Buying a used car is not only the best way to get the most car for your money; it also helps you dodge a massive hit from depreciation. And, in some cases, older models are actually better than newer ones.
However, no matter how well you do your research or how great an example you find, a used car is a complex machine with pieces that, after five or ten (or more) years on the road, are sometimes going to break.
That’s why you should make identifying a great local mechanic the very first step in your used car buying process.
Otherwise, when something goes wrong, you may find yourself going from shop to shop paying for work that never actually solves the issue, which can turn even the simplest of problems into a very costly fix.
No matter how much you really love old BMWs, for instance, you’ll probably want to cross that marque off your list if you discover there aren’t any decent BMW repair shops near you. On the contrary, if you happen to find a legendary Alfa Romeo specialist just down the block, then it might actually make sense to add an Italian exotic to your shopping list (lucky you!).
The good news is that it’s never been easier to find a great mechanic you can trust. Just head to Yelp and look for nearby shops with plenty of four- and five-star raves — and, to reassure yourself that the ratings are legit, maybe also a disappointed customer or two (no place is perfect).
Ideally the shop should be walking distance — or at least a short Uber ride — from your house or workplace so that it’s never a hassle to drop off or pick up your car.
If Yelp doesn’t have a strong presence in your neck of the woods, do the next best thing and ask for referrals from friends, neighbors, colleagues — even that stranger you happen to spy getting out of a cool older car at the gas station or grocery store. They’ll be more than happy to spread the word if they know someone they really trust.
It’s also worth it to head down to any recommended establishments and check them out for yourself. When you arrive, take a look around. What’s your impression? Is it a place you’ll feel comfortable coming back to? Are they working on reasonably nice cars or just a random assortment of junk? And is there a place to hang out for an hour or two, if needed? Maybe a coffee shop nearby?
If you like the place, see if the head mechanic is available for a quick introduction. Let him or her know you’re in the market and ask what models he or she might generally recommend for simple upkeep and reliability.
You may get lucky and find there’s a good car coming up for sale by a client. This is an excellent way to get into known example with a history of being well cared for. (As with property or jobs, many of the best cars and best values are snapped up before they are even listed. I once picked up a $1000 Mercedes-Benz turbodiesel this way and drove it for a few largely trouble-free years until it was finally rear-ended and totaled by the insurance company, which then cut me a check for four times what I’d paid for it!)
Don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find someone that you’re really comfortable with. When you’re driving an older car, visits to the shop can become a matter of routine, even enjoyable — sort of like trips to your longtime barber, or to a favorite local bar or restaurant. There should be no apprehension in stopping by, perhaps to ask about an unusual noise or vibration you’ve started to notice.
More often than not during visits like this, my treasured Benz mechanic, Herbert, will dismiss my concerns in a comforting way (“Don’t worry — it can wait until your next service”) and then refuse any compensation for his time. That’s the kind of mechanic you’re looking for.
One more critical point: a trusted mechanic also plays a key role in vetting any individual cars you are seriously considering. Even a cheap used car is a commitment of at least a few thousand dollars — and potentially that much and more in repairs and upkeep once you take ownership — so you need to know exactly what you are getting yourself into before finalizing a purchase. Through an independent pre-purchase inspection (PPI), a trusted mechanic can protect you from buying something with serious issues, some of which may only be apparent to an expert eye. As a bonus, a PPI also provides you with an objective list of negotiation points to use with the seller as you try to work out a fair purchase price.
So if you are shopping for a used car but don’t yet have a local mechanic you can rely on, it’s time to take a step back and re-prioritize your efforts. Find a great mechanic first to ensure that you’ll enjoy your next used car purchase for many miles and years to come.