With Used Cars, You Get What You Pay For

If you've come across a “good deal,” take a closer look. It may not be, well, good.

The active mind of Prius Man—my small-vegetable-plot-upstate-owning, Brooklyn-dwelling, Prius-driving friend—is again churning through ideas. He wants to know if yet another hipster fad will benefit him financially (or, perhaps, spiritually). He’s considering buying a diesel pickup truck and running it on fryer grease – y’know, BIOdiesel, maaan. There are myriad problems that can be encountered if you want to go in this direction, not least of which is converting the grease into usable oil (not impossible, but a lot of work).

But Prius Man’s primary challenge is his budget. Buying a used car is such a tricky thing, but these days, having at least $3,000 (depending upon the vehicle you want) at your disposal goes a long way toward limiting tribulation and disappointment further (sometimes not all that much further) down the line. Prius Man had sent me a number of Craigslist ads from Upstate New York depicting rusty, decrepit trucks that looked sure to end up breaking in two at some point, potentially breaking his heart and/or wallet in the process. Not one of them was listed for more than $1,800.

So I explained to Prius Man one of the cardinal rules of used car shopping: Pay more now, or pay a lot more later. Diesel pickups, with their robust powertrains, are sought-after workhorses even decades after their new-car smell has worn off. The asking price for a 20-year-old example of one can be staggering. In other words, unless you know someone who likes you enough to practically give one away (or you buy one from someone who “doesn’t know what they have”), you’re probably not getting one for $1,800 unless there’s a good reason for it. Or, really, a bad reason for it. Like rusted brake lines or a fuel tank that looks like Swiss cheese or a moldy animatronic Chucky Cheese rotting in the bed under a pile of green and black aluminum scraps.

The message here is very simple. Every used car has a market value. Good used cars that sell for less than their market value usually get snapped up very quickly, and for good reason. Most sellers, though, will try to get as much as the market will bear when they put a vehicle up for sale. That means that if you see a rusty old hulk “for sale, cheap,” there’s a catch. Usually, the catch is that it’s a pile of crap.

To illustrate what I mean about pay now or pay more later, I’ll draw from my extensive list of bonehead purchases. Some years ago, I was on the hunt for an early Toyota 4Runner—one of the ones with a removable fiberglass top. Naturally, I didn’t have much money at my disposal, so when I found one for sale at a price significantly lower than all the others on the market, I jumped at the seller’s bait.

The seller, a man with a gold tooth who said he worked in one of Virginia’s fine correctional institutions, assured me that the vehicle was in tip-top shape. It had been painted (which was perfectly clear, as the normally black top was body colored), the original wheels had been swapped out for chrome ones and a rather flamboyant body-colored visor had been added above the windshield. I wasn’t a huge fan of the aesthetic, but how could I resist such a deal?!

I drove the truck home, then, after changing the oil, took it on a surf trip up the Jersey Shore. Imagine my surprise when I had to fill up the fuel tank after only 220 miles of driving. After crunching the numbers to figure out fuel economy, I found out that I was only getting 13 mpg—not at all normal consumption for a 4-cylinder engine. Then the engine began stalling out. Then it wouldn’t start. Yep, something was wrong.

As it turned out, there was a cylinder head gasket leak that was draining coolant into number four cylinder (the back one). Someone—probably the nice, gold-toothed gentleman who’d sold me the truck—had installed a smaller-than-normal spark plug into that cylinder to relieve the pressure caused by the non-compressible water in the cylinder. It had worked well enough for the truck to run smoothly for a while, but then, as the leak had progressed, the jerry-rigged repair wasn’t enough vent the fluid entering the cylinder.

The result was a cracked cylinder head (luckily, none of the internal engine parts had been damaged), along with an $800 repair bill from the machine shop, a lot of work to replace the head gasket and a generally unfavorable view of prison guards.

All that’s a really lengthy way of explaining the skeletons that can be hiding in the closet of a “good deal.” Unless it’s free—and even then—any vehicle should be checked out more thoroughly than I checked that 4Runner before plunking down a couple thousand dollars that was, at the time, a lot of money for my $8 an hour-making ass to pay. (The reason I mention free vehicles is because those can incur unanticipated costs, too, if they’re in poor condition.)

I have a few more stories like that up my sleeve, and if pressed, will tell them. Suffice to say, it took me a while of “learning the hard way” to actually learn anything.

So I’ll tell you what I told Prius Man: save up a little extra cash – at least three times as much in his case – and buy something you won’t regret later. Take your time, get the vehicle checked out by a mechanic if you aren’t one yourself. And for god’s sake, if your gut tells you that there’s something, anything, that ain’t right—either about the vehicle or in the seller’s demeanor—walk away. There are other fish in the sea, so to speak.

You’ll thank yourself later.