What I learned shop­ping for a used car

De­spite ini­tial op­ti­mism, writer dis­cov­ers why some say in­dus­try has shady rep­u­ta­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - PA­TRI­CIA STEPHEN­SON Pa­tri­cia Stephen­son is a free­lance writer liv­ing in Oakville.

Shop­ping for a used car? Or, as mar­keters pre­fer to call it, a pre-owned ve­hi­cle? Not only does pre-owned soften the harsh­ness and the not-so-fresh­ness as­so­ci­ated with a used prod­uct, it may also help soften the rep­u­ta­tion of the used car dealer — or will it?

I was new to the used car mar­ket. Af­ter my daugh­ter was de­nied a bank loan to pur­chase a car, I be­came the Bank of Mom, and the hunt for a car be­gan.

I tried not to let my bias to­ward the used car in­dus­try colour my thoughts (based solely on hear­ing about a few un­for­tu­nate ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers). I’d be the first to de­fend any pro­fes­sion from paint­ing all its mem­bers with the same brush. Bad news trav­els fast and far and can over­shadow the good — I get it.

My search for a car be­gan on­line, by re­search­ing used car re­views and rat­ings in Con­sumer Re­ports. I cre­ated a chart in Ex­cel with makes and mod­els in the com­pact car cat­e­gory. I in­serted my find­ings: on fuel ef­fi­ciency, crash test re­sults, lum­bar com­fort, cabin loud­ness, rear vis­i­bil­ity, ac­cel­er­a­tion, han­dling of trans­mis­sion con­trols, war­ranties, price and best over­all rat­ing. (Ob­ses­sive? — I pre­fer to call it “do­ing my home­work.”)

With my “ve­hi­cle list,” I checked out Auto Trader. I typed in the specs: make, model, price range, max­i­mum kilo­me­tres, au­to­matic trans­mis­sion, cer­ti­fied, etcetera. From the lim­ited car ads that pro­vided a CarProof (a ve­hi­cle his­tory re­port), I was able to see in­sur­ance claims, liens, main­te­nance, cost of re­pairs, and more. Although the CarProof did not take into ac­count un­re­ported ac­ci­dents and DIY re­pairs, there was some com­fort in re­ceiv­ing the car his­tory that was recorded.

I vis­ited lo­cal brand-name and used-car deal­er­ships, and I phoned about cars of in­ter­est that I saw on Auto Trader. I re­ceived a mixed bag of re­sponses: there were sales­peo­ple who an­swered my ques­tions, and what they couldn’t an­swer, they found out and phoned me back — yet oth­ers left me with the sense that they were in a big hurry, and an­swer­ing my ques­tions were a waste of their time.

One sales­per­son said that I might be in­ter­ested in a soon-to-be trade-in car at his deal­er­ship. But when I asked the price, he told me that he would only give me the Black Book value, un­less I was ready to pur­chase. I left the deal­er­ship think­ing, if I ever come back to this deal­er­ship, I’ll make sure I get an­other sales­per­son. An­other deal­er­ship would only pro­vide me with the CarProof de­tails if I came to see the car. Re­ally? What are you hid­ing? So, no, I didn’t drive 40 km to see that CarProof. I struck that car and deal­er­ship off my list.

Only a few days into my search, I be­gan to un­der­stand why the used car in­dus­try had a shady rep­u­ta­tion. Af­ter spot­ting a Toy­ota Corolla on Auto Trader, I drove to a deal­er­ship in a nearby city just be­fore clos­ing time, and took the car for a test-drive. I told the sales­per­son how very in­ter­ested I was in the car, and said I’d call him at a set time the next day; I needed to think about it over night. I gave him my phone num­ber and asked him to call me if any­one else was in­ter­ested in the car be­fore I got back to him the fol­low­ing day.

By the next morn­ing, I had de­cided to pur­chase the Corolla, and I was ex­cited about my de­ci­sion. I drove to the deal­er­ship. That’s when I saw the sign stretched across the Corolla’s wind­shield that read, “Sold to a very nice per­son.” I was stunned. I hunted down the sales­per­son and asked him why he hadn’t con­tacted me as he had agreed to do. He said, “A lady came in with a wad of cash as a down pay­ment for the car and the man­ager said to let it go.” He told me, “That’s the way this busi­ness is.” I would hear that phrase a few more times over the next four weeks of car hunt­ing.

A sales­per­son at an­other deal­er­ship told me, “Peo­ple say all the time that they’ll come back — usu­ally they don’t. We’d be out of busi­ness if we waited.” By then, I un­der­stood why a se­ri­ous buyer would put a down pay­ment on a car, then have a me­chanic in­spect it, be­fore mak­ing the fi­nal pur­chase.

In the end, I pur­chased a 2009 Toy­ota Ma­trix from a deal­er­ship, prac­ti­cally in my own back­yard; a fair deal that in­cluded a me­chanic’s in­spec­tion, some re­pair work and an ex­tended war­ranty.

The process of look­ing for a used car is over — happy daugh­ter — relieved Mom. I now have a short list of deal­er­ships that I would rec­om­mend. All in all, the phrase that comes to mind is “only a few bad ap­ples.”

When I asked the price, he told me that he would only give me the Black Book value, un­less I was ready to pur­chase.

JOE RAE­DLE, GETTY IM­AGES/AFP

When shop­ping for a used ve­hi­cle, Oakville writer Pa­tri­cia Stephen­son rec­om­mends solid re­search and some ba­sic steps to weed out the bad ap­ples.

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