What to Look for When Buying Used Cars

Buying a used car can be a great way to save money, as long as you know what to look for. By following a few simple steps, you will be sure to find not just a great car, but a great value.

How to Buy a Used Car

Perform a Title Search

There are many companies from which you can obtain a vehicle’s title history, and it’s worth the small fee that they charge. Using the vehicle’s VIN number, you can see the full ownership history and find out whether or not it’s been involved in a serious accident. If the vehicle has ever had a ‘Salvage’ title, that means it was written-off by an insurance company as a complete loss, but then repaired. Naturally, it’s a good idea to avoid cars like these!

Perform a Vehicle Inspection
Exterior Inspection

  • Look for body panels that are shinier than others, as this may indicate a repair of previous body damage.
  • Look for rust beneath the doors, around the wheel wells (the body part around each tire), under the vehicle, in the floor, and around the suspension (the pistons or springs under the car on the inside side of the wheel, as well as the plates and bars that may be attached to them).
  • Look under the vehicle for leaks of oil or other fluids. Besides looking on the ground under the car, look around the bottom of the engine, the transmission (the large, long, triangular-shaped part shaped like a small, chubby rocket), rear axle, front axle, and transfer case (the large, bulbous part shaped like a round pyramid that’s attached to the front or rear axle on vehicles equipped with rear-wheel drive [RWD] or 4-wheel drive [4WD]).
  • Look at the tread wear on all four tires. Uneven tread wear can indicate suspension problems or alignment issues.

Inspect Under the Hood

Using a flashlight, look for oil leaks around the engine, frayed wires, and cracked / worn belts and hoses. Oil leaks sometimes look like wet or sticky accumulations of dirt.

  • Check the oil. If you notice a burnt smell, or see water, metal slivers, or chunky matter in the oil, don’t buy the vehicle.
  • Check the radiator when the engine is cold. Don’t buy the car if you see oil in the antifreeze or big chunks of rust.
  • With the engine running, check the automatic transmission fluid. Walk away from the sale if you notice a burnt smell or metal fragments.
  • Look for parts that have numbers or letters written with a paint pen, as this is how salvage yards mark their parts.

Interior Inspection

  • Look for water or flood damage by pulling back the carpet in the trunk and/or cargo area.
  • Test the operation of ALL the vehicle’s accessories.

Test Drive
Start the vehicle and let it idle up to operating temperature. If the engine is cold, it should ‘idle down’ (lower engine revolutions [RPMs]) after a few minutes. If it stumbles, skips, surges, or continues to idle at unusually high RPM’s, the vehicle could have engine problems.

Manual Transmission Check

  • Put the vehicle in gear and listen for a pronounced ‘clunk’ or ‘bang’, as this could indicate worn CV/universal joints.
  • Manual transmission vehicles should engage a gear fairly low in the clutch pedal travel. If it doesn’t engage until you’ve nearly released the clutch pedal, then it may need a new clutch.
  • Clutch engagement (when the clutch catches the gear) and shifter action should be smooth, and the vehicle should never ‘jump’ out of gear on its own.

Automatic Transmission check

  • The vehicle should upshift and downshift smoothly. If it seems to get stuck in a gear, stumble when automatically changing gears, or slip out of gear unexpectedly, there may be serious problems with the transmission.

Other Important Checks

  • Test the performance of the brakes.
  • Look for unusual noises, vibrations, and unusual engine behavior.
  • After the test drive, look for leaks and the smell of burning fluids.

If the vehicle passes all of these tests, then negotiate a deal and drive away in your new car!

What to Look for When Buying Used Tires

Regardless of how many safety and performance features a vehicle has, their effectiveness is ultimately decided by the tires. That small patch of rubber at the bottom the tire is the only thing connecting the vehicle to the road. The thickness, condition, and type of tread (the pattern of raised bands that touch the road) determines how the steering responds to driver actions, how the suspension responds to curves, and the distance it will take to stop the vehicle. But before we look at how to buy used tires, let’s discuss some general tire information.

How to Read a Tire Sidewall

The sides of a tire are called the sidewalls. Each tire has two: the inner sidewall and the outer sidewall. If you look at a tire’s outer sidewall you will notice a big number stamped into the rubber.

Example: P215/50R17

● The first letter denotes the type of vehicle the tire is made for. The most common are ‘P’ for Passenger Vehicle and ‘LT’ for Light Truck. The “P” at the beginning of the above example denotes that it is a tire for a passenger vehicle.

● The three-digit number after the initial letter indicates the tire’s section width (the width of its cross section) in millimeters. Basically, the section width is the width of the tire is at its widest point. More specifically, it is the distance from the outermost point of the outside sidewall to the outermost point of the inner sidewall. In the example, the tire’s section width is 215 mm.

