Buying Used
 
I am torn between a certain used Honda available in my area and another make of car also available and of seemingly similar quality. Is Honda the best?
This is going to depend on each buyer's needs and budget. I think the reliability matrices in the April "Car Buying" issues of the magazine Consumer Reports are very helpful. For example, the 2006 April issue represents the input of the owners of approximately one million vehicles, covering over 1100 models from 1998 to 2005. In other words, for each make, model, and year of vehicle listed, approximately 1000 ordinary folks have weighed in on the vehicle's reliability in the past year. The survey results are standardized by the miles each vehicle has been driven. Owners gage the seriousness of a problem based on its cost, failure, safety, and downtime. The filled-in red circles denote less than a 1% and "much better than average" problem rate. The filled-in black circles denote a greater than 3% and "much worse than average" problem rate. Speaking as an engineer who has taken several graduate school mathematics courses, the results may be said to be by and large statistically significant. That is, if the matrices indicate a 1999 Honda Accord has had few electrical problems, while they indicate a 2001 Volkswagen New Beetle Hatcback has had many, the Accord is a safer bet than the Beetle as far as electrical repairs go. On the other hand, if a 99 Accord seller is asking far over the fair market value of the car, while the 01 Beetle may be had for a song, then the Beetle may be argued to be the better buy.

What should I check when shopping for a used Honda?

  1. Ask the seller if s/he has the service records for the car s/he is selling. You want to check for regular oil changes in the interval specified for the Honda and when the last timing belt, coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and battery changes were done. You also want to see records of any major repairs done. If these records are not available, prepare to adjust the price downward, depending on what your mechanic or you can identify as suspect systems. For example, if the brake fluid was never changed in a ten-year-old car, it is likely full of moisture and so various brake parts are worn. These can be expensive. Also, a timing belt replacement will run upwards of $500.
  2. Drive the car in a circle, first in one direction, then in another. Listen for clicking and clunking noises. Such noises may indicate a failing CV joint. In June 2008, indications of a failing CV joint was one of the most frequent problems I saw.
  3. From reports at the Honda Usenet newsgroups, I think the biggest hazard for a used Honda buyer (or any used car buyer) is a blown head gasket. This gasket seals the space between the cylinder block and the cylinder head. Fixing a blown head gasket is expensive because (a) much labor is required to get to it; and (b) often a car with a blown head gasket has overheated at some point, and so the cylinder block or head has warped. Warpage will require machining to fix. Indications of a possible blown head gasket (or cracked cylinder head, etc.) follow. These tests will not prove the integrity of the head gasket. If you have any suspicions that it may have failed, then you should look for another used Honda. In the alternative, if you like the used Honda but want to sleep at night, then before negotiating a price pay extra to have your mechanic pressurize the cooling system and check for leaks and also possibly check the coolant chemistry to see if hydrocarbons (exhaust products) are present.
      • Seeing oil in the coolant after removing the radiator cap from a cold engine and/or after removing the reservoir cap.
      • Seeing coolant in the oil on the oil dipstick, or beneath the oil filler cap.
      • A white dry or other suspect residue on the oil filler cap.
      • A white or other suspect residue on the spark plugs.
      • Check the level of the coolant in the radiator of a cool engine. If necessary, ask the owner to top it off when cold. Now check the level in the coolant reservoir. It should be between the "low" and "max" marks. If it is below the "low" mark, view this with suspicion.
      • Ask the owner to add enough coolant to bring the level just above the low mark. Note the level. Drive the car for at least 15 minutes in suburban/city driving. Pull the car over and, with the car idling, check the odor from the exhaust. If it smells like antifreeze, this is a sign that coolant is getting into the cylinders and there is a head gasket failure. Check the reservoir level and make a mental note of it. 
      • Continue driving for another 15 minutes. Check the reservoir level. Has the level gone way down? If so, this is also a sign of a head gasket leak. Has the level gone up and/or bubbles are coming out of the reservoir tube? This too is a sign of a head gasket leak. June 2008 anecdotal report: I checked a used Honda Civic's coolant reservoir with the engine warmed up but off. The cap was unfastened. The level was well over the full mark. The reservoir tube emitted bubbles into the reservoir. I stopped the inspection on the spot; told the owner he most likely had a blown head gasket ; then declined the car.
 
