Monday, June 18, 2012

Used Car Feature Translator

If you have ever shopped for a used car, you know there is a lot of wordsmithing that goes on for the advertisements.  I've purchased more than my fair share of cars in my day, and I've spent countless hours browsing for cars, speaking to salespeople, driving through car lots, and researching cars on the Internet. 

During this time, I have come to realize that much of is written in car advertisements takes a bit of knowledge to interpret, and here are a few of the more egregious examples of terms used to describe a vehicle along with what that term actually means:

Well maintained:  This means if something broke and the car wouldn't start it was taken to the dealership and it was fixed.  The oil has probably been changed at least once or twice a year, but only after the car started "making funny noises".  The car was washed at least once a month though, so that qualifies as maintenance.

Chances are this car will need to have the transmission serviced, the power steering and brake fluid replaced, the radiator flushed, the air filter, cabin air filter, and spark plugs replaced, and pretty much an entire tune up.  The suspension components need lubrication, and the alignment hasn't been checked since the Clinton administration.

Glossy paint:  The fact is, any car that has been washed on a regular basis and that isn't more than 15 years old probably has glossy paint (or will have after a good wax job) so if you see this written in an ad, it probably means there isn't much else to brag about.  The tires will be shot, the seats will be torn and faded, the stereo probably only plays music from the front passenger side speaker, and the windshield looks like it lost a battle against a gravel truck.

New tires:  This can mean a few different things.  If the car is less than three years old, this probably means the previous owner did a few burn outs and ruined the tires.  If the car has 40,000 miles or more the tires are probably new but they will be from some random tire manufacturer in China or Korea that you have never heard of, and they will probably sound like you are driving on a washboard at speeds in excess of 50mph.  The chances of finding a car with a set of new Yokohamas or Bridgestones is highly unlikely. 

Also, when a dealer brags about their used car having brand new tires, it can often be simply a way to cover up the uneven wear on the tires due to camber or toe-in issues.  Trust me... they aren't doing you any favors by putting $300 worth of cheap import tires on a used car.

Always garaged:  This probably means the owner of the car parked in the garage when at home, so those scratches on the door are from when their eight year old slammed against the car as they tried to ride their bike out into the driveway.  It also may mean the car was in pieces for several years and wasn't running so they used the back seat to store lumber and aluminum cans.  Let's just say if you open a car door and catch a strong cedar-like odor... you might want to start asking questions.

A classic barn find:  If you are in the market for a 60s muscle car or unmolested numbers-matching sports car, the idea of an old barn find is very appealing.  However, most cars that are pushed into a barn and left there for a few decades were put there because they didn't run - not because the previous owner thought it might be worth restoring one day.  The reality is, if someone advertises a car as a barn find, the engine will be seized and there won't be a battery in the car to see if it would even be possible to turn it over.  The oil in the crankcase will essentially be the consistency of road tar, the transmission fluid will look like honey, the tires will be flat and cracked from dry rot, the headliner and interior will be ripped, faded, and stained, and the driver's seat foam will be chewed up from the family of mice who has been making the car their home for the past few decades.

If someone claims their car is a barn find, chances are you are looking at at least 30 years of neglect on top of whatever forced the owner to push the car into a barn that many years ago.  You can also bet that at least a few of the parts that are meant to be installed on the engine (carburetor, valve covers, radiator, distributor etc) will be contained in cardboard boxes stored in either the back seat or the trunk.  At some point the owner will probably utter the phrase that "it just needs to be cleaned up and tuned up", but unless you are prepared for a complete frame-off restoration that could very well take three to five years of your life... this is probably a bad idea.

Adult driven:  This is a classic, and at first glance you think that means the car was probably treated with respect and that the oil was changed every 3,000 miles.  The best thing to do in this case is to examine the owner's garage when you go to look at the car.  If the garage is full of NASCAR memorabilia or the owner is wearing a t-shirt featuring their favorite race driver... you may want to reconsider.  Another good tactic is to check all the radio presets.  If they are set to the classic music, talk radio, or oldies stations you are probably in the clear, but if they are set to the hard rock, metal, and hip/hop stations chances are this "adult" is still suffering from a mid-life crisis, and the transmission, rear tires, and suspension are all shot.

One owner:  This one has always baffled me.  Why should I care if a car was owned by one person or three people?  I could see a red flag popping up if the car had been owned by five different people in the past two years, but for the most part the own owner thing is meaningless.  The one owner line can sometimes be used when a parent buys a car but every kid in the family has driven it at one point or another. 

Mechanic's Special:  This means they couldn't afford to have someone fix it for them since the cost of the necessary repairs are at least 20% greater than the blue book value of the car itself.  For every problem the car displays while it is sitting in the owner's driveway, you can easily assume there are at least five or six more that will present themselves within 45 minutes of signing a bill of sale.

Dependable:  Chances are everything that can typically go wrong with a car has probably been fixed in the past three years or so, thus the owner feels the car should be dependable from this point forward.  This is no way suggests the car has been dependable up to this point, and if you decide to take a chance you may later determine your chances of getting home on any given night depend if you are able to fix it yourself when it breaks down on the side of the road.


  1. We sell used cars. We are not dishonest like you say. NOT FUNNY.
    John Pruitt
    John Pruitt Motor Company

  2. We sell quality used cars. My father and grandfather sold quality used cars. Your post is not funny.

  3. What's that? A used car salesman who has no sense of humor? I'm shocked!