Dear Car Talk:
I am trying to buy my first car. I decided to save up and pay cash for it. I found a possible car here in town. It is a 2004 Lexus IS 300 with 64,000 miles. What are your thoughts on it? I went to test-drive it, and it drove well. The only major repairs that I could see in the future would be a new key fob, tires, brakes and some hail and paint repair. -- Rafael
It's a nice car, Rafael. In general, Lexus makes good cars. And -- in general -- a Lexus with only 64,000 miles on it should have quite a bit of life left. However, you don't buy a used car in general -- you buy a specific used car. And you don't know whether it was driven by a little old lady to Gamblers Anonymous on Sundays, or by her 21-year-old grandson, who took it racing three times a week.
So, how do you evaluate a used car? You have a mechanic do it for you.
Sure, if you test-drive a used car and it squeaks and rattles and thumps and smokes down the road, and smells like Edward R. Murrow's ashtray, you can determine it's not the car for you and move on. But if you drive a car for 15 minutes and it "drives well," there still could be lots of hidden problems.
And you need to be careful right now, because you've probably already fallen in love with this car. You haven't given it a name yet, have you?
If you're seriously interested in the car, take it to a mechanic that you choose and trust. If you need help finding one, do a search at www.mechanicsfiles.com. You'll have to pay the mechanic for an hour or two of labor, but it's well worth it.
Ask him to check everything. Have him check the compression, pressure-test the cooling system, look for leaks, check the brakes, the exhaust system, the steering components, the tires, the suspension and anything else he can think of that's expensive.
Ask him to tell you everything he finds wrong with the car; which of those items are urgent, which can wait; and what the costs are for each repair. Then once you have the whole story, you can decide whether you still want to buy the car. Or you can decide if you want to buy it, but at a lower price because of the repairs it needs. And you can use that list of repairs to negotiate a fairer price with the seller.
By the way, buying a car with cosmetic damage, like hail and paint damage, is a great way to save money on your first car. Not only does it decrease the value of the car, but it's also the kind of repair that can wait indefinitely, or at least until after you bang it up a few more times while you're learning to drive -- which most new drivers do.
But get it to a mechanic first, and make sure the transmission isn't full of overripe bananas before you fork over your hard-earned savings, Rafael.