The tyre kicker's guide to buying a car


The road to buying a used car is a treacherous one. Brian Byrne, an experienced traveller on this road, offers his best advice - and 12 top tips for checking over your potential purchase

The first tip when going out to buy a used car is wear heavy boots. Otherwise kicking tyres can lead to sore toes. Where the habit of kicking the tyres of a defenceless car came from, no one knows. Perhaps it's a form of nervous tick, because most of us heading out on the sometimes treacherous road of buying a used car are undoubtedly a little scared of the unknown.

There is also the caricature of the bright-tied and shifty used-car dealer, waiting for the unwary, a highwayman of modern times. In those ubiquitous and anonymous "who do you trust?" polls, he usually ranks along with journalists, lawyers and window salesmen, close to the bottom.

However, the one to fear most when buying a used car is oneself. There's something about cars that affect our reason, upset our sensibility, cause boomerang mood swings, and generally make us throw aside everything we have learned since birth.

A bit like the early days of love, really. And, like love, it can come up from left field, from where you least expect it. People regularly enter a showroom planning to buy the equivalent of a pair of sensible brogues, and ended up with the motorised version of flashy blue suede slip-ons, with tassles.

So, the top tip is - know what you need. It's amazing how many people who never leave the city limits fall under the spell of a big car. This then spends most of its time sitting in its expensive car park space, using up high insurance and road tax costs without moving. Conversely, a long daily drive is hell in a small box, especially if the weekends also require the transporting of several teenaged family members and their accoutrements from one leisure/sporting pursuit to another.

Sit down and tick off your needs in a car. Done? Okay, but homework's not over. Estimate the car size/style you want. The motoring press is still the first port of call. The Internet has blossomed as an information source, and with a list of preferred models propped up against your computer it is now possible to read reviews, check out specifications on makers' sites, and even buy across the Net (though online sales has not taken off: not surprising as it is very hard to kick those tyres on a VDU).

Also on the Net, an increasing number of franchises now provide lists of used cars available from their individual dealers. While the accuracy of these depend on how often they are updated, they can give a good picture of what's out there (usually under some form of guaranteed used car scheme), and generally what asking prices are.

Taking a more traditional route, read the advertisements and auto classifieds and check out the price ranges being asked for your chosen models. Do some comparisons of year/mileage vs price until you have a good feel for the market segment.

Homework finished. Time to hit the road. You have three choices: private and "private", auction, and dealer. Yes, there are two types of private sale. A significant number of those advertising in classifieds from "home" can actually be dealers operating without the expenses (and responsibilities) of forecourts, storage compounds, guarantees, or repair/service facilities. If the addresses are in "flatland", and the contact number is a mobile phone, be aware that there may not be a private owner to come back to if you have been sold a pup. That said, there ARE genuine private sales out there, such as people selling a second family car who prefer to look for a new car with cash in hand rather than a trade-in.

Auctions have become quite popular, and a number of established dealer groups have set up well-organised auction systems. These are great fun for people with a long-standing interest in cars, who know their wheels and camshafts, and who can read off the value of a used car to the nearest euro and be right. If you do not qualify under the above, bring a friend who is a car buff, or better again a mechanic. The established auction houses have rules about how the car is being sold, and what comebacks you have. Be clear on these before you raise that hand.

THE traditional used car-only dealer is a disappearing species, with many of the main dealerships now providing a used car showroom or compound in another part of their premises, set up with all the comforts and facilities of their new car operation. Generally they will not stock anything over three or four years old, but you will not be made feel inferior just because you are not in the "new" showroom.

The used car 'supermarket' idea has now become well established in Dublin, and these have the advantage of allowing the prospective buyer to look at a wide range of cars, usually with many copies of individual models, all clearly priced and with essential information on the stickers. Those prices are usually pretty competitive, and a stroll through the lot even at your "homework" stage - provided you have the strength of character to walk away again - can arm you with a good feel for the costs. Bring a notebook and write down the details and prices. Don't feel strange about it - no salesman is going to run you off his lot just because you like to note down the offers. Anyway, they are used to it: in general, purchasers visit a dealership at least twice before they actually buy there. The question of trade-in: with the massive upsurge in new car sales over recent years, many dealers found themselves stuck with trade-ins that stood them a lot of money and which they could not easily sell.

In consequence, looking for a decent price on a second-hand car against another, younger, second-hand car is at the moment not a very rewarding experience. Unless you are a regular customer of the dealership, you are probably going to do better selling your own car privately. But that's another story, and we will look at selling your car in next week's Motors.