Mr. Green Car: Buying a used car from a person

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

When we bought our Chevy Volt, we traded in our 1990 Chevy Suburban. That’s always an easy way to dump a clunker (it literally clunked because the body was not really connected to the frame). While the 1990 Suburban (Burb 3) had served us very well since 2002, it’s tailgate has been bolted shut and it was time to give up on pouring money into it.

I had bought a 1998 Plymouth Voyager mini-van that served in the Burb 3’s capacity to haul things about and had found it made a better truck than the Burb had. But alas, the Voyager is not much for towing a 26-foot sailboat.

I’d thought of all sorts of schemes for the van to pull the sailboat, mostly dealing with the boat ramp issue but in the end decided to go back to a Suburban to do the work of hauling things and towing a boat. The van will need to go, too, as I’m back up to nine vehicles.

I did not really shop around for another Suburban. This one, like the last, sort of came to me. It had been parked along Highway 251 with a For Sale sign in the window in front of a trucking company. stopped and looked at this 2002 Chevy Suburban 2500 (Burb 4) with 173,000 miles several times, but was never quite sure I wanted to commit to another Suburban.

It appeared to be in very good condition with no signs of rust, but it was rather dirty on the outside. With boating season drawing near, I finally decided to research what kind of value these are and stopped for a test drive.

The owner was not around when I drove it. So, I took it on the roughest roads to test the suspension. Out on the highway, I tested the cruise control and for high-speed vibrations. Everything seemed to work and be okay. I then did the unprecedented. I took it to my mechanic (RT Automotive) and had Tim Bartholomew take a look at it on the hoist. It got a thumbs up, with a few recommended maintenance issues to be watched. Satisfied that it was worth buying, I returned it and went home to research a price to offer.

The window sign was asking $4,900 or offer. Online, I checked with Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book. Edmunds takes less into consideration, but has a lower overall suggested pricing for “trade-in,” “personal sale” and “dealer price.” As one would expect, the trade-in price is the lowest and the dealer price is the highest. The asking price for this Suburban was dealer price. I printed out the results from both websites and wrote down some of the other related pricing to get a range.

When I met the owner, I offered $3,800, considering it had a lot of miles but was in very good condition (it has spent winters in Arizona). The owner claimed to have done all the servicing it needed and used synthetic oil it’s whole life – then countered with $3,900 – which I accepted. He delivered to my house the next day and we completed the deal.

After cleaning it up, which included a car wash trip to de-filth the engine compartment, I found some scratches in the paint that were a “hmm” moment, but nothing really to detract from the value. I vacuumed out the rest of the dog hair and began detailing the dashboard and other places that had plenty of accumulated dust. If you buy from a dealer, they have already done all this, and is why it sells for more – it just looks better. When you are selling your car, you should do the same.

For some reason, used vehicles rarely come with the owner’s manual. This was no exception. I have no idea why people keep the owner’s manual for a vehicle they are selling. But it is a constant. Newer vehicles are much more complicated, and a thorough review of the owner’s manual is a good idea. Should there be a law that one must accompany the sale of a vehicle? I don’t think that would be a bad idea. Searching online for an owner’s manual, I found that one site was very shady and caused me problems with its offer of a “free” book – if I’d only give them my credit card info. Perhaps I can find one on eBay.

I’d also like the file of all the vehicle’s maintenance receipts and invoices. It was promised, but not yet in hand. If you can get this from a seller, it can save you a lot of money in the future as you can see what was done and when. This can save you from replacing something that was changed not long ago.

I immediately put the new Suburban to work hauling things around for the Great American Cleanup day in New Milford. I like the lift gate it has like the old minivan and that was one of the things I was looking for in a replacement tow vehicle. It does not have four-wheel-drive, and, as I’ve previously written, is a complexity you really don’t need. I won’t be driving it much in the winter, and it does have traction control so boat ramps should be no problem.

It is certainly not the greenest of vehicles, but there is a huge difference in engine control technology and safety features that have come along in the twelve years between the 1990 Burb 3 and the 2002 Burb 4 and we will be enjoying them for years to come. This may be the last Burb we’ll ever need.

It sits in the garage waiting for some hauling or towing needs. Ruth drives the Volt (more than 1,000 miles on no gas at all since April 1) and I drive the Veggie Oil Rabbit every day to work. So that will keep the miles down on the big old gas hog.

You can get a good deal buying from a person, but you’ll get no chance to take it back if there is a problem, and an individual can be even less upfront about problems than a dealer is. So, there is no guarantee you are getting a better vehicle unless there is documentation or personal experience to support that assumption. Even so, it is possible to buy maintenance insurance online if you feel you need to have it to protect yourself from expensive failures. I personally believe in buying decades-old vehicles and keeping them going. So, if you are of a mind to do so as well, go in with eyes wide open, backed with research and other opinions.

From the May 14-20, 2014, issue

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