Kicking Tires at the Dealership

While buying a new car is relatively straight forward, things get a lot more complicated when you are looking at used vehicles. When looking at new cars, your main concerns are probably brand, model, equipment, options, and pricing. When looking at used vehicles, you also have to consider miles, condition, and vehicle history. These complications make it much harder to perform an apples to apples comparison. While it is very rare to see a used vehicle in perfect condition, even after reconditioning, it is important to have an understanding of the vehicle’s condition, especially if you are comparing used vehicles. And even reputable dealerships are not going to recondition older vehicles or vehicles with higher miles to the same standard as something newer and more expensive.

      Get an Independent Inspection

Especially with older vehicles or vehicles with higher miles, it is a good idea to have an independent mechanic perform a vehicle inspection for you. It’s probably a good idea to have an independent mechanic take a look at a used vehicle even if it is still covered by the bumper to bumper warranty. A reputable dealership will allow you to take a vehicle to an independent mechanic to do this before you make a purchasing decision, and a good dealership can even drop the vehicle off and pick it up from a local mechanic to make this more convenient for you.

If you do this, an independent vehicle inspection will cost you a little bit of money, but it will give you a much better understanding of what you are getting yourself into and what it would cost to make any recommended repairs. A vehicle that looks like a good deal might not be such a great deal if you have to buy new tires and brakes within a month or two after buying. While reputable dealerships perform some kind of vehicle inspection on their vehicles and do some level of vehicle reconditioning, the standards between dealerships can be quite different. It should not be a surprise that a dealership putting money into their vehicles is going to charge a higher price than dealerships that do very little or nothing to recondition their vehicles.

      Taking a Look at the Service Work

Looking at the service work that a dealership did for a particular vehicle can be deceptive. Just because a dealership didn’t do much to a particular vehicle, doesn’t mean that vehicle isn’t going to sell at a premium if they did a thorough inspection and the vehicle did not need much in the way of reconditioning. A vehicle that wasn’t reconditioned because it didn’t need to be is different from a vehicle that wasn’t reconditioned because the dealership didn’t want to spend the money. That said, it is a good idea to see what kind of service work a dealership did for a vehicle and to take a look at their inspection checklist.

      Kicking Tires on the Lot

Even without taking a vehicle to an independent mechanic, there are a number of things you can do to ensure the vehicle is in good condition. For lower mileage vehicles, a lot of people decide to trade their vehicle when it’s about time to replace tires and brake pads. It is easy to feel the tread depth on the tires to see how much tread depth is left. If you aren’t sure what a new tire feels like, you can feel the tread depth on a new car. The deepest part of the tire tread also has a wear bar. If the wear bar is flush with the highest part of the tire tread, the tires need to be replaced (and probably should have been replaced before the tread was worn down that far).

In addition to looking at the tire tread depth, it is also important to look for dry rot. Even if a tire has plenty of tread left on it, it may need to be replaced if there is dry rot. Signs of dry rot are cracks on the tread or sidewall and faded color. If any tire pressure warning lights are on inside the car, I would also take a close look at the tires to see if there are any noticeable screws or nails in the tires.

It is also easy to overlook cosmetic damage. Unless you are buying an old beater car, cosmetic damage is important if for no other reason than that it will affect your resale value. And a vehicle with cosmetic damage should have a lower sale price than an identical vehicle that has been professionally reconditioned to repair scratches, paint chips, and dings. You should carefully inspect the exterior and interior of the vehicle for cosmetic problems. Very few used cars are going to be perfect even after reconditioning (I occasionally see new cars on the lot with a ding or a paint chip that needs to be fixed), but you want to know about any cosmetic defects before you sign paperwork and drive the car off the lot. While doing this, it is a good idea to keep an eye out for rust on the exterior, which can have a much bigger impact on a vehicle’s value than minor cosmetic issues.

Used vehicles that haven’t been meticulously protected from the elements are going to have some rust if they are more than a few years old. In addition to visible rust, look for rust spots bubbling up under the paint. Aside from the underside of a vehicle, the areas most prone to rust are the front part of the hood near the grille, painted areas around the wheel wells, and the rocker panel (which is the strip of metal underneath the doors). While looking at the exterior of the vehicle, make sure to carefully check the windshield and windows for cracks, small chips, and stars.

Another important thing to check is the roof, particularly on trucks and SUVs where you can’t see the top of the vehicle easily. Hail damage and rust on the roof can have a big impact on a vehicle’s value if the rest of the vehicle is otherwise in great shape.

Take a look at the headlights and taillights as well. Unless they have been reconditioned, older vehicles that have been exposed to the elements will have headlights and taillights that are yellow or cloudy. While this may only seem like a cosmetic issue, fading will reduce the effectiveness of your headlights late at night and in stormy conditions. This is not just a cosmetic issue, it can be a safety issue.

On the interior of a vehicle, I would check to make sure the important electrical components are working: power locks, power windows, radio, air conditioning, heating, power seats, windshield wipers, wiper fluid sprayers, interior lights. If you are looking at a vehicle with more amenities, you should also check those features like the following: sunroof, heated and/or cooled seats, power trunk or liftgate, navigation system. Even if a dealership does a thorough inspection, it can take a couple months for a used vehicle on the lot to be sold, and things can change in that time frame. During the test drive, I would also test the cruise control and four wheel drive for applicable vehicles.

      Getting Things Fixed Before Your Purchase

Particularly for minor cosmetic issues, it is not unreasonable to negotiate repairs and fixes as part of the deal for your vehicle purchase, even if the dealership elected not to repair those problems before putting the vehicle on the lot. If the interior of a vehicle is excessively dirty or if a vehicle was never detailed in the first place, you can request a professional detailing. A few small dings or a small dent can generally be fixed easily with paintless dent repair. However, there are a few places on a vehicle where paintless dent repair is not easy to do (namely, if something on the other side of the dent prevents access from the interior of the vehicle). For scratches and chipped paint, airbrush paint repair is going to look much better than if you were to just dab on some touch up paint yourself. Small tears and holes in the interior fabric are also usually fairly easy to repair.

Things that are expensive to fix or diagnose are generally not going to be fixed by the dealership as part of the deal for your vehicle purchase. Rust is generally very expensive to repair since what is visible is usually just the tip of the iceberg, and it may require replacing part or all of a piece of steel that has rust. While fixing a couple dings is not unreasonable, it is generally not worth the expense to repair extensive hail damage, which is why many vehicles with extensive hail damage are totaled by insurance companies. For older cars with high miles, even a reputable dealership is not going to fix every issue the vehicle has because the cost of repairs can quickly add up and prevent the dealership from being able to sell at a competitive price. For example, with a $5,000 car the primary focus of the dealership is going to be to ensure that the vehicle is safe to drive rather than restoring the vehicle to perfect condition cosmetically and mechanically.


If you want to stop by our dealership to kick some tires, give me a call to set your appointment at 812-331-2200 and ask for Robert Kobey.