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Tips on Buying a Used Car, and The Hunt for a Project Volkswagen

Published on April 10, 2012 under Humble Mechanic

As you guys know, I have been looking for a project Volkswagen. I have my eye set on a Cabrio/Cabriolet but people think they are worth about double what they are actually worth. I decided to open up my search to add a GTI in the mix. Well wouldn’t you know I was able to find a 1996 GTI on Craigslist. The ad was pretty good, and noted that there were some issues with the car, but what did I expect from a 16 year old car.

Cabrio top

This was my 1st project VW. I only paid $500 for this Cabrio. I sure do miss it.

All ready to buy this car, I made the 40 mile trek to check it out. When I got there, I knew almost instantly, this car was not what the ad said. I don’t

think that the kid selling it was being deceitful, but I know that he was not telling the whole story. I spent about 45 minutes picking the car apart. Everything from damage on all sides of the car, a very oblivious water leak, and every light in the dash lit, to no a/c system, and headlight wires just flopping around. Yep, it had NO headlights.

The sad part for him is I really know this car. I can spot something out of place pretty quickly. The more I looked at this car, the more I found wrong, and more I found wrong, the less I was willing to pay. It pretty much broke down like this.

  • He posted the ad for $3000
  • Next day he changed it to $2500
  • I noted ALL the issues and offered him an offer of $1500. It would have cost me a few hundred dollars to get it drivable.
  • We went back and forth, me being very firm on my offer, and could not come to a price

Now I am only a little bummed that I could not get this car. There are 2 things that really make me mad about it. The poor car was abused. I hate seeing an awesome car ruined like that. The more important issue is, he will sell that car, and get what he wants for it. To someone that doesn’t know this car inside and out, it will seem like a good deal. It looks a little rough, but it “runs good”.

I thought I would put together a list of things that must be checked when looking a buying a used car. This list will help you avoid a big problem. Just a couple of warnings. This list will not predict the future. There can be hidden things that you will not see. I recommend using this list to deciede if it is worth getting checked out by a professional. I ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS, one more time, ALWAYS recommend getting it checked out by a mechanic, but more on that later

  • Do a walk around the outside, check for damage, and really look at the paint, even an untrained eye can spot color differences in paint.
  • Open the hood. Check the bolts that hold the hood and fenders on. Check to see if the paint is cracked. That means the bolts have been moved due to a repair.
  • Check ALL the fluids you can. On top of being clean, give it a good sniff. If it smells burnt, that is a no go
  • Check for fluid leaks. Most fluids will leave a trail the engine should not be wet with oil or coolant. Look at the fans, make sure they turn. PLEASE do this with the car off.
  • If you can see any electrical connectors, make sure they are not broken. Even if you don’t know what they are for, you know they should not be broken.
  • Wiggle stuff, Most car manufacturers do not let parts just flop around. Things are almost always secured in some way.
  • Check where the windshield and meets the cowl(that is where the wipers are) Bad seals there can cause a severe water leak.
  • Moving to the inside, open the door and take a big sniff. Water leaks have a very distinct smell. It kinda smells like a mildewy basement.
  • Look at the roof, see if there is any water staining around the windshield, windows, sunroof.
  • Touch the plastic of the interior. Lose trim can mean someone was “fixing” things
  • Look at the door jambs. Often side damage is not repaired as well on the jambs as it is on the outside
  • Open ALL the doors, make sure they open and close properly, and don’t over extend.
  • Open the trunk, check for the spare tire, and look for cracked paint on bolts, cracked seals, water
  • Check all the lights inside and out. Take a look at the tires, and brakes. I did a post about 5 quick car checks a while back, check it out for more information.

Since you will not be inspecting the car on a lift, there is no need to talk about the underside of the car. Leave that to a professional. Remember, before you buy a car, have it checked out by the DEALER! Yep, do not take it anywhere else. You might think that dealers are a rip off, but no one sees more of that specific car than a dealer mechanic. Now, if you make it this car, please take the mechanics advise. I have done used car inspections for customers, found a lot of issues, and people still buy the car. Then come back a few months later saying their car has all these problems. (D’oh)

Well, my search for a project VW continues. I will be sure to keep everyone posted about the search.

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11 Comments

  1. Brandon

    Good luck on the search! I saw a Cabrio the other day, and I knew the owner took good care of it because the car LOOKED BRAND NEW! No rust, not dirty, no damage, and the interior had no scuffs or fadded marks. I couldn’t belive that the car looked as if it belonged to a car show or something!

  2. Matt C.

    These are pretty good tips — I would have never thought of doing this one:
    “Open the hood. Check the bolts that hold the hood and fenders on. Check to see if the paint is cracked. That means the bolts have been moved due to a repair.”

    1. Charles

      Thanks Matt,
      There are a few little things like that anyone can check. Always check the bolts. May times manufacturers paint lines on the bolts when they install them at the factory. The paint not lining up can be another sign of manipulation

  3. Steve M.

    When shopping for my work truck, I searched and searched and came up with little of interest. Tired of searching and determined to find something, I came across a plausible vehicle and negotiated a price. I then had to drive to my bank to secure funds and on the way (good thing it was a long ways) I changed my mind.

    Lesson learned: Don’t rush into a sale because you drove a long way to see a car or are tired of shopping. The time I spent driving to my bank was enough of a “cooling off period” to allow me to see the light. I’m so glad I passed on that vehicle.

  4. Jeremy

    I would also want to add some pointers.

    -Never buy a car in the dark
    -Check for worn peddles, especially if the car has low mileage. Worn in peddles are normal on high mileage cars. If you see them on low mileage cars it may be a sign that the mileage was rolled back.
    -If the car is running or the engine is warm when you get there ask if you can come back tomorrow to see it again. Sometimes people run the engine before the customer gets there so they don’t see the black smoke on start up or hear the knocking. A warm start always sounds better than a cold start.

    1. Charles

      Jeremy, the advise about the pedals is AWESOME!!! I don’t think I have looked at that. GREAT advise!

      You also bring a good point up about starting. I would like to see a warm and a cold. I know that is not always realistic, but it would be nice!

  5. Garrett Craven

    A warm and cold start is a must in my opinion, and a cold and warm check under the hood. I almost bought a car once but because i went with my gut and did just this i saved myself a major headache. The guy hadnt driven it yet (cold start) so i looked under the hood and then went for a test ride. After i came back i had the urge to check it again. Well thank god, he had wiped up excess leaking fluids and oil and once i looked again i saw leaks everywhere! He was pretty sneaky about it too cuz it wasnt sparkling under the hood it looked normal (dust and normal buildup) but after the test drive it was leaking coolant and oil everywhere. Lesson learned lol

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