Wednesday, September 26, 2012

DT How to Buy a Used Car: Step 1. Research

Know why you want what you want.

This feature will focus on the pre-search research that everyone should do before starting the used car hunt, including understanding what options, availability, and specs are for the car you want. We will point you to the best websites and best people to call for guidance (yes - there are people who will pick up the phone and explain to you why you shouldn't buy a particular SAAB...or any SAAB for that matter...).

You may think that the first step in buying a used car would be searching for the car - but we strongly believe that research about the car you are buying before looking at any is critical. It is important to understand the options, production numbers, dates of manufacture, cross referenced parts, specifications, and so on. We also suggest getting to know the personality of the car(s) you are considering, to make sure you can live with your purchase. If you like a bit of luxury and comfort with your performance, a BMW or Mercedes-Benz would fit the bill better than an MGB, for example.

We like acronyms and we've created the following one for research:  UHG.  Understanding, Having and Getting.

U is for Understanding the automotive landscape

If you aren't an expert on a particular make and model of car, it is relatively easy to find a wealth of information via the internet. One of our favorite places to look is Wikipedia is a wealth of ad-free information, sometimes haphazardly arranged, not always correct, but it makes up for spotty quality in sheer volume. The Wikipedia 'car timelines' located at the bottom of each car model and manufacturer pages are particularly helpful in understanding where a particular vehicle fits into the automotive landscape. By reading up on the features, history and specifications you can begin to make informed decisions - major decisions like finding a car that matches the needs you are looking for: a daily driver for short trips, a daily driver for long miles, a weekend driver, road trip cruiser, track rat, etc. It is also important to decide if you can live with a classic car, and how old of a vehicle you are willing to consider.

We at DT have the following basic era guidelines (generalizations) we use when looking at affordable used cars:

Pre-1960:  Classic era: These cars tend to be body-on-frame, and aren't the best daily drivers even under ideal conditions. The engineering is often questionable and even a well preserved version will strand you frequently. Typical examples are gorgeous, heavy and slow. They are great for shows and nostalgia; less so in the real world of 2012.

1960-1972:  Golden era: These are the oldest cars that you can drive every day and major marques will often have an abundant and thriving aftermarket. They tend to be simple, well-designed and long lasting when given regular maintenance.

1972-1979:  Malaise era: Land yachts from this time period typically suffer from lower power than earlier or later cars but some of the most depreciated future classics can be found here. They are typified by simple solutions for the new fuel economy and emissions regulations that had just been introduced. Here you will also find an abundance of Japanese examples, and big hefty bumpers.

1980-1997:  Aging Classics: Almost modern vehicles that are either fully depreciated or still dropping in price, but have considerably more complexity than the Golden era cars; most are fuel injected. However, we'd expect better reliability than a comparable older car.

1998-2007:  Modern: These cars are going to be decent daily drivers or whatever you are looking for - prices can be high, complexity started to ramp up considerably compared to earlier cars (coil-on-plug ignition, electronic control of everything, CAN-bus computer architecture and all kinds of factory complexity). Be wary of luxury cars that have dropped a bunch in price since new because there is probably a reason - and it's likely high maintenance cost!

2007+:  New cars: We typically stay away from cars that are new because they just don't offer much value for the dollar compared to used cars and reliability is still an unknown (regardless of whatever slander/praise comes from the all-seeing oracles at JDPower, ConsummateReports etc). Also, depreciation is a killer! You can avoid financial trauma by being a well-informed used car connoisseur, which is what this DT series is all about.

H is for Having a short list of makes/models

Even if you started out your car buying journey with many different potential makes & models on your list, you need to narrow it down soon enough. This might be easy for some, but for those having a tough time deciding on their next vehicle, we can help. We've found a nerdy but effective way to parse out the lame ducks and bring the winners to the top of the list: a scored selection matrix. This might sound intimidating but is really just a way to assign numerical scores to the attributes that are important to you in your next car - and you can read the full article about our Value Matrix here.  But the basic idea is that you need to narrow down your focus to one or two cars before moving on to the search.  Key items to consider when deciding on your next vehicle include:

Parts availability: a quick search on or websites for a rear brake hydraulic cylinder for a 1969 Toyota Crown will let you know that getting simple parts for this car will be an issue - but there will be no such issue for a 1969 Ford Falcon, for instance, since they are much more common even today.

