One of the questions I get most often is for help and advice on how to choose a used car or van to buy to live in, so I thought I would answer it here for everyone to see This is Part 1 of 2.
The thing is, we’re all looking for some magical way to be sure we are getting a great vehicle at a great price that will never need repair. Sadly, that’s impossible, you do your best when buying a used vehicle but it’s still a crap shoot and it’s not only possible you will be doing repairs and maintenance on it, but a virtual certainty. But for those who insist on a magic solution to buying the best vehicle here it is in three easy steps:

  1. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!
  2. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!
  3. Always have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it and have an emergency fund!

Follow those three steps, and you’ll have done your best and hopefully will be okay. Now, let me answer some of your specific questions.

Should I Buy New (1990 or newer) or Old (older than 1990)?

This is not a simple question but it comes down to two basic points of view:
Older cars are better because:

  1. Older cars are much easier to understand and work on and parts are usually readily available.
  2. Newer cars are so complicated the average person can’t work on them.
  3. If it isn’t there, it can’t break. For example, older cars don’t have computers, so the computer can never fail leaving you stranded.
  4. If you have mechanical aptitude, you can probably do road-side repairs on an older car if it breaks down on you—at least enough to get you home.

Newer cars are better because:

  1. They are much more reliable. It’s reasonable to expect the first 150-200,000 miles to be fairly trouble-free, and the newer the more trouble-free it will be. On the other hand, the older a car is, the more trouble you can expect from it.
  2. They get much better gas mileage (MPG). Computer controlled fuel injection is so much more efficient than carburetors that over the life of the vehicle you can save a lot on gas.
  3. They run better. The computer automatically adjusts for elevation, temperature and other variables so that starting and running is much smoother and easier.
  4. The On-Board-Diagnostic (OBD II) computer can make it easier for a mechanic to find the problem or at least narrow it down.

No matter what age vehicle you buy, search carefully for RUST, in hidden areas!! Rust is a very slow and silent killer of vehicles and you must search it out. Remember, it’s just like an iceberg, what you can actually see is just the tip, there is probably much more hidden that you don’t see. This is especially important in areas that get a lot of snow and ice because of the salt they use on the roads to melt it.  Also watch for it in areas close to the coasts.
My Advice, it you have the skill, time, and ability with the desire to regularly be working on your vehicle–an older car is a great choice for you. If not, then buy the newest you can afford with the lowest miles.

How Many Miles Are Too Many Miles?

If you’re buying an older vehicle, 1990 or older:

  1. Mileage really isn’t that big an issue because you are planning to repair and replace everything as it breaks, but you still want to get the lowest mileage possible; 100,000 to 150,000 would still be ideal.
  2. However be aware that too low mileage can be just as bad as, or worse than too high. A vehicle that just sits and is never driven is still wearing away. The rubber is rotting in many things but especially the hoses and seals inside the engine.  Electrical connections are corroding possibly creating grounds and breaks that are a nightmare to track down. The inside of the whole drivetrain is subject to rusting. It’s by far better if a vehicle is driven consistently, try to avoid one that sits for too long.

If you’re buying a Newer Vehicle 1990 or newer:
Since this is probably what most of us will buy, let me give you what I think is a likely scenario for its lifetime repair cycle. But, first off, understand I’m talking about a mythical “average” 1990 or newer American made pickup or van, like the one most of us will be in.  Of course the vehicle you actually buy may not follow this at all, maybe it will be better than average, or maybe it will be worse. This is just the best broad, average understanding that I could arrive at based on my years of experience and talking to other vandwellers.
There are many variables that will make the vehicle you buy better or worse than average:

  1. The most important is maintenance. How well a vehicle is maintained (specifically changing the fluids, lubrication and inspections) has a huge impact on how long it lasts. So always ask to see any maintenance records they have. It doesn’t rule out a vehicle if they don’t have any, but it can help to rule one in.
  2. How it’s driven also tremendously impacts how well a vehicle ages. Driving on the freeway at a steady, reasonable speed is far better on the van than stop and go traffic in the cities with frequent short trips.
  3. Hidden accident damage. Always run a CarFax report to see if it sheds any light on past accidents or repairs. Just be aware it may not tell you the whole story–vitally important things can be left out.

Because of the many variables over the life of a vehicle, never buy a car or van without having it inspected by a qualified mechanic and have an emergency fund!!!
On a typical, modern American made truck or van expect:

  • 1 – 150,000 miles to be relatively trouble-free. Any failures are premature. The brakes and tires are constantly wearing out and likely to be problems before this, but they can usually be inspected and seen by a good mechanic, so they won’t be a surprise.
  •  150,000 – 200,000 you can expect minor repairs, starter, alternator, radiator, water pump, fuel pump. They can come earlier, but that would not be the normal thing. None of those can be inspected and seen beforehand–they are sudden failures. The front end will need repairs sometime in here, but it can be seen and inspected so a good mechanic can tell you how soon failure is coming to those parts.
  • 200,000 miles and beyond you can expect to be making numerous repairs—and at some point major repairs. Expect to rebuild the automatic transmission close to this number and the engine sometime soon.
  • By 300,000 miles expect to have replaced EVERYTHING, at least once and probably several times. Often, the rebuilt parts we replace the originals with are not nearly as good, and won’t last as long.

Body problems are things lots of people don’t consider but can be very aggravating and surprisingly expensive. Just like the engine, they are mechanical devices and constant use simply wears them out. If you have to pay someone to fix them, it will cost you. They follow a similar pattern to the engine, expect problems to start between 150-200,000 miles and get worse after that. Things like:

  • Ignition switch: I had one fail and the truck wouldn’t start so I had to get it towed into a shop to get it replaced, total cost $250
  • Door handles: they just break.
  • Door locks (power or mechanical) they all fail eventually, but it’s much worse on the sliding doors on vans.
  • Windows rolling up or down (mechanical or power) eventually won’t.
  • Door hinges: even if you keep them lubed, they’ll fail.

I believe my 1993 F150 is very typical of what you can expect from the “average” newer car. I bought it with 130,000 miles on it and it was totally trouble free (except needing normal tires and brakes) until 190,000 miles. Then the repairs really started in!  At 190,000 I replaced the alternator and starter. I rebuilt the transmission at 200,000 and replaced the motor at 220,000. By 260,000 the small repairs were just overwhelming and I sold it for parts.
MY ADVICE: I prefer to have some trouble-free miles before starting into the known repair mileage, but it really is just up to you. If it has 120,000 miles, you should have 50-80,000 relatively trouble free miles then expect minor problems ($300-$500) until 200,000, then be aware a rebuild can come any time ($3000-$5000).
If you have to pay someone to repair your car, van, SUV or pickup, buy the newest with lowest mileage you can afford. Spend the money and get a mechanic to inspect it and always have an emergency find
Those are the facts as I understand them—although some would disagree. What you do with them is really a very personal thing based primarily on your budget and ability to make repairs on whatever you buy.
In my next post we’ll talk about how to choose a vehicle based on it’s reputation.

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