Buying used: Repair and inspection plans ease worries

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Booming new-car sales — increasing every year since 2009 to a record 17.6 million last year — get all the attention these days, especially with the availability of a lengthy list of flashy features to aid driving and add more entertainment on the road. New cars are often more efficient, cleaner-running and safer during a crash, too.

But not all of that is good for car buyers, I believe. Technology suppliers have told me that half of all new-car buyers try some advanced systems — features like automatic braking, lane-keep assist and five-position remote-entry-and-start electronic key fob — and reject them. To me, not all of the gadgets available on new cars work as well as promised.

One choice is to buy a simpler used vehicle. I like best that used cars are considerably cheaper, and they continue to count for three times as many transactions for car buyers, giving buyers more choices. Used cars, though, are riskier to buy. But maintenance and inspection plans introduced this year could reduce buyers’ worries.

The plans take some of the popular benefits of so-called “certified pre-owned” cars sold by new-car dealers. These used cars are blessed by their manufacturers and intended to reduce customer fears of their states of repair. Certified pre-owned cars are a growing business for auto dealers.

Used cars that are too old to qualify for a such a plan or are not covered by an extended warranty are riskier to buy.

Maintenance can be expensive. Diagnostics and car data company CarMD analyzes reports from more than a thousand technicians who repaired more than one million cars, SUVs, minivans and light trucks from model years 1996 to 2016. They found that in the Midwest the top five things that needed fixing were oxygen sensors, catalytic converters, ignition coils and spark plugs, and thermostats. The fourth most common reason for a repair visit was to tighten the gas cap. On average it’s just a $15 fix.

The total average cost for each car needing repairs was $387, according to the CarMD report, which was 8 percent lower than in 2006. The 15 most expensive repairs needed — including an engine ($7,821) or a transmission ($3,723-$5,191) — applied to only 1 percent of the repairs.

To me, that means buying a used car is a lower risk than it used to be. About a third of all used-car transactions, more than 14 million every year, are among private owners selling to private buyers.

Amateurs, in other words. These sales happen among folks who only go through the process a handful of times in their lifetimes, versus the dozens of times a week a professional flips a used car.

Further, maintenance membership plans and inspection services such as those being offered this winter by Sears Auto Center provides members the services of a new-car dealer to those buyers and sellers of any used car.

Maintenance plans cover up to three years and 45,000 miles of regular maintenance at fixed prices, and an inspection plan provides a $99 regular price vehicle assessment of the members’ used car, along with the accident history.

Most car auction professionals are unanimous in their recommendations that used-car buyers should get evaluations of prospective purchases by a good mechanic.

Sears Auto Center president Brian Kaner says the technicians at Sears repair shops average about 12 years of experience, and that the company has made “a sizable investment in technology” to keep the 620-shop national repair chain as up to date as possible to support the new maintenance and evaluation plans. “We have transitioned it into a friendly, productive, clean environment. The days of measuring the amount of effectiveness by the amount of grease on the floor are behind us.”

That’s all good news for those of us who like and take the risk to buy simpler vehicles of the not-so-distant past. You know, cars with roll-up windows, manually operating seat adjustments, real metal door lock keys, and controls that perform what they promise: on means on, and off means off.