer the title you will then have to pay a “road use tax” at least in Iowa. This is basically “the Man” getting you for sales tax. You will also have to pay for insurance within a certain number of days. I like my current insurance company because all my vehicles are covered through them so any new vehicles are automatically umbrella’ed under my coverage when I buy it, so when I drive it home I am already covered. Lastly, if you are like me you will likely want to immediately modify your vehicle in some way to make it yours. You should keep in mind any maintenance you will have to perform immediately. New tires? $400. Oil change? $30-40. New wipers? $10. Fixing a leaky rear window that you forgot to ask the previous owner about because that seems like a silly question to have to ask? Turns out that cost me about $50 and a days work. More on that in a later post.

Where to find a vehicle?
The easiest place to find vehicles these days is Craigslist. It breaks the whole country down into areas that you shouldn’t have to drive more than an hour to find something you want. Browsing craigslist is tons of fun since there is new stuff everyday. If you are looking for a specific vehicle make/model you can become a CL power user and search via SearchTempest.

About the funniest Craigslist ad I've ever read.

About the funniest Craigslist ad I’ve ever read.

Another way to find a certain make or model is to look on a forum for that vehicle. Most specialty vehicles have a dedicated forum and usually there is a thread for vehicles for sale. Often these vehicles are well taken care of as the previous owner took enough time to look at the vehicle specific forum. Ebay Motors is also another good place to look for vehicles. My personal preference is to know what a vehicle will cost, so on Ebay Motors I prefer to search for “buy it now” vehicles only. Often Ebay Motors listings will include contact information outside of Ebay. I am not condoning or condemning that practice. I will leave that up to your judgement.

This is a 2001 Dodge Viper I found for sale on EbayMotors for $31k. The MSRP on this car new would have been anywhere between $65k-$75k. It has 15k miles which basically is a new car. For window shopping purposes, you can buy this Viper or a brand new V8 Camaro or Mustang for the same price. The Dodge will probably cost more for insurance and replacement parts. The upside of car like this is there will be thousands of other Camaros and Mustangs. How many Dodge Vipers will you see on the road? Not many.

This is a 2001 Dodge Viper I found for sale on EbayMotors for $31k. The MSRP on this car new would have been anywhere between $65k-$75k. It has 15k miles which basically is a new car. For window shopping purposes, you can buy this Viper or a brand new V8 Camaro or Mustang for the same price. The Dodge will probably cost more for insurance and replacement parts. The upside of a car like this is there will be thousands of other Camaros and Mustangs. How many Dodge Vipers will you see on the road? Not many.

It’s a great practice to bring at least one friend when vehicle shopping. Often you can get caught up in the excitement of buying a new vehicle and you can look over any problems the vehicle has. Review the following questions with your friend, bring someone you trust and enjoy the car buying experience.

Once you have found a vehicle and set up a meeting there are a myriad of questions that you should ask.
Does the seller have the title? If not why?
How long will it take to get the title? Will they hold the vehicle until they get the title for you?
Does the vehicle have a clean title?!? If not why?
Is the vehicle still under a loan? (In Iowa the bank holds the title until the loan is paid off.)
How long has the seller owned this vehicle? If it’s been a short time it’s ok to be a bit suspicious and ask a few more questions about that.
What is the primary reason for selling this vehicle?
What problems are there with the vehicle?

Then you should check the vehicle over for a few things:
Do you see any rust?

The bad spots on this car were a bit more apparent than on some cars. Floors and quarter panels, and around windows are good places to look for rust

The bad spots on this car were a bit more apparent than on some cars. Floors and quarter panels, and around windows are good places to look for rust

Do you see any dents or dings? If so where did they come from?
Take the vehicle for a drive. You should actually drive the vehicle a little “hard” during a test drive, at least I think so. You should probably ask the seller and be clear that if you break it you don’t buy it. I’m not saying hard as in reckless, but accelerate, brake, turn sharply a little, obviously safely. Note any strange noises, slow accelerations or hick ups etc.