● The second number (the number after the slash) is the sidewall aspect ratio. It indicates the height of the sidewall from the It is actually a percentage. – the ratio of how much of the aspect ratio tells us the height / profile of the tire. In our example, the sidewalls of this tire use 50% of the 215 mm section width. The higher the number, the taller the tire will be. So our ‘50 series’ tire is going to be a low profile tire, likely used on sports / performance cars.

● The letter ‘R’ indicates that the tire uses a Radial type of construction. In a radial tire, the wires (typically made of polyester or steel) under the rubber tread that give the tire strength are laid out perpendicular to the direction of travel.

● The last number is the diameter, in inches, of the wheel the tire is designed to fit. In our example, the tire is designed to fit on a 17-inch wheel.

What to Look for When Buying Used Tires in Canada

Tread Depth – The tread depth is the measurement, in inches, from the top of a tread to the bottom of its deepest valley. A typical new tire has a tread depth of 10/32 to 11/32 of an inch, and the minimum legal tread depth is 2/32 of an inch (meaning a tire with a tread less than 2/32 of an inch is not legal). A good used tire should have at least 5-6/32 of its tread depth remaining. You can easily measure the tread depth by inserting a quarter into the tread, caribou muzzle first. If the muzzle is not visible, then the tread depth is at least 6/32’s of an inch. If the entire muzzle is visible, then the tire has reached the legal minimum tread of 2/32.

A used tire with a tread depth of 6/32 should be able to cover around 10,000 km’s. It will also allow you to stop 100ft / 30m shorter than a tire with a 2/32 tread depth.

Tread and Sidewall Condition – A good used tire should have even treadwear (the tread should be worn out evenly), with no slick or smooth surfaces. The sidewalls should also be in good condition with no cracks, chips, or cuts. Look for wear rings in the sidewalls, as this will indicate the tire was driven when flat. Since driving on a flat tire can break down the structural integrity of the sidewall, pass on tires that show this type of wear.

Look for cracking between the tread blocks and where the tread meets the sidewall. You can push down on the tire and push in on the sidewall to expose hidden cracks.

Repairs – Look inside of the tire for signs of repair. If you see crude nubs of rubber sticking up, then the tire has been repaired with a ‘plug’. A plug is a piece of rubber that has been inserted in a hole in a damaged tire to repair the hole. A tire plug is less effective than a tire patch, and used tires with visible tire plug repairs should be avoided.

Age – To determine the age of a used tire, look on the sidewall near the bottom edge. Look for the letters “DOT”; to the right of “DOT” you will see a 4-digit number. The first two numbers indicate the week the tire was made (thus a number from 01 to 52), and the last two numbers indicate the year. You want to avoid used tires that are over 6 years old, because the oil in the rubber starts to dry out over time, leading to dry rot, cracking, and an unsafe tire.

When explained, the tire numbers make simple sense and give you a lot of information about the tire. If you follow these simple steps, you will be able to buy used tires that are not only safe, but offer great value too.

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How to Properly Store your Car

car-storage

In the fall of 2004, my father went to my grandparents’ house to retrieve his ride for the winter, a 1991 BMW 318i. He gets in the car and starts the engine after some hesitation from the starter motor. He disengages the handbrake and proceeds to back out of the garage. But, the car doesn’t move. At all. The handbrake had seized completely shut.

It turns out, my father believed that storing a car for several months was akin to putting it in a safe place and leaving it there, just like any other day. To avoid repeating my dear ol’ Dad’s mistakes, here is how to appropriately store a vehicle for more than two months at a time.

Tires

One of the biggest misconceptions about storing a car these days is that the car has to be jacked up to avoid flat-spotting the tires. Not only has tire technology come a long way since the day that that may have been true, but leaving your car sitting on jacks for an extended period of time can both warp your car’s frame and damage the suspension. Suspension components are designed to be loaded (with the weight of the car), not fully extended. For tires, pump pressure about 10-15 pounds higher than recommended and you’ll be fine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise unless the tires are 40 years old, in which case they will have to be changed anyway.

Engine

Special precautions to the engine are few and far in between. Some diehards like to blow out the engine with Seafoam or other “engine cleaning” products, but a nice hard rip to redline on your final drive should take care of any carbon buildup before storage. It is also a good idea to keep your fuel stabilized if the car will be sitting for 5-6 months or more. Grab some fuel stabilizer at any Canadian Tire or auto parts store and fill up your fuel tank with fresh fuel. The amount needed will be on the bottle. If your area is prone to rodents and the like, some mothballs around the car will help, and blocking off the tail pipes and the intake pipes with a bag or something can help too.

