February 11, 2014 by Jerry Coffey
Many personal finance experts advocate spending just 10-20% of your gross annual income on a car. In the United States, in 2012, the average per capita income was $42,693, which would equate to a vehicle costing $4269 to $8538. Vehicles in this price range typically have more than 100,000 miles, and many have 150,000 to 200,000+.
Cars are lasting longer and longer with plenty of them exceeding 200,000 miles and still running strong. That being said, there are plenty of cars sitting on the scrap heap without ever having hit 100,000 miles. The key is two-fold: the type of vehicle–some have better records of reliability than others–and how well the vehicle was maintained. We have covered the longest-lasting cars in the past, and today we’ll look at how to determine if the car you are looking at is worth buying
Start by walking around the vehicle. Does it sit awkwardly…like tilted to one side or does the rear-end sag down onto the wheels? If so, there may be a problem with the suspension…pricey to fix. Our managing editor actually purchased a 1985 BMW with more than 200,000 miles, only to find that the ball-joints in the front control arms had to be replaced, and the rear trailing arms were bent, leading to problematic alignment. He was able to fix these issues himself, but they were expensive, time-consuming, and not for the faint of heart.
Next, look for puddles of any type under the vehicle. Unless it is currently raining, a puddle of any kind underneath is not a good sign. Bright green coolant fluid my only be a loose or brittle hose, while oil or sludge is indicative of a more severe issue.
If the walk around doesn’t send you walking, pop the hood and
look for worn belt/s and hoses. Are there any fluids pooled on top of the engine? Open the oil fill. Is the visible oil creamy looking instead of blackish? If so, there may be water in the oil…run away. Start the engine with the hood open. Listen for clicking, ticking, any sound that you do not hear normally. Some cars will have a slight ticking at 200K miles, but a noise that sounds like it is coming from the bottom of the engine or sounds like something is trying to break out of jail, there is a serious problem on the horizon.
Still looking at the vehicle? While the engine is running, pull the oil dipstick. Again, look for creamy, tannish looking oil. If all is good, drive the car for several miles listening for any strange noises or odd pulling to one side or another. When you get back, leave the car running while you get out and check the transmission fluid level. If the tranny fluid is low, look again for a leak or a drip underneath.
The (Professional) Pre-Purchase Inspection
If you do not think you are able to look for all of the right things or just do not trust your judgment, take the vehicle to a mechanic that you trust. If you don’t have a mechanic, your area may have a mobile inspection service that will come out to the vehicle’s location to examine it. You may have to pay a few dollars to have the vehicle checked out–typically around $100–but whatever it costs will be cheaper than buying a car that dies on you within a few months.
If you’re looking for an affordable high-mileage vehicle, you may be better off buying from a dealer than a private individual, where you should at least have some consumer protections, depending on your state.