The pros and cons of buying a Second-hand car

Are you necessarily buying someone else's problems? Possibly.

  • Power supply for electric car charging. Electric cars charging station. Power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

If we were all totally rational about our automotive purchases, we’d all buy four-year old Buicks.

(I used to say “4-year old Oldsmobiles,” but there are no more 4-year old Oldsmobiles because the brand died in 2004.)

But the theory holds: from a cubic-metres-of-car-per-dollar perspective, you simply can’t beat buying a car whose value has depreciated faster than its utility as a mode of transportation.

Take any new car’s four wheels off the lot and somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of that car’s value goes down the road too.

Why not let the depreciation game work in your favour instead of the seller’s?

Drawbacks? Sure.

You are never “first” to drive your baby (you never really are, what with the assembly line workers doing the final checks, the transport truck driver, the lot boy/girl at the dealership.)

You may not get the latest technology: you might be an air bag or voice-activated SatNav system short of what the newest cars offer.

Boo hoo.

You typically won’t get as comprehensive a warranty with a used car – none if you buy privately – although several manufacturers now have “premium” used car programs that offer reconditioned creampuffs with extended warranty protection.

You do pay top dollar, but it’s still a better deal than brand-new.

Are you necessarily buying “someone else’s problems?” Possibly.

But lots of people have mechanical trouble with new cars too. At least you’ve got several grand in your jeans to help sort it out.

A thorough inspection by an independent mechanic is a must to further reduce your exposure.

Shopping for a used car can be time-consuming; you can’t just go to a dealership, check off a bunch of boxes on an order form, sign the cheque, and wait.

But I know people who have been paralysed for months, years, shopping for a new car. Make? Model? Options? Dealership? Yikes.

For used cars, there’s a lot of physical and/or virtual legwork scouring the want ads, the websites, the car lots. Chances are you won’t find perfection: not exactly the colour you want (after 37 years of marriage, how did I know Lady Leadfoot hated silver cars?), not exactly the equipment you want, not exactly the condition or the price you want.

At least, it comes down to a simple binary decision: Yes? Or no?

When Lady Leadfoot and I bought our BMW 2002 shortly after we were married, we test-drove every (used) one we could find. The routine was that I’d be impressed, and when the sales rep asked for the business, she’d look all innocent and say, “We need to go home and think about it.”

At one store, she missed her cue. She looked at me and said, “Can you see any reason why we shouldn’t buy this one?”

The sales rep licked his pencil. It was one of the best cars we ever owned.

Our GMC Suburban was our toughest used-car purchase ever. (Me? In an SUV? When that fourth kid comes along, you really have no choice.)

What made it so hard? Generally, there are two types of Suburbans: new and used-up. If you need a ‘Burb, why would you ever sell it unless it was baked?

We eventually found one (in Welland – we had the jungle drums banging loud on this one) previously owned by a purple-haired couple who hauled their Airstream down to Arizona every fall and back every spring.

High mileage, but easy mileage. I don’t think the back seat had ever been sat in.

After 300,000 km the engine was rebuilt, then the transmission, and it eventually rusted away. Great truck though.

One caveat: don’t buy used cars from friends. They have grown accustomed to their car’s frailties and probably remember it from when it was new.

The worst of those in Kenzie Fleet history was – ironic, given my opening line – a Buick. Or as the kids called it, a PEE-YEW-ICK.

The first time I parked it at a car company while road-testing something, I came back to find a flat tire. Got out the old bumper jack. Jacked that bumper up jes’ fine; rest of the car stayed right where it was. It had pulled the bumper right out from those shock absorbers that were the car makers’ first attempt at crash-proof bumpers.

This was the car Adam Sandler sings about (Google it. I can’t mention it in a family newspaper).

Our best used car ever? Aside from my Hornet, which really doesn’t count?

It would be the 2003 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon we have now. (Yes, it is silver.)

Like the Suburban, good used ones are thin on the ground. If you need/want/have one, why would you sell it?

At the time, three years ago, VW wasn’t importing any new diesels, which made the supply even tighter.

I stumbled across this unit at our local VW store. 133,000 km. Couldn’t tell it from new. Except the price was half what the original owner had paid three years earlier.


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