How to Buy a Used Car Without Stressing Out

Buying a used vehicle is less stressful with proper online research for issues, finding solutions, and help from car makers directly & online bulletins.

Just as they do on roads and highways, cars and trucks generate a lot of traffic online, too. Where you might check your local news outlet’s website every morning to learn what’s happening in your city, car enthusiasts take to the web to learn about the newest cars, and talk about the cars they own, the cars they want, and the ones they think are best avoided.

And it looks like the used car market continues to grow. What’s driving this growth? According to this piece by Forbes, a major reason is people opting for younger used vehicles as compared to those that are nearing the ends of their useful lives.

1) Discover the main vehicle issues & problems: check online car forums

You may not consider yourself a car enthusiast, but even so, it’s worth paying attention to some of that car-related chatter. The Web is rich with discussion forums dedicated to just about every make and model of car or truck, and among that talk are clues you can use to make a smart used vehicle purchase decision.

Among all the discussions about aftermarket wheels and lowered suspensions, you’ll find conversations about what’s gone wrong with people’s vehicles.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER: THE KEY IS NOT NECESSARILY TO AVOID A CAR YOU DISCOVER HAS A LESS-THAN-PERFECT RELIABILITY RECORD; AFTER ALL, NO CAR WILL BE FLAWLESS. WHAT WE SUGGEST IS TO LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN BEFORE YOU BUY SO THAT YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING INTO

On the surface, many of these exchanges will look like little more than griping, but you can bet that if one person has had a specific problem with their car, other owners of the same make and model will have experienced it too.

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Throw in a few vehicle-obsessives, and the discussion will eventually come around to what causes the problem, and how to fix it, even if the car in question isn’t a typical target of car lovers. Know how to look for these discussions, and you’re well on your way to learning what goes wrong most often with any given vehicle.

On that note, what exactly goes wrong with cars as they age?

According to this Consumers Reports reliability survey, even the best cars develop problems as they rack up the miles. Here’s an interesting look at particular things that go wrong over time:

consumer reports vehicle trouble spots chart

2) Finding solutions to car problems: 2 examples

But what if you have your heart set on a particular model, only to discover that there are a number of potentially expensive problems that could crop up on a car with no remaining warranty coverage?

Knowledge is power: the key is not necessarily to avoid a car you discover has a less-than-perfect reliability record; after all, no car will be flawless. What we suggest is to learn as much as you can before you buy so that you know what you’re getting into, as with these examples.

Example 1:

Say you’re an urbanite who likes the Smart Fortwo for its small size, low fuel consumption and neat design cues. Do a little digging and you’ll find evidence of a few common quirks, like a transmission that won’t shift into reverse (discussed here on Club Smart Car forum), or a failed heater fan (discussed at Smart Car of America).

And sometimes, you learn how to fix one of those common problems yourself: some Fortwo owners have heard this unpleasant noise coming the clutch (like in this YouTube video) which is caused by a lack of lubrication.

Here’s a video, from the same Fortwo driver, showing how to lube the clutch actuator and keep things quiet.

Not all problems will be that easy to fix. BMW’s turbocharged engines are known for fuel pump failures that cause serious driveability problems or a car that won’t run at all – as discussed in at Bimmerfest.com thread.

YOU MAY NOT CONSIDER YOURSELF A CAR ENTHUSIAST, BUT EVEN SO, IT’S WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO SOME OF THAT CAR-RELATED CHATTER ONLINE.

Example 2:

Any repair involving an engine’s timing chain promises to be labour-intensive and expensive.

In GM’s 3.6-litre V6, a stretched timing chain is caused by too-long oil-change intervals recommended by the car’s oil life monitor (like in this YouTube video), and in Nissan’s 4.0-litre (VQ40) V6 engine, a pair of timing chain guides can wear out, causing a whining noise and potential driveability problems (discussed at Nissan Help).

3) Get help & insights from the automakers directly

Technical Service Bulletins (TSB)

Many of the issues listed above have been addressed through technical service bulletins (TSB), documents issued by manufacturers to help its dealer service technicians diagnose and repair common faults in a vehicle. These are distinct from recalls, in that they don’t entitle you to a free repair; instead, they’re designed to save the technician (and, hopefully, you) time that would otherwise be spent on a lengthy diagnosis.

Once a manufacturer recognizes that a significant number of vehicles are coming into dealer service bays with the same problem(s), it will have its engineers come up with a process to help technicians identify the fault and then lay out a repair procedure, which may include redesigned parts. (Unfortunately, this indicates that many vehicles are reaching the marketplace without undergoing sufficient durability testing, but that’s a story for another day.)

Bulletin Resources:

NHTSA’s bulletins

These service bulletins are available to everyone, but usually not for free. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a searchable TSB database, but only provides summaries of the bulletins.

RESEARCHING THE PROS AND CONS OF A POTENTIAL USED VEHICLE PURCHASE TAKES A BIT OF DIGGING, BUT CAN PAY OFF FOR THE DILIGENT SHOPPER.

AllData and EautoRepair.net

A company called AllData runs a subscription service that gives you access to all service bulletins related to a particular model, but doesn’t grant access to specific TSBs for research purposes.

Various private discussion forums

That said, you will come across bulletins in discussion forums, but usually only if someone posts it as it relates to a discussion about an issue with a particular vehicle. NissanHelp.com has a section listing all of the service bulletins Nissan has issued for all of its modern models. 

nhtsa logo

Your best bet on a budget?  Use the NHTSA’s database to look up TSBs for the vehicle you’ve got on your mind, and then search the web for the document number (all TSBs are numbered). If you’re lucky, that TSB will have been discussed and/or posted in a forum where you’ll be able to see the details.

Takeaway: Online Car Research is a Powerful Tool

The online world is an imperfect medium, but can be a powerful tool when used properly. Researching the pros and cons of a potential used vehicle purchase takes a bit of digging, but can pay off for the diligent shopper.

Chris Chasehttps://chrischasescars.com/
Chris has been writing professionally about cars since 2004, in print and online. He lives in Ottawa with his wife and two feline tyrants. In rare quiet moments, he can be found travelling or playing one of his way-too-many guitars. Chris is also a journalist member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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