Used car shopping doesn’t have to hurt

Kane Loukas

Brian Gabrial, 43, picked up his new car Monday, a 1991 Audi with 119,000 miles and a good body.
Before laying out the $4,000 to the co-worker who sold him the car, Gabrial did his homework. To make sure the price was fair, he checked the Blue Book price to see how much a dealership would ask for the car. He even spent $30 to have a mechanic look it over.
Nevertheless, he admits, “I still don’t know that it’s a good car.”
Gabrial explained that as a graduate student working toward a doctorate, he isn’t able to afford a new car. This was the first time he hasn’t gone through a dealer.
“My attitude is if you know someone who owns a car, a dealer is no better,” he said. “A dealer might tighten things up and spray paint things, but it probably isn’t that much of a better deal. I think they’re just a big ol’ ripoff anyway.”
Ripoff or not, buying a used car can be full of pitfalls.
Given the unsavory reputation of used car dealers, it’s tough to believe all the fantastic advantages of owning that pea green 1974 Nova, even if it is “priced to sell.” It’s also tough to be sure that what is advertised as “very reliable” will actually start on those subarctic January mornings and throughout the summer without spontaneously combusting on a road trip.
The experience can be especially daunting for first-time car buyers like college freshmen hunting for the ideal low-maintenance two-door or recent graduates searching for a classy car with reasonable payments.
Larry Cuneo is well acquainted with the process of buying and selling used cars. His Web site,, posts more than 6,000 used cars and advertises companies like Lemon Busters, an agency that offers on-site used car inspections for about $100. He has also worked with the auto industry through his ad agency, a business separate from
“The car business is one of the last negotiating purchases,” Cuneo said. “When you go out there, you have to go out there prepared or you’ll get screwed.
“Cars are an emotional thing for a lot of people. They see a style and image that is associated with it and they want to buy it and go,” he explained. “I think that’s what happens to kids a lot more than adults. That’s why they might feel like they get taken advantage of.”
Cuneo suggests several things: First, people should throw out the idea that all dealerships try to rip off their clients. Good dealers know people can go and check out the going price of a new or used vehicle. Cuneo said, “people can find out if they get shafted. After buying a car at $12,000, they can go online and find out they could have bought it for $10,000.”
Second, shoppers should get the basic facts about the Ford Explorer or Honda Civic they want to buy, especially it’s market price. A shopper can get an accurate idea of a car’s price range by looking at the Kelley Blue Book, the standard industry guide to automobile pricing. The Blue Book is available online and at most libraries. A shopper can also browse want ads and look at what other people are asking for the same model and year.
Researching the car is easy compared to digging up information on a dealership or the person behind the want ad that reads, “1983 Gremlin. Orange. A sweet ride.”
Want ads and dealers offer different things. A private party, such as a co-worker or neighbor, might offer a car that costs a few hundred dollars less than the same car at a dealership. This might be the way to go if the car and the person selling it can be depended on.
Dealerships must under state law offer a service plan for all cars with fewer than 75,000 miles, and some will offer plans for cars with more miles.
For the mechanically inclined, a service plan might not be worth the investment, but for college students, most of whom have tool sets boasting little more than a Phillips screwdriver, scissors and a few bent coat hangers, most dealers suggest buying into a plan.
But some, like Steve Millard, 23, don’t worry about reliability. Buying into style was his plan when purchasing an orange 1973 Volkswagen camper van last year for $400. A few months later he bought a used 1983 Honda Accord for $700, which serves as his daily use vehicle.
“The car is really reliable, the van I still have to put a little money into,” said Millard, a University student trying to get into the elementary education program.
“I sort of wanted to learn to work on cars when I bought the van,” he said. “I’ve worked on the Honda two or three times. The van is sort of ongoing, the eternal project.”