Beware the seller of a used car who tells you his car has been so terrific that, "I've never had to do a thing to it."
That's a tip to consider when you are looking at a used car and reading the private classified ads in the paper, the grocery store bulletin board or even a dealer's lot.
It's just another way of saying the owner has never done a thing to it, so the next owner may be the one who ends up with all the repairs because required maintenance has been neglected. That owner could be you.
"A used car is like a piano that has never seen any repair after years of playing," said Jerry Cohen, owner of a used car lot on Stevens Creek. "A piano, like a car, becomes increasingly costly to get back in shape when it is used in an untuned condition."
Cohen said that in the case of an automobile, maintenance neglect snowballs in a similar way. Worn steering and suspension parts cause wheels to become misaligned which, in turn, cause tires to wear unevenly and rapidly.
A fuel system problem or a clogged air filter, for example, can cause spark-plug fouling and misfiring. Among other problems, they can cause an expensive catalytic converter to self-destruct, car dealers say.
Whether a previous owner puts off fixing a minor parking lot scratch or replacing a dirty air filter, neglect compounds itself, experts say.
When shopping at a dealers used car lot or a private sale, ask for the service record or proof of maintenance. A meticulous owner may have this information readily available.
Most new car dealer service departments maintain computer records on the cars they service. Pearson Automobile Co. in Sunnyvale keeps a record of all the car's maintenance on the computer. When a car comes in for service, the maintenance record is pulled up on the computer and the scheduled work is easily recorded. When a car they serviced is sold, a service record is readily available for the new buyer to see.
"Proof of regular maintenance becomes an excellent sales tool when it's time to sell or trade," said one of the salesmen on the floor.
Finally, unless you're an expert, you may be able to avoid buying a lemon by getting a second opinion from someone qualified to recognize signs of potential trouble. Have it road tested and checked out both under the hood and around the car, dealers suggest.
Ideally, this could be done by your regular technician, who is likely to be more objective about your decision to buy a car than you would be. The state of California keeps records on emission control performance. Under new state smog laws, a certificate is no longer issued. Each station has a computer and the information is automatically read in Sacramento.
Tom Mooney, owner of Rancho Texaco Service, said "Once you fail at one station, you can't go to another station for another test like you did in the past. That information will show immediately in Sacramento as failed until the work is completed and the car can pass the smog test. Everything is related to the car registration."
The Car Care Council of America has three tips for newcomers to the world of used-car buying:
Do your homework: Read consumer magazines and price guides. This will help you decide what features you want, what specific cars fit your needs and what price range to expect.
Use an evaluation sheet to keep track of the cars you check out: Jot down what your inspection of each auto reveals. It will come in handy when comparing the pros and cons.
Never buy a used car (or a new one) on impulse: There are many places to shop for a used car, don't stop and buy at the first one.