Exterior/interior

This one kind of goes without saying, but a solid wash & wax is necessary if you don’t want contaminants on the paint to slowly erode at the car’s finish. If your interior is particularly dirty, an inside wash is good too. While a car cover is pretty much necessary if the car will be stored outdoors, if it is stored in a low-traffic area free from the dangers of playing children and mischievous pets, most covers do more harm than good.

Battery

One of the most overlooked and most important parts of storing a vehicle. If your vehicle has a dead battery, it is basically worthless. Make sure to either keep your battery on a charger at all times or remove the battery from the car and keep it in a room temperature place.

A few final notes

Remember the story about my Dad and his BMW? To avoid that, makes sure once the car is in its final resting place that the handbrake is disengaged completely. Board up the wheels with some wood or blocks to keep the car in place and leave it in gear (or park). Lastly, and most importantly, do not start the car at all during the storage period. This has to be without a doubt the biggest mistake one can make when storing a vehicle. If a car’s engine is not brought up to operating temperatures (which can only be accomplished with an extended drive, not idling the engine for 20 minutes), moisture and other nasty hydrocarbons can form inside and slowly erode the internals of the engine. Proper storage means that the car can be left until it needs to come out again on the other side. 

 

Finding a Mechanic You Can Trust

Let’s face it, auto mechanics are a lot like lawyers. They’re a necessary evil to most of us, but a good one can actually be worth their weight in gold. First off, you don’t want to hire one of those ambulance/tow truck chasers you see advertising on billboards and bus stop benches. Often you hear of good mechanics online or from their customers recommending them. Happy customers will gladly tell people about their experience with a particular mechanic, and unhappy customers will too – often more so. To get you on the road to comforting competent car care, here are a few tips on how to find a good mechanic.

1.        Ask Around

The absolute best way to find a reliable, experienced mechanic is to ask people you know. Friends, family, and co-workers are the best place to start. Nearly everyone with a car has used a mechanic at some point, and former customers can tell you first-hand what it’s like to deal with a particular auto mechanic. Ask if the repairs were performed correctly. Did they have any further problems with the car once it was repaired? How long did it take the mechanic to perform the repairs? How expensive were they? What did they like about the experience? And finally, ask the person if they would use that mechanic again?

 

If you’re new in town, or your friends, family, or co-workers don’t have any recommendations, don’t worry. Try asking a professional driver, such as a taxi driver, tow truck driver, or a limo driver. They have to keep their vehicles in good running order, and they’ll often tell you not only which auto mechanics are good, but also which ones aren’t.

2.        Look on the Internet

Some of the best places to find mechanic recommendations are in car-specific owner forums. A simple web search will give you many. For example, if you drive a Honda Accord, Googling “Honda Accord forum” will give you a list of numerous forums and clubs dedicated only to Honda Accord owners. Post your question(s) on various owner and club forums, and you’ll get answers from numerous people. “Car guys” tend to be really particular about their rides, and they’re usually glad to share their experiences.

 

Other good places to look are online classified ad websites. Again, a quick web search will supply you with several. It doesn’t matter if the mechanic has a website or not. If they’re a legal business, you’ll likely be able to find listings for them when you search online. It’s also a good idea to read what people have to say about different repair shops. Just because a mechanic has a high rating doesn’t mean all of his customers have been happy. To see what people are saying about mechanics in your area, type in something like “auto mechanic <your city / post code>”.

3.        Check Out the Shop

Once you’ve narrowed down a list of potential mechanics, go by and check out their shops in person. A good mechanic is a busy mechanic, so if their shop and lot are full of cars it’s a good sign. The shop itself should be relatively clean, organized, and buzzing with work being done. Next, tell the mechanic about your vehicle, ask them what they’d recommend, and how long it’ll take them to perform the repairs. If they tell you that it will be a few days before they can even get to it, don’t fret. A good mechanic is a busy mechanic, and a good one will be worth waiting on.

 

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Crossover Buying Guide

What Is a “Crossover”?

By definition, a crossover or CUV (Crossover Utility Vehicle) is a sport utility vehicle that sits on a car chassis instead of a truck chassis. (Quick note:  a frame is the main metal skeleton that everything is bolted to, while a chassis is that frame with the basic mechanical parts attached (wheels, axles, suspension, etc. – no body parts.) For example, the Toyota Highlander is more of a crossover than an SUV because it is based on a car chassis – the same front-wheel drive chassis as the Toyota Camry. By contrast, a traditional SUV like the Chevrolet Tahoe rides on a traditional, rear-wheel drive ladder frame chassis shared with other pickup trucks in the GM range.

Advantages of a Car-Based Crossover

Gas Mileage - A car chassis is lighter than a truck chassis, and most are designed to use more efficient 4- and 6-cylinder engines.

