Super Deal on a Supercar Reminds Us: Be Suspicious When Buying Used

December 27th, 2011

Damaged McLaren MP4-12C

When a car is priced at half its value, be suspicious. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to be suspicious any time you go used car shopping.

We’ve covered the lure of underpriced cars before, from the standpoint of watching out for common online scams. Sometimes, though, the price is accurate, and the car is real. But that doesn’t mean the deal isn’t too good to be true.

From Motor Authority (via Autoblog.nl), we heard about a killer deal on a used McLaren MP4-12C. The seller of the car, listed for sale in The Netherlands, wants about half of what the car is worth. The catch, as you might have guessed, is that the car has been in an accident and has not been repaired. Would buying it be a good deal, or would someone save money by just buying a new one?

Of course, that depends on the extent of the damage. The front end has obviously been hurt, and the windshield is cracked. Both front airbags have deployed. There’s a possibility of unseen water damage. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance that the buyer of this car would be better off financially buying new.

How easy would it be, though, for the seller of this car to replace the front bumper, install a new windshield and sell it for full price to an unsuspecting buyer? Okay, maybe that wouldn’t be an *easy* process on the McLaren, but it’s certainly feasible, which is why buyers of any used car should always complete the following checklist to make sure no hidden defects lie beneath the surface:

Check engine oil and dipstick

The clearest sign of basic maintenance is the oil. Black sludgy oil and a corroded dipstick mean neglected maintenance.

Brake/Clutch fluid check

Take a peek into the master cylinder reservoir, and look for fluid that’s the color of honey. If it’s darker, have it flushed. Many manual-transmission cars use brake fluid as part of their hydraulically assisted clutch, and the reservoir is typically mounted near the master cylinder. Check that, too.

Cooling system

An easy check is to simply remove the radiator cap (before the test drive, while the engine is cool) and look for fluid that’s either bright green or orange. If you see brown fluid or signs of oil, put the cap back on and keep looking.

Transmission

While a fluid check is easy (brown or black fluid means move on), a better check of the automatic transmission is during the test drive. With your foot on the brake, put the car in drive, then in reverse and make sure it doesn’t hesitate between gears. While driving, find a quiet segment of road and floor it. If there are clunks, odd noise or the engine sound doesn’t match the speed of the car, you could be in for expensive repairs.

If all this checks out, have a mechanic dig deeper. He or she will provide a diagnosis and have a better shot at uncovering any previously hidden damage.

It may sound like obvious advice, but being suspicious when shopping for a used car could save you loads of money after the purchase. That’s true whether you’re buying a McLaren or a Mercury.

Have you ever bought a lemon?

-tgriffith

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