How to Pay Less For Car Expenses

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In this series I am going to examine different factors that contribute to car expenses from insurance to maintenance. The key to saving money on your car expenses starts at the beginning: who you are buying from and the car’s current conditions.


If you have ever been the victim of a car purchase gone sour, commonly known as “buying a lemon,” you are not alone. Many of us have shared this experience and the good news is there are steps you can take to eliminate that possibility. Buying a car is a serious commitment and doing a vehicle inspection pre-purchase is a very important, often overlooked, part of car ownership.


If you are considering a car purchase in the near future, keep this article handy before you hit the lot.


Under the Hood

To see what’s really going on with a vehicle, check under the hood. Even without a mechanical background you can easily find the details you need to make an informed decision. If there is dust, leaves and general dirt built up on and around the engine parts, you can guarantee that isn’t the only thing that has been neglected. Ask the salesperson to show you the air filter and oil quality to get a perspective on how well the vehicle was being maintained by its last owner. If the air filter is dirty or the oil is dark and thick, this is a clear indication routine maintenance has been neglected. Healthy car engine oil should be different shades of amber.



A quick way to test the existing life of the tires is by using your spare change. If you see the tires are starting to get “bald”, or the groves are disappearing like in this picture, it’s a surefire way to know you will soon need to get a new set of tires ASAP. This can be upwards of $400, depending on the make and model of your car.


Many people have heard of the penny trick, but another method to use is the quarter trick. You can quickly do this on the lot and make a negotiation on the selling price if you find out that you will need to acquire a new set within a few months of purchase.


Look for the area that is most worn down on the tires. Take the penny and turn it upside down with Lincoln’s head turned towards you. Insert the penny into your tread, in between the higher grooves. If the bottom part of Lincoln’s head is exposed, as shown in the picture above, it is time for a new set of tires. If his head sinks below the groove – you may be in the clear.


To take this a step further, grab a quarter. You can perform the quarter test in the same fashion you did with the penny test, turning the quarter upside down and facing towards you and inserting into the thread. Use the same metrics to measure the results: if you can see Washington’s head fully it’s time to start shopping and if it is covered you are in the clear.


The space between the top of Lincoln’s head and the outside edge of the coin measures 2/32 of an inch, representing the absolute bare minimum for tread safety while the space between Washington’s head and the outside edge of the coin measures 4/32 of an inch. It is important to consider that if the tires on the car you want to buy fail the penny test, it is likely not safe to drive on that set. If the tires fail the quarter test – this means you may need to buy tires in the near future after purchase.


Exterior Inspection

The first thing to check on the exterior of your potential car is the paint. In certain cases for cars that have been in accidents, they may have had a bumper replacement and you can detect this in some cases by carefully examining the bumper vs. body color. I really want to emphasize that you perform a CAREFUL evaluation of the paint, especially if the car was located in an area that salts their roads in the winter or has high humidity. Rust can be a major danger and if you don’t check for it, it can cost you a lot of money in maintenance down the road. I speak from experience on this topic after I had once bought a truck that the rust was spray painted over. It was hard to detect upon inspection but within a year of owning the vehicle, I went to a mechanic who was replacing my shocks and he told me what had happened. A vehicle without rust will have a smooth look to it, while rust that has been painted over can have a bumpy appearance. Look for this in the vehicle body directly above the tires.


Maintenance Records

Does the car come with a detailed history of maintenance performed in the last few years? This is a great sign that the previous owner was diligent with their maintenance efforts. Don’t be shy to ask about any upcoming maintenance that the car needs. This can have better results than asking “What is wrong with the car,” as it leads the person to feel defensive. This question can save you hundreds of dollars in headache by finding out ahead of the purchase what you can expect.


Ask to Take the Car to Your Mechanic

 After performing the initial research, ask the seller if you can drive the car to your mechanic for a once over. Take notes on what she or he says will need to be replaced and ask for an estimation of those services. You can bring this list back to the dealership or individual to help decide if their asking price makes sense for your budget. Most maintenance shops or mechanic freelancers provide this service free of charge or for a small fee, usually much smaller than what you could lose if you don’t.


Do you have any pre-purchase inspection tricks to share? Have you ever accidentally bought a “lemon”?


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