The topic of cash is an interesting one all by itself. Do you really want to pay for an $8000 vehicle in cash? Will the person selling the car be willing to take a check? The last vehicle I helped a friend purchase, a pristine 1982 Yamaha Virago 920, we had to make an atm run the day before and the morning of, because he had hit his daily limit for withdrawing cash. If you don’t have a physical bank in your area, just getting a large amount of cash can be difficult! One time a friend of mine paid the seller via paypal. The important thing here is to establish with the seller before you show up how you will pay them, and have the money ready when you get there.

What to pay? The negotiation.
If you decide you are ready to buy the car the next thing to discuss is the price. Here you should always do your homework before you go. Kelly Bluebook is always a good place to start at least. It will get you in some sort of neighborhood if you have no clue what you should pay.

Hemmings Motor news, ebay, and craigslist are all good places to baseline similar vehicles too.
The most important thing when negotiating is that you never pay what seller is asking because he undoubtedly inflated that number because he was sure some donkey like you was going to come along and lowball him, and he was right. Ok that is a joke, but normally, in my opinion, people are willing to come down a few hundred to maybe even a few thousand, depending on exactly what you are buying. If you don’t ask you will never know. One thing though, often I will not enter a negotiation unless I’ve already decided to pay the asking price and I am mostly looking for a good deal. I’m not saying that’s the only way to do it, maybe you really won’t buy it unless the seller comes down $500 on a $10k car, but really, if you are that interested is $500 really worth you not having the car you really want? Sometimes the extra time you’d get driving the car will be worth the little extra money. Also you need to consider the time and money you are investing driving to look at all these vehicles. Gas isn’t free and neither is my time (maybe your’s is). In case anyone is interested in hiring me for anything my time starts at $100/hour, but I can be negotiated with also….

Once you have sealed the deal on your new beauty you are almost ready to take it home. You should always bring a blank bill of sale to get signed. This is always good to cover your butt. It is a document both you and the seller sign with all the relevant vehicle information and it is a legal document. You can use it in lieu of a title for 30 days (at least in Iowa). It also is something you can show the police officer when you get pulled over on your way home testing the limits in your new pride and joy.

The last vehicle I purchased (April 2014).

The last vehicle I purchased (April 2014).

I’ll share a quick story of when I bought my crotch rocket. I was cruising back to my home, it was about 60 miles away. As soon as i got on the freeway I thought “lets open it up and see what she does!” then i had a 2nd thought that said, “That’s too stereotypical crotch rocket guy I’ll just cruise” and not 1 minute later there was a cop camped between the 2 lanes. I was so happy that i had not gunned it because I probably would have ended up with a ticket and it probably would have been fast enough to lose my license! So let that be a lesson to you all!

Keep the rubber side down and go out and buy something!
Do you think I missed something? Let me know! The best thing about the internet is I can always edit it away!
What was the last (preferably fun) vehicle you bought?

11 thoughts on “6. My Wheel Life – How to buy a vehicle

  1. Axel, let me tell you there are some other tips I know of:
    1. Vehicle service history is very important, if you’re buying a car that’s <10 years, and don't plan on changing the engine any time soon, you might want to know if the previous owners took good care of it.
    2. This might sound redneck, but you might want to open up the hood too.Under the hood, you will want to take a good look for rust, check to see if the headlights align, also, the headlight screws should be untouched (even if you touch a screw head once, it will be noticeble). Look for alignment in every part of the engine compartiment. Do you see oil? That might be bad news! Check that out. In my are, most car sellers wash the engine before putting the car up for sale, so the buyer won't see any spills.
    3. There are a lot of wibsites that can give you information about a certain car, basen on it's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). A lot of people tamper with the milage of a car when they want to sell it, trying to make it look "younger"
    4. Look for rust under the rubber seal of the doors and other places where you would expect water to sit.
    5. Sit behind the car, and ask your buddy to rev it up to the max, look for the smoke that comes out. Newer cars shouldn't smoke at all, but for older cars, different colored smoke, means different thinks (White, Blue and Black smoke).
    6. If available, put the car up a lift of sorts. Grab the front wheels and try to pull them from side to side. If they have any give, that could mean a faulty bearing.
    7. The last and most important tip, a friend of mine learned this the hard way. So my buddy went to the north of Germany (1000 miles away) to buy a 2005 BMW 320. So he sees the car, does all the checks, looks for all the red flags and the car passes. What he didn't do, before starting the 1000 mile drive back home, was to check the oil level. So my buddy managed to drive about half the trip, until his engine was totalled. Some cars tend to "eat" oil (mine does 100~50 ml for every 1000 km, but it's stated on the technical sheet so it's ok), and an engine without oil is not something you would like to have.

