Dear Tom and Ray:
I haven't bought a used car since 1980, when my mechanic dad helped me buy a 1973 Nova. Here's my question: I want to have my choice vetted by my own mechanic before the sale is final. What are the logistics of this process? In order to take the car to my mechanic, do I leave a hefty down payment with a handshake and tell the seller I'll let him or her know? Pay the whole amount, with an understanding that I'll get it back if the car doesn't pass the inspection? How can this be done in a way that will protect the buyer and seller from each other? -- Teri
RAY: Great question, Teri. First of all, we want to commend you for doing absolutely the right thing.
TOM: We wrote a lengthy little booklet called "How to Buy a Great Used Car" (which includes all the details about what your mechanic should check and all that). But the single most important piece of advice in the booklet is to have your own mechanic inspect any potential used car before you buy it.
RAY: So, how do you get it to him? Well, you, as the buyer, have certain responsibilities here: You designate the mechanic, and you pay the mechanic to inspect the car, which will cost you somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks for a thorough job. That indicates your serious interest in buying the car.
TOM: The seller, as one of his responsibilities, has to get the car to the mechanic of your choice (assuming it's not in another time zone).
RAY: He probably won't want to give you the car before you buy it -- with good reason. You might have an accident while transporting it, or you might never come back. Or worse -- your dog might puke in it.
TOM: And you don't want to give him your money because you don't know if he's trustworthy, and it can be very difficult to get money BACK from someone once you've given it to him or her. Trust me. My brother still owes me half of the 100 bucks he borrowed from me a year ago, because he's sticking to his dollar-a-week repayment plan.
RAY: So, the only real solution is for the seller to take the car to your mechanic and let the mechanic inspect it. It'll take a couple of hours, but that's one of the hassles of selling a car privately. Sellers who want to avoid those hassles can trade the car in and take less money. But we've found that the vast majority of private car sellers will be happy -- or at least willing -- to do this for a serious buyer. Especially sellers with nothing to hide.
TOM: And if you run into someone who's not willing to take his or her car for an inspection before you buy it, just walk away. There are more than 40 million used cars sold every year. In other words, to coin a phrase, Teri, there are a lot of AMC Marlins in the sea.