Driveability - A car chassis provides a lower center of gravity than a traditional SUV. This reduces that tipping-over feeling (called “bodyroll”), and allows the crossover to handle like the car on which it’s based. The front-wheel drive (FWD) arrangement provides confident handling and adequate grip in most situations. However, buyers who need maximum traction for winter driving may want a crossover with all-wheel drive (AWD). Many of the modern AWD systems now offer a Lock function, which keeps the power delivery split 50:50 between the front and rear axles.

Ride Quality - The body of a traditional SUV is typically bolted on top of a ladder frame, and this body-on-frame construction often results in a choppy ride and top-heavy handling. In a crossover, however, you won’t feel as much body movement (if you want to know the details, it’s because the body of the crossover uses integrated front and rear subframes). In addition, the lower center of gravity allows the springs and shocks to be tuned for a smoother ride.

More Interior Room - Many traditional rear-wheel drive (RWD) sport utility vehicles require front-to-rear floor tunnels to accommodate the driveshaft (the shaft running the length of the vehicle that translates the engine’s power into making the wheels turn). The rear cargo area often has protrusions to cover up suspension bits. Plus, the step-in height is typically quite high. This all takes away from your elbow (and leg, and foot…) room inside.

By contrast, a car-based CUV usually has a flat floor, which provides more room for passengers and cargo. The step-in height is about the same as a minivan, which is to say minimal. Its space-saving car chassis and suspension allows for a lower floor and more room in the cargo area. That extra cargo room can also be used for third row seating.

Disadvantages of a Car-Based Crossover

Reduced Off-Road Capability - A car-based CUV isn’t as capable off-road for several reasons:

  1.    Reduced Ground Clearance – A FWD car chassis typically sits low to the ground, reducing the clearance between the underside of the vehicle any obstacles that you’re trying to climb over. However, crossovers like the Subaru Outback and Jeep Cherokee are designed to provide enough ground clearance for “light” off-roading.
  2. Limited Wheel Articulation – This is a fancy term that means the crossover’s wheels can’t move as much as an SUV’s wheels, limiting its ability to clear those same pesky obstacles. On a FWD car chassis, the axles are connected to a subframe, which is bolted directly to the body. With nothing connecting the front and rear subframes, the body has to absorb the twisting and flexing forces that result as the wheels move up and down to clear obstacles. To protect the crossover’s structural integrity, most automakers have to limit a CUV’s wheel travel, which hampers its capability to clear obstacles.
  3. No Low Range – No low range means crossovers don’t have the low gears that are helpful for good off-road travel. A traditional four-wheel drive (4WD) SUV will have big axles with low gearing, multiple driveshafts, and a heavy transfer case to distribute the power. Since most crossovers are designed for on-road use, they’ll have higher gear ratios for better fuel economy. Additionally, there typically isn’t room in a car platform to mount a transfer case and other hardware. So most AWD crossovers use an AWD system that doesn’t have any sort of low range gearing that off-roaders sometimes need to deliver maximum torque in extreme conditions.
  4. Reduced Towing Capability - Without a sturdy steel frame to distribute the weight of a heavy trailer, most crossovers can only pull 2,000 – 5,000 lbs. (900 – 2250 kgs.).

Choosing the Right Crossover

Now that you know what a typical CUV can and can’t do, it’s time to decide which features are most important to you. If you need a vehicle that can tow a heavy trailer, or traverse big obstacles in the middle of nowhere, then you need to shop for a traditional body-on-frame SUV. But if your vehicle will spend most of its life crawling through the urban jungle, then a crossover utility vehicle might be right for you.

Important Considerations

Size – Today’s crossovers come in small, medium, large and extra-large, so you can literally find a CUV that’s perfectly sized for your needs. But remember, bigger crossovers are harder to park, and they drink more gas. So be honest about your needs, and choose a CUV based on what you‘ll do with it, not what it looks like.

Seating - Many crossovers are available with a third row of seats. However, that third-row seating arrangement is usually only suitable for children. Consider the size of your third-row passengers, and make sure that they’ll fit. The extra seat in CUVs like the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Rogue are too small for adults, but children under 12-14 years old will fit perfectly. If you need extra seats for adults or growing teenagers, then you might want to consider a large crossover like the Buick Enclave or Hyundai Santa Fe.

AWD or FWD – Since a crossover’s AWD system is only suitable for tackling inclement weather, snow, and muddy roads, you need consider how often you’ll actually encounter those conditions. Front-wheel drive will provide sufficient traction for most buyers, and it allows for better gas mileage, too.

Conclusion

A crossover combines the seating capacity and driving characteristics of a minivan with the cargo room and rugged looks of an SUV. This is an ideal combination for many buyers. With the sheer volume of new CUV models, most people can find a crossover that’ll meet both their needs and their taste. Take an honest evaluation of your needs and wants, and you’ll find a crossover that fits you perfectly for years of utility and enjoyment.