Should I pay $25 or so for unlimited car title checks for 60 days while I look for a used car?
Internet anecdotal reports lean strongly towards this. In June 2008 while helping a friend look for a used Honda Civic, we decided to purchase Carfax for one month. The Carfax reports for the first two Honda Civics we checked both showed over 100k miles of discrepancy with their respective odometers, and so the titles were "flawed." Since the mileage could not be verified, the cars' values were indeterminate. Resources like the Kelly Blue Book will not even try to figure the value of a car with a flawed title. A third Civic's Carfax report showed that it had had four different owners over the previous 18 months, despite the owner saying he had had the car a long time. I think Carfax is worth it. Subsequently, I learned of another car title history service: www.autocheck.com. As of 2008, Autocheck was less expensive than Carfax. Also reports on the net are that autocheck.com is somewhat better.

Should I Try Private Sellers Such as Those Often Found on Craig's List and other Free Online Ad Sites?
In mid-2008 for a few weeks I enjoyed using a few free online used car sites. Craig's List had the most offerings, and I did make offers on two cars that appeared on it. Alas, my offer was too low in one instance and I did not have cash in hand soon enough to complete the other. The drawbacks of Craig's List to me are (1) VIN numbers are not usually posted on the ad, so one cannot do any kind of title history check in advance; (2) the cars tend to be multi-owner and owned by younger people, which unfortunately these days tends to mean they have not been well cared for; (3) salvage titles and flawed odometers are very common; and (4) a cash (no checks) payment was often expected the same day. I must say, though, that of the 20 or so car sellers I met, all were very polite and patient. Maybe it helped that I knew exactly what I wanted mechanically from the car. We typically met in full daylight in the parking lot of a well used large store in view of the public. I never took cash with me.

Should I Buy Used from a Dealer?
There are dealers who sell strictly used cars. Then there are dealers whose bread and butter is principally new cars but they sell trade-ins, etc. I found that dealers who dealt strictly with used cars had questionable inventory, though prices often matched the uncertainty of the cars they sold. The new car dealerships had higher prices for used cars. After seeing many offerings from Craig's List, shady  used car dealerships and new car dealerships, I did come to the conclusion that the higher prices that new car dealers were charging for their used cars usually reflected the used car having had only a single owner in the past. To me this will usually translate to the first owner having taken good care of it.

Should I have a mechanic look over the Honda before I consider an offer?
If you so far like what you see, and the seller is prepared to lower the price based on repairs you both agree are necessary and not already factored into the selling price, paying a mechanic to look the car over is a good idea. I think a Honda dealer's service department is best. The dealer service people are more likely to know, for example, Honda's suspensions and their unique problems. In the alternative a reputable import shop may do just as good a job.
 
How much should I offer?
The Kelley blue book online at www.kbb.com and the used car appraiser at www.edmunds.com are excellent resources for determining a fair price. Also over several weeks check what people on Craig's List are asking for the same model and year of car.

How should I maintain my new used Honda?
If you do not know when the timing belt was changed, find the free online owner's manual (see Maintenance & Repair Resources) for your car and identify the necessary timing belt change interval. If according to this interval your car might be due for a new timing belt, then have a new one installed. Fatigued timing belts most certainly do fail. When they do, because almost all Hondas use interference engines, the cost to repair your Honda can be in the thousands of dollars. Gas Mileage Tips further discusses optimizing your new used Honda's fuel mileage and operation. Performing all the maintenance listed there, along with following the maintenance schedule, will ensure you get the greatest reliability and life from your Honda.
 
Where can I find more information on buying a used car?
Google for {"buying a used car"}. A number of sites come up with good general guidance on what to check, where to look, and how to negotiate a price. The April issue of Consumer Reports also often has detailed suggestions for shopping for new and used cars.