What's the best way to get a used car checked out... when you and the car are in different cities?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 2007

Dear Tom and Ray:

We all know you should have a competent, trustworthy mechanic check out a used car before you buy it. This works fine when you, the used car and your mechanic are all in the same city. But how can you check out a used car in a city far from home, where you don't know anyone? -- Kendahl

RAY: Well, we're not too high on the idea of buying a car in a city you can't easily drive to. This is a relatively new phenomenon, driven mostly by eBay.

TOM: There are a lot of good reasons to buy a car close to home. First of all, you're able to see it with your own eyes. Photos can be doctored very easily these days.

RAY: Right. Look at the photo of my brother at the top of our column. You can't even see the teeth of that raccoon that's sleeping on his head.

TOM: Second, when you're close to home, you can have someone you know check it out. It's not impossible to locate a trustworthy mechanic in another city, but it's certainly more difficult.

RAY: And finally, you won't waste a plane ticket, or the shipping costs, or just the hassle, if you discover it's not the car for you.

TOM: We had a colleague named Catherine, whose husband (whose name we won't mention, to avoid embarrassing him) found the car of his dreams on eBay. It was a powder-blue Mercedes diesel wagon. Yes, this guy Josh is an odd one. Oops. Sorry, Josh.

RAY: Anyway, the car was 1,500 miles away. He gets pictures in the mail, he talks to the seller, negotiates a great price and then buys a one-way plane ticket to go to pick up his car. Oh, and he takes his wife with him, so they can share the driving on the way back.

TOM: Well, Josh gets there, and the car is a complete loser. The blue paint is barely covering up the bubbling rust, and it's quickly clear that he's been had. Now, if the car were 100 miles away, he would just drive home, nurse his disappointment with a beer and keep looking.

RAY: Right. But now he's stuck 1,500 miles from home, with no way to get back! So he has to stay overnight in a hotel and buy two more, exorbitantly expensive, last-minute, one-way tickets, just to get home with nothing -- except a credit card that's now smoldering from overuse.

TOM: So unless you're a collector, or you're going through your midlife crisis and it's something you absolutely can't find nearby, we don't recommend buying a car in a faraway city.

RAY: If you happen to fall into one of those categories, Kendahl, then go to our Web site, www.cartalk.com, and click on the Mechanics Files, under Actual Car Information. There, you can enter the ZIP code in which the car of your dreams resides. The Mechanics Files will give you a list of mechanics who have been personally recommended by our other readers and radio listeners.

TOM: Pick someone from that list, and make a deal with him to look at the car and give you a full report. It won't guarantee that you won't like the smell of the car when it arrives, but at least it'll give you a fighting chance. Good luck.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One