The Best Tip For Buying a Used Car: Talk To The Seller

I've purchased a lot of used cars. Handfuls of used cars, if you want to get technical about it. So many used cars that I now consider myself, Doug DeMuro, to be a bona fide used car expert. This means that I am able to provide excellent used car tips to readers like you; truly informative tips such as: FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T BUY A F***ING USED CAR!

Ha ha! I am just kidding, of course! Used cars are the backbone of our life here on Jalopnik, and I would never dream of advocating for their non-purchase. That would be like doing a column in support of red light cameras, which I think we would all agree is both sickening and wrong, at least according to dozens of angry e-mails I received last week.

No, instead I'm going to provide an entirely different tip for those of you interested in buying a used car; a tip that will help you separate the truly excellent cars from the awful, horrible ones. And that tip is: FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T BUY A F***ING USED VOLKSWAGEN!

Ha ha! Kidding again. You can buy all the used Volkswagens you want if you follow my actual tip, which is: before you buy a used car, you should talk to the seller.

Now, in order to illustrate my point here, I'm going to draw from personal experience. This won't surprise regular readers, largely because I always draw from person experience for the same basic reason: I have absolutely no facts to back up any of the things I write. So let's get started.

Maybe the best example of my "talk to the seller" theory comes from the time I tried to buy an old Range Rover sight unseen from some guy in North Carolina. This was already a horrible idea, primarily because an old Range Rover is the least reliable object in the known universe. Seriously: if you organized a reliability competition between an old Range Rover and one of those free wristwatches you get when you sign up for a magazine subscription, you'd get more trouble-free miles out of the wristwatch.

So anyway, I was e-mailing with the seller and I asked him, very clearly, to put the truck on a lift and send me photos of the undercarriage. I did this to check for rust. It's a fairly standard question when you're searching for a used Land Rover; sort of like "Hey man, do you have any weed?" is a fairly standard question when you're searching for a used E36 3-Series.

But unfortunately, the seller's reply to this request was: Nope. The truck isn't lifted.

Now, I admit it's possible that he simply mis-read my e-mail, or he thought when I said "put the truck on a lift," what I meant was "Does the truck have a lift kit?" But it's more likely that the seller is simply stupid, or at least careless. And I think we'd all agree that "careless" is the last quality you want in someone selling a 20-year-old Land Rover. What you really want is "careful." You want some guy who sends you pictures of the wheel well because he killed a spider in there last week and there might still be some intestinal goop marring the otherwise flawless paint finish.

Of course, I bought the truck anyway, and my hunch about the seller turned out to be right: the thing had issues. It was delivered with all sorts of warning lights illuminated in the dash. The door locks caused the battery to go flat. Many of the accessories didn't really work. And the roof was so dented that it looked like it had been left outside that night it was raining metal basketballs. In other words: it was crap. (But it ran, usually, and that made it the finest old Range Rover in existence.)

Interestingly, I had a similar experience some time earlier, when I bought my Mercedes E63 wagon. What happened was, I told the seller to take the car to his local Mercedes dealer for a "full inspection." He called me later and told me that his Mercedes dealer doesn't do full inspections, but he was able to replace a burnt-out turn signal bulb. So that was good.

Obviously, this should've stopped me from buying the car, but I was young, I was stupid (these things are still true), I was enamored with it, and let's be honest: it isn't every day that a Mercedes E63 wagon comes up for sale. So I bought the car, and I flew to Indiana to pick it up. So the seller picked me up from the airport, we drove to his house, and that's when he discovered he had locked himself out of his own home.

At this point, I should've thrown up my hands in disbelief, called a taxi, and flown right home, but did I mention the thing about being young and stupid?

So I bought the car, and I got it home, and I took it to a Mercedes dealer for a full inspection, where I discovered it needed a considerable amount of work. At some point, I put a new differential in the thing. After spending $1,800 on a pair of brake rotors, I had enough: I eventually sold it to a guy who turned out to be a Jalopnik reader, and he occasionally e-mails me to tell me how flawless it's been. That bastard.

But the reason it's worked out for the new owner of my E63 is that I'm a good seller. I keep cars properly maintained. I take thorough photographs. I have all the service records. You need a shot of the tires with a coin to show tread depth? Done. You need me to scan and e-mail the service records? Done. You need me to drive the car to your brother-in-law's home 30 minutes away so he can smell the interior to make sure I haven't been peeing in it? DONE!

And it's this type of person, ladies and gentlemen, who you need to buy a used car from. The seller of my Ferrari was just like this. As you might imagine, I felt pretty nervous about the whole transaction – or at least I did, until I showed up at his house. That's when he took me aside, pulled out a binder, and apologized. "I'm sorry," he said. "I had all the other service records laminated, but I just didn't have time to laminate the most recent one." He was apologizing… for failing to laminate a service record.

That's when I knew: I was buying this car from the right kind of guy. It helped that he hadn't locked himself out of his house.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.