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March 13, 2000

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A guide to buying used cars

Murali Iyer

If you think buying a brand new car is tough, then it is 'one season' for those hunting in the second-hand car market. Here are a set of guidelines to keep in mind when taking your pick.

What is a second-hand car?
Theoretically, the day a car rolls out of a showroom, it becomes a second-hand or used car. This is a perfectly safe definition. But in reality, what really distinguishes one from the other is the fact that while a brand new model would have the look, feel and smell of the assembly line, the same will not hold true for an used car. Telltale signs of it having been used linger like spots, grease marks, oil spillage and of course an odour, which could be a mixture of perfume, air freshener, cigarette smoke and liquor - not necessarily together and not necessarily in that order.

But akin to telltale signs in the used car, the automobile could also reveal a few more traits of its previous owner(s). An unhealthy driving habit of the previous owner could prove disastrous to the future life expectancy of the car in question. Be that as it may, when you are bargain hunting for used cars, lemons could suddenly rise with alarming regularity as compared to roses. But, since the wallet is a restraint, you might as well grin and bear with it.

What do you look out for?
Remember : "A good car is never too old." Ask Vijay Mallya or Pranlal Bhogilal - India's largest collectors of vintage cars - for confirmation. But we are not talking of vintage cars here. Cars around five-seven years old could represent great value for money, as they would still have a lot of juice left in them. This would depend upon the mileage, ownership and terrain traversed by the vehicle. Although anything older will be cheaper, the repair bills will soon adequately compensate for the discrepancy. Anyone having any doubts on this subject can have a chat with my father who has recently traded-in his 1967-make Fiat 1100 to a 1992-make Premier Padmini.

An important factor to look out for is the pedigree of previous owners. But lay more emphasis on the number of previous owners rather than their professional status. The legacy of professional status stems from a belief that professionals, being rich, would take of their automobiles better. Anyone looking for an explanation to those ads in newspapers about cars owned by doctors, lawyers and engineers need to look no further. But these cars, and less the classifieds, need not be a good bargain at all.

Selecting your car
One way of selecting your "dream" car could be by first identifying the car you intend purchasing. Then, be on the lookout for anyone wanting to graduate to a different car, while owning (and wanting to dispose-off) the car of your choice. Your network of friends and relatives will come in handy here. This network would also ensure (at most times) that you are not cheated on the history of the car and more importantly, the price.

But if the above method fails, don't fret. A used car dealer should be your next logical stop. The first in this breed is one who trades-in used cars to sell new ones. Even if slightly expensive than the prevailing market price of the same model, a car re-conditioned by a dealer could prove to be a good buy.

In these cases, guarantees on the product, ranging from six months to a year, are also offered as an incentive. This should make your pounding heart take a breather. But if you are still not satisfied, the other type of used car dealer could prove to be useful (pun unintended). Dealers like Popular Automobiles and Sai Services of Mumbai stock used cars, and their turnover rate for stock is also very high. Here automobiles of your choice will surely be available at attractive prices. While there is no "guarantee" attached to such a purchase, you need to take the chance. As these dealers operate on a fixed commission on the "sold" price of the car, a general chat with the owner should be mandatory.

Deceptive appearances
A fresh coat of paint might mean trouble as it could be hiding rusting panels or covering-up a serious dent job. One should avoid taxis, rally cars and those owned by government organisations. While the sticker price on these cars could make you drool, they could be proper lemons. The usage would have been so rough that the future of the car would itself be bleak. Body work, carpeting, wheel covers, the area around the glass covers, etc. should be checked thoroughly for corrosions. If the area around the glass shows corrosion, then you are looking at a proper rust bucket. There is no saying where the entire car could be coming apart.

A service history is a "must" for a relatively new car. Find out all you can about the parts that have been replaced in the car in the past. As mentioned earlier, if the paint job covers up an accident, find out the intensity of the same. A major accident or damage could be potential disaster, particularly in cases of small cars like Maruti 800, Omni and Zen.

You have now selected your car. Now for a customary check of its papers. Number of previous owners, their antecedents, registration details (whether required to be changed), one-time tax entry (if applicable) and insurance papers - all need to be cross-checked. Once the above is done and your apprehensions (like stolen property, etc.) are solved, get ready for the most important aspect of the buying process.

Test Drive
Never buy a second-hand car without first driving it. Take your friendly neighbourhood mechanic or an auto-savvy friend/relative and go for a spin. But legally equip yourself for the drive: carry your license and double check on the insurance papers of the car, besides other papers like PUC certificate. The insurance papers can be potentially big trouble for you in case of any accident. And you could find yourself in a deep hole even before owning the car. Although purists say that a good car should start at one go, never judge a car by this virtuoso performance.

A cold engine might require a little warming up. Again, some idling can rectify the sputtering of such an engine, which can also let you know of the music being made by the engine. From the driver's vantage point, the most important aspects for you to check out are the engine, gearbox, pedals (for clutch, brake and accelerator) and the steering wheel.

Listen for all the right (and the wrong ones too) noises coming from the engine. A broken-down engine can be easily detected, as can be a healthy one. But an "in-between" engine comes in the grey area. If this problem is with the exhaust or from the fans, it is easily curable. But roll up your sleeves and start bargaining for a lower price, based on the kind of repairs that need to be carried out.

Now for the gearshift. A noisy one (and a difficult one at that) would indicate extensive wear and tear, inevitably leading to expensive repairs. But a good gearbox would engage positively and you can feel it in your wrist.

Acceleration and deceleration are other important aspects. Try picking up speed on a straight road and on an incline, to check whether the engine is running properly or not. Remember that diesel engines are lethargic as compared to their petrol cousins.

And don't ever forget the brakes. Slam them hard at high speeds to check for fishtailing or rolling or pitching. A good car with a competitive braking system should decelerate steadily in a straight line. The quality of the clutch, especially on an incline, is of paramount importance. And so too would be the handbrake.

Test out the potholes for checking out the suspension system. While stationary too, apply weight on the suspension. If it makes too much noise or bounces too much, it could spell trouble. If the remedy is in a few new bushes, then it is okay. But new shock absorbers or suspension system could really set your wallet back. A low battery and bald tyres give you the opportunity to negotiate more. Replacement of both can be a very costly affair.

Final Touches
At the end of your saga, if you are satisfied with the price and condition of the car, you are on the verge of owning the automobile in question. Now, you need to request the seller to effect the necessary paperwork to transfer the car in your name, legally. Remember that the paperwork is the seller's responsibility. Finally, for whatever the car was worth while the previous owner owned it, it is now your own "dream machine".

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