Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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Used Car

Learning how to spot the lemons can help you find a real peachText and photos

"This car was driven by a little old lady who only used it to go to church on Sunday."

The used-car salesman's infamous pitch is as familiar -- and unnerving -- as "the check is in the mail" bit. But chances are you've never actually heard it. Until recently, the thought of purchasing a used car might have been reserved for kids who'd just obtained their driver's permits. However, with new-car prices skyrocketing -- some even running at par with a small country cottage -- the used car is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative. Factor in a new car's first-year devaluation (30 percent is not uncommon), and the prospect of purchasing a one-, two- or three-year-old vehicle makes more and more sense.

The first step in purchasing any car, new or used, is determining its end use. If this is to be your son's or daughter's first vehicle and you simply want to build up his or her experience behind the wheel, you may opt for a cheaper, older model. If you're looking for your family's primary vehicle -- responsible for both the daily commute and getting away from it all on weekends -- then a newer, more reliable car is needed. Start browsing newspapers, used-car/truck periodicals and TV ads, and jot down prices and mileage figures -- they'll prove invaluable in the bargaining process later on. Ask friends and colleagues to recommend any reputable garages, dealers and used-car lots. Pick up a copy of the Automobile Protection Association's (APA) Lemon-Aid. Remember: The more knowledge you have, the better prepared you'll be.

There are several avenues available to you when purchasing a used car. The private sale is often the best deal in town and offers the buyer greater bargaining power. Since consumer-protection laws often safeguard you from purchasing a complete lemon or a road hazard, check with your local consumer protection office to see exactly what applies in your area.

Used-car auctions are like a spin at the roulette wheel. Repossessed, stolen or just too old for their intended use, these vehicles, whether from an impound yard, leasing company or government auction, can either be a blessing or a curse. They usually don't carry a warranty, and depending on the bidders at hand, your dream vehicle may sell for pocket change (or at least less than at a dealer's lot). If you are mechanically inclined or don't mind spending some money on repairs, auctions can be a treasure trove for the bargain hunter.

Historically, used-car lots have been given a bad rap. Yes, there are seedy salesmen at some of them, but there are also reputable used-car dealers who hold their reputations in high esteem and offer quality products at a reasonable price. Warranties vary depending on age and mileage, but don't expect to get the same coverage as you would from a dealer's lot.

If you're looking for a one-, two or three-year old ride, you may want to visit a new-car dealer. However, US dealers buying up Canadian cars are driving up prices. A typical example would be that of a '96 Neon with 40,000 kilometres. Red-book value shows a retail price of approximately $7000. But US dealers, thanks to our weak dollar, are buying the cars at auctions for about retail. The end result? The same car is now selling on Canadian lots for about $9500!

The new-car dealer's used-car lot usually offers the cleanest used vehicles on the market, as well as the potential to select options and colours. But be prepared to pay a premium for the cleaning and repairs that have been performed. The dealer will also be able to offer you an extended warranty, particularly if the used vehicle is of the same make as the dealership's new cars.

Pay extra attention here. Not all extended warranties are equal. A friend recently had an encounter with her dealer. Despite meeting all the criteria of the extended warranty, the popular Japanese manufacturer refused to honour full payment for an engine overhaul which was necessitated by not one, but several defective parts. The case is pending before the courts. Had my friend asked around, she might have discovered the dealer's and manufacturer's poor reputations for honouring warranties. A visit or phone call to the local consumer protection office or the APA would have paid off.

Yet some manufacturers go to great lengths to keep their customers happy. BMW, for example, has a five-day/300-kilometre return policy on pre-owned Bimmers.

By leasing a used car you won't be stuck with a lemon, but there are other factors to consider. Last year a used-car lease might have made sense. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned problem with our low Canadian dollar, and some manufacturers lowering their residual values, a drastic turnaround has occurred. Leasing costs on a used vehicle have risen to the point where they're almost at par with a new one!

Okay, so you've done your homework and narrowed down your ride to a few models. What's next? You could bring each car in to your mechanic for a check, but since you don't want to bother him with every car you look at, this should be your last step. You've got to do some of the dirty work yourself. Unlike shopping for a new car, where you can walk into a shiny showroom dressed in your Sunday best, buying a used car takes some careful perusal. Be prepared to tackle oil, grease and road dirt, so put on your jeans and bring a pair of work gloves along. Pack a friend, several old rags and the lemon-scented towelettes from the barbecue joint you visited last week (they come in handy for quick clean-ups).


Used-car survival kit in hand, you're ready to embark on your very own used-car adventure. Following a few simple steps and keeping some important red flags in mind will make the experience of shopping for a used car far more bearable, and perhaps even enjoyable:

  • Avoid making appointments to see the car in the rain or at night. Not only will you be miserable, but you'll also miss out on some important details.
  • Walk around the car. Bend over the front and rear ends and look straight down the sides of the car. Are all panels straight? Are there any waves from a collision or rust repair? Is a certain spot shinier or newer-looking than the rest?
  • Look for stains on the driveway (you'll have to get down on your hands and knees for this one). Are oil spots or any other foreign residues apparent under the car?
  • Check the exhaust system and look for rust holes developing on the undercarriage. Rust is the biggest factor in determining the modern car's life span. Has the car been rust-proofed?
  • Once you've got the keys, DON'T start the engine just yet. Don your gloves and pop the hood. Is the engine bay too clean for the mileage, suggesting maybe a recent major repair? Conversely, has the engine spewed out too much oil? Is the engine cold? Remove the dipstick and look at the oil. If it's new, ask when the oil change was done. If it's black as the earth in your garden, how's the level? Smell it. Does it smell burnt?
  • If the radiator cap is cool to the touch, open it. Is there ample coolant in the system? What does it look like? Oil in the radiator means the engine is losing oil into the system and your best bet would be to move on to another vehicle. Likewise if you smell antifreeze in the oil pan.
  • Are the battery terminals clean? Has the battery been replaced? A new battery in a car that's up for sale may mean charging problems at one point.
  • Has the alternator or any of the fan belts been replaced?
  • Look around the engine bay for rust holes. In the trunk, fold back the carpeting and check for signs of recent bodywork, i.e.: new paint, primer, a recent coat of rust-proofing. While the body shop may have done an excellent job on the car's exterior, it's what's behind the scenes that tells all. Look for paint overspray on window and door mouldings. What does the spare look like?
  • Next, put all your weight on one corner of the car and let go. Check how the car rebounds. If the car bounces more than once, the shock is worn. Repeat on all four corners.
  • By this point the seller will be intimidated enough by your knowledge to start spilling the beans on the car's history. Now it's time to get in and have a look:
  • Once you're behind the wheel check the odometer. Are all the numbers properly lined up? With the pre-digital odometers, a sure sign of odometer roll-back is misaligned numbers. Wear on gas, brake and clutch pedals will also reveal any discrepancies.
  • Make sure the radio is off before you fire up the engine. Have your friend stand behind the car and look and smell for any smoke that may arise. (First starts after the car has been sitting overnight are the best time to detect any abnormalities here). A brief grey-blue puff followed by the whiff of oil usually means there is oil escaping into the engine while the car sits still; faulty valve seals or a cracked head gasket may be the culprit. A white cloud usually means that water is seeping in. A black cloud means the car is running too rich of a gas mixture.
  • While you were cranking the engine over, did it start smoothly, without hesitation? Did you hear any foreign noises or backfire?
  • Does the engine shake while running, suggesting a misfiring cylinder or worse?
  • Do all the lights and wipers work?

If everything seems normal and you're still interested in the vehicle by this point, it's time to head out onto the open road:

  • Rule number one: Treat the car as if it were your own. Don't abuse it and the seller will let you take it for a longer drive -- and a long drive is what you're looking for. Around the block just doesn't cut it. Figure on at least five kilometres, more if you can, of combined city and highway driving. Have your friend come along; an extra set of eyes and ears help. Leave the radio off.
  • Before pulling away, check the hand brake.
  • The seller may want to chat up a storm. Politely ask him or her to remain quiet. Listen to everything that's going on with the car. Are the brakes squeaking? Any strange sounds emanating from the engine, tranny or suspension?
  • Is the steering wheel centred?
  • Is there any front-end noise when rounding a corner?
  • Is there any heater-fan whine?
  • Does the rear-window defroster work?
  • How does the car react when you hit a pothole?
  • On a deserted street or parking lot with high visibility, bring the car up to about 50 kph and SLAM on the brakes (prepare your passengers first, of course.) Do the brakes stop evenly? If they pull to one side, back up quickly and stomp hard on the brake pedal. Go forward again and see if they stop better now. If they don't, a self adjuster either doesn't work or one of the brakes is out of tune. If the brake pedal goes down gradually as you keep pressure on, there's a leak in the system.

By this point the seller will have had enough of you. Once you're back at the lot or driveway:

  • With the engine still running, you can now critique the stereo. Turn on all the accessories -- air conditioning, rear defroster, wipers, and turn the steering wheel full lock. Does the engine want to stall? If so, the system is strained by either the charging system or lacks engine power.
  • Let the engine idle and walk around the car again. Is there any smoke or rumbling emanating from the sides of the car, suggesting an exhaust leak? Is there any of the aforementioned coloured smoke exiting the tailpipe?
  • Check the automatic tranny fluid.
  • Check the temperature gauge and see if the car overheats while standing still or if the electric fan has kicked in.
  • Turn the engine off and restart it. When warm, does it start quickly or hesitate?
  • Finally, ask to see service and maintenance records.

Before making the final decision to buy:

  • If this is the car of your future, ask the seller if he objects to having your mechanic give it the once-over. If he does, walk away.
  • Check for recalls by calling your local APA.
  • Lastly, consider the insurance on the vehicle. Some cars are high-risk vehicles due to their popularity with thieves. What may appear to be a bargain could end up costing you thousands of dollars more in insurance premiums over the next few years.

By this point, you should have a few bargaining chips under your belt to assist you during the negotiation process. Remember, everything is repairable -- for a price. If you know a good mechanic, the repair could be hundreds of dollars less than what the seller may have been quoted or what you negotiated off the asking price. If the dealer or used-car lot offers to do the repairs, tell them to call you once the work has been completed; do not buy the car before the work is done.

When you're ready to start negotiating:

  • Don't show your emotions, especially if the car is a gem. Remember, a poker face and cynicism pay off.
  • Check the fine print on any contracts and leave as small a deposit as possible.
  • If you have any questions, contact the Automobile Protection Association (tel: 514-272-5555, e-mail: in Montreal; tel: 416-204-1444, e-mail: in Toronto).

Happy hunting!


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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