Signs That Car You're Looking At Might Be a Clunker

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by Eric Peters: The



No one wants
to step into automotive doggie doo-do. It’s much harder to
get rid of a crappy car than it is to wipe you know what off your
shoe, after all. More expensive, too. So, how to avoid the stink
pile? Check it out:

The Owner

You should
always profile the current owner of a car you’re thinking about
buying. Stay away from po’ folks – and cheap folks. People
who don’t have money or who are over-tight with money can’t
(or don’t) pay for regular maintenance like oil/fluid changes
– and that’s probably the single biggest decider as far
as the current condition of the car, as well as its prospects for
a long life (and expensive repairs down the road). If the guy selling
the car looks like he’s got an EBT card in his wallet –
or his place looks like a dump – you don’t want his car.
Move on.

The Curb

How does the
car look? If it’s shabby and sad-looking and the owner clearly
didn’t care enough to even wash and vacuum the thing, it’s
a clue the car probably hasn’t led an easy life. But the flip
of this is to be wary of the super-clean, detailed car – the
one with the Armor-all’d tires and steam-cleaned engine compartment
and black spray paint-bombed undercarriage. It’s the oldest
used car trick in the book. People fixate on shiny and clean –
and don’t notice the wavy bodywork or the find the rust in
the floorpans and the sludge in the engine – until it’s
too late. What you want is a car that looks normal for its age/mileage.
Not too clean, not too dirty. And most definitely not like someone
just spent a weekend trying to scrub off the past five years’
worth of hard living.

The History

If you buy
from a private seller, he should have records and receipts available
for work done to the car. If he doesn’t, don’t trust anything
he says about how often he changed the oil or that the car had a
complete brake job just last month. A dealer may or may not have
service records available. If not, don’t take him at his word,
either. Always assume the worst – that the seller (private
or dealer) is trying to screw you. Cynical? Surely. But better cynical
and safe than sorry.

The Price

Be suspicious
of any deal that sounds too good to be true – because you can
bet it probably is. The vehicle you’re looking at should be
priced within 10 percent (either way) of current retail values.
At the higher end of the range if it’s an exceptionally nice
example, with low miles and lots of options; at the lower end if
the miles are high and the condition’s just so-so. It’s
true that every once in awhile (typically, once in a lifetime) you’ll
stumble across a fantastic car at a fantastic price. But most people
are pretty cagey when it comes to knowing the value of what they’ve
got and aren’t going to let you have it for much less than
the going rate – unless there’s something not quite copacetic.

The Signs

Certain things
should have you beating feet as soon as you notice them. These include
signs of overspray on trim (the car has been repainted and was probably
wrecked), any signs of overheating (could be just a thermostat –
but it might be a failing head gasket), “check engine”
light stays on (emissions issue – they can be expensive and
in some states, the car can’t be registered until the light
is off and the car passes smog check), it “tracks” funny
(wheel off-center or the car pulls to one side as it goes down the
road – signs of possible suspension problems or accident issues),
blue smoke anytime (evidence of a worn engine), noisy/slipping clutch
(hello, expenso), wetness inside/moldy smell (it leaks when it rains
or the radiator core is spitting coolant onto the carpet), clicking
noises at idle (worn valvetrain)… basically, anything that
feels wrong or doesn’t sound right probably is (or isn’t)
and you should take that as your cue to shop another car.

Bottom line:
Unless it’s a hard-to-find collectible, there’s no reason
to jump at the first (or second or fifth) car you check out.

with permission from the National
Motorists Association

16, 2010

Eric Peters
[send him mail] is an
automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and
Road Hogs (2011). Visit his

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