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Buying A Back To School Car

Well, it's almost that time of year again. School will be open in about six weeks and there will be a lot of brand new drivers out there. With parents working and busy schedules, it's not really practical to let students drive the family car to school. If they are off to college they will need a car of their own. The obvious answer is to get another car. The question is, what kind of car? A new car would be nice, but not too many of us can afford that. The most likely answer is a used car. Used cars come in all shapes, sizes and prices and are all over. When buying a used car the catch word is "Let the buyer beware." There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there waiting to dump a clunker on an inexperienced, unknowing buyer.

So, the first thing about getting that car is to know what to look for. A student' s first car is something he's going to use to gain experience driving a car and he's going to learn how to care and maintain it. This process can begin with the purchase of that car. I'm not going to talk about how to buy a car or how to haggle over price, there's an excellent site called CarBuying Tips.com that will help you get the best price for what you're looking to buy. Rather I'm going to talk about the mechanical aspects of the purchase.

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Okay, you found a car in the classifieds or at a used car dealer and you like it. It looks to be in good shape and it's the color you like. The first thing to do is look at the car; I mean really look at it. Sometimes a person will do some quick bodywork and slap on a cheap paint job to get rid of a junker. Cars that have been totaled have been fixed up to be resold. You'll be able to spot this by looking closely at the sheet metal. Look for ripples or creases in the metal. That's a sign that the car has been hit and might have other damage underneath. Stand at the four corners and look down the sides of the car. This will allow you to see any ripples, waves or dents. Look at the paint, paint is hard to match and gets even harder as the car gets older. If the paint looks "different" on a fender or hood, then it was probably repaired and repainted. Again, there may be hidden damage. Other things to look for are rust and corrosion. Little spots of rust or bubbles in the paint can very quickly turn into a major repair down the road.

Has the car been in a flood? Cars that were flooded out are sometimes cleaned up and shipped to other states for resale. The insurance company will brand the vehicle title with a "FLOODED" title. If you see a "FLOODED" title, go home and forget about this car. Now titles can be washed (no pun intended) by titling in different states and the "FLOODED" brand can disappear. There are ways to determine if a car has been in a flood. Look at the engine; if there is a high water mark on the block or radiator, it's been flooded. Look at the carpet in the car. If it's been replaced, then chances are it was replaced due to flooding. When was the last time anyone you knew decided to just replace the carpeting? Smell the carpet. If it smells damp and musty, be suspicious. Look in the trunk; are the jack and tools rusty? Is the well for the spare tire wet and rusted? If it is, most likely the car was in a flood.

How many miles are on the car? People have been known to turn back the odometer to reflect fewer miles than are actually on the vehicle. This is almost impossible to detect. The only way to determine if an odometer has been turned back is by using a used car history service like CarFax.com. In fact, you should submit the 17 digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of any car you're interested in to a used car history service. This will tell you if the car has been flooded or totaled out by an insurance company.

Take the car to your mechanic. Have him check the car from bumper to bumper, list everything that is wrong with the car and how much it will cost to fix. Have him do a compression test and see if it's good. While the spark plugs are out, look to see what story they have to tell. If the porcelain around the center electrode is an even light brown color, that indicates a normal running engine. If it's wet looking and black, this indicates oil burning and is not something you want. Look for any oil leaks around the engine and transmission.

Take a valve cover off to see if the inside is nice and clean or built up with sludge. If it's clean, then oil changes were performed fairly regularly. If there's sludge, the car was not well maintained and should be avoided. Check all the fluids and see if they are fresh looking. Transmission fluid should be red or brown if it's a little older, but never black or burnt smelling. Oil should be a honey to light black color. Power steering fluid should be light brown and should not smell burnt. Make sure all the lights work.

Look under the car and go over the brakes with a fine-toothed comb. Look at the calipers and wheel cylinders and see if they are leaking. Look at the rubber hoses and if they have any cracks or cuts, they need to be replaced. See if the steel brake lines, and fuel lines, are heavily rusted. See if the brake pads and shoes are wearing evenly. This is a good sign of a properly operating brake system. Look at the brake fluid; it should be a light honey color. If it's milky or there is a lot of sediment in the reservoir, it needs to be changed.

Look at the frame and front end. If there is excessive rust or rot, forget about the car. The front end should be tight with no excessive play. CV boots should not be cracked or ripped. If they are, chances are good that there is dirt in the CV joints and they are ready for replacement.

Keep in mind that your son or daughter is going to be driving this car. You want to get them something safe and reliable. If they are going to college this fall, it will bring you peace of mind to know that they will make the trip safely. Don't buy the car if it needs work just because it looks nice or has a nice stereo. Get one that's mechanically sound and buy a nice stereo for it or get it a decent paint job. You have enough to worry about with kids today; their car should not be one of those worries.

Additional Information provided courtesy of
ALLDATAdiy.com and Warranty Direct
© 2000-2007 Vincent T. Ciulla

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