Cost of service / ease of service (for DIY'ers):  Consider not only what it will cost to buy, but how much you'll shell out to fix and maintain your daily turismo. Older foreign cars will (generally) cost you more to maintain than equivalent domestic cars if you are paying someone else for maintenance. If you do your own service consider that some cars require costly tools and others require time intensive engine removal for basic work (anything mid-engine for instance). Simple economy cars from the '60s (like the Ford Falcon) will be easy for the amateur mechanic to work on - while well-depreciated '90s luxury cars like the BMW 750i will require you to invest in thick tome-like service manuals and expensive electronic diagnostic equipment that only speaks German.

Your car's personality: This isn't a dating site, but we do want to stress that compatibility is important between car and driver. If you are a high-energy active person, you probably would not enjoy floating down the superhighways in a 1959 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser that wallows in protest at even the hint of a corner; no, you might enjoy something smaller and more nimble, like a Japanese or European coupe or roadster. If you have dreams of being the next drifting king of your neighborhood, you'll want a simple, cheap and easy to repair rear wheel drive car - so don't consider a Civic or Mini Cooper. Pick a car that suits both your driving style and your practical needs, and one that will keep you happy every time you slide behind the wheel - at least for the next few years.

G is for Getting the details on a specific car   

During the research phase, you'll find that often key information is missing from the Wikipedia article on your car of choice. What if you want to determine the weight/power ratio but can't find a good source for the curb weight of that 1969 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Hearse you've been eyeing? In this case you need to go to a secondary site like,, or just Google the info you are looking for. But usually from this type of search you will only get manufacturer specs; sometimes you need to go to an individual car (or make) discussion forum and take a look at the FAQs (frequently asked questions) to get enough data if the manufacturer was stingy or inconsistent about providing specs for their vehicles.

The most useful generic car research links (in our opinion) are:  --- one stop for manufacturer/make/model info, not always complete or correct  - reader beware, cross-check with other references. --- strangely one of the best sources of specs (horsepower, weight, engine size, steering type, etc) for post-1988 vehicles. -- a somewhat difficult to manage interface and lots of specs from all over the world - but you can find details on cars that often exist no where else. -- a well known source of car pricing - use only as estimate and for mid-pack cars.  It is usually totally wrong in pricing rare, low miles or specially optioned cars.

Specific car 'club' forums:  these are specific to individual makes & models, but for example we would check out for info on Subarus, for Audis, for BMWs, for Mercedes-Benz, for RWD Volvos, for Toyota RAV4s...etc etc, ad nauseam.  By entering these specialist forums you are going to be placed into a maze of disinformation - but you will find some useful info about problems, issues, and complaints by people who swear that this specific car is the best car ever made (even if it is a 1984 Fiero). You will always find people willing to reply to a post (usually directing you to the search feature) and sometimes find helpful individuals who will provide their phone number. Enthusiasts are nothing if not enthusiastic, so give it a try!

Stay tuned for the next feature in DT's HTBAUC (How to Buy a Used Car) SeriesStep 2: The Hunt: Searching for your next ride.

Do you have a link/tip/trick that you think would be helpful? Add a comment, and if we deem it worthy, we will add it to the text of this article.  Or email us:


  1. ~ i began buying cars before i could legally drive. it is an exhilarating science with myriad hidden stumbling blocks. some mistakes are so simple and so subtle i've been unable to avoid them after hundreds of deals. luckily, we are never too old or too smart to learn.
    ('that AMC based BatMobile''re not gonna let that go, are you?)

  2. One remarkable issue about pre-owned cars is that it is simple to make your purchase in most places, as well as via the internet so you must not worry about the seller’s reputation or getting robbed since you can read the site's feedback online.

    1. ~ i agree, David. but there are so many vague variables. nothing takes the place of the in-person inspection. that and the ability to read the person on the other end of the transaction.
      one person's rust-free may look different than mine.

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