  2. A couple other things to look for:

    1. Check for cut and re-taped wires (or damaged wiring harness). This could sometimes mean that the vehicle had been previously wrecked.

    2. Obvious paint mismatches. Again, maybe there was some body work done due to a wreck.

    I’ve also used NADAguides (http://www.nadaguides.com/) for pricing on new and used vehicles, it’s pretty useful. And lastly, do research on the car! It’s good to know what flaws and faults of the vehicle you’re interested in buying. For example, prior to buying my 98 Accord, I learned by reading various online articles that they don’t have the greatest transmissions due to a whacky design. This will help with the upkeep on your vehicle.

    • Hello JLR. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You have some good insight, look for any damage, wiring harnesses, body damage, interior damage to get an insight if the seller isn’t being completely truthful with you.

      NADA is another great site very similar to KBB that can be used to get a ball park price you should pay. – AJH

  3. Hey bud – last car I bought was one you recommended 🙂
    It was a non-running parts car to fix up my 1971 240Z.
    He had some pictures of it online, and we had agreed on a price before I started on the long journey (4 hours pulling a trailer, and I had to go through Atlanta, yuck)
    I was super excited because I don’t see many 71’s for sale … ever, which is why I bought mine.
    I got there, wasn’t as many of the parts I was looking for, but….
    Then he started unloading parts from his basement, BOOM! jackpot.
    I had everything … seats, dashboards, full gauges, carbs, intakes, balance tubes, this and that

    I think the most exciting part of this trip wasn’t that “i found my dream car”, but that I found another car like mine and I had the opportunity to pick through perfect parts at my leisure, and then sell the parts I didn’t want to another Z crazy person or two.

    Car culture kicks all other cultures’ butts. In my opinion. 🙂

    But seriously, my only tip, no matter how excited you are, and how little of a deal any imperfection on the vehicle is to you, be skeptical, and even seem a little cranky that you wasted your time coming to look at that piece of crap (actually super awesome car you are for sure not leaving without 🙂 and that everything wrong on it you have to pay someone else to fix!

    • Sounds like it was a good recommendation 😉 Always buy! Sounds like you could have benefited from asking a few more questions about what came with the car. That is a good point to make when buying used and specialty vehicles. Often the seller has a lot of “extra” parts that are included, or that he’ll include for a reduced price, or you can negotiate them in for no increase.
      Buying and selling cars/parts is a great way to meet others who are interested in the same car you are. You might even make a friend. Or they could know how to fix something that’s been confusing to you til that point.
      And your last point, always good to mask some emotion, you don’t want to show you are giddy and willing to pay whatever they want, even though it’s a toy you should still try to get the best deal you can. – AJH

  4. 00 Civic EX 5spd. Should have checked for oil spots underneath, and maybe negotiated a bit more for tires. It’s a runner now. MK

    • Hey Mark, thanks for reading! That car turned out pretty cool ! I’ve driven it. And now you’ll know what to look for next time! Good point. Any spots under the car are suspicious, then again, most of my old cars leak something, usually trans fluid.

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