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The TBT guide to buying a used car

  • 2004-11-25
  • By Andrei Tuch
TALLINN - I am standing in the back of a used car lot with my friend, another Andrei, who is looking for a second- hand motor. The guy spends his days working as a delivery driver, and his nights getting a degree in business administration. And while this is Tallinn, not exactly Los Angeles, he does feel the pressing need for something to get him from work to school to home and back again.

Some days later I call my friend's attention to a 1982 Mazda 323 hatchback, on sale for a mere 4,000 kroons (250 euros). But he's looking for a car made within his lifetime, and seems unimpressed. I am intrigued, however, and since it has been a couple of months since my dirty blue 1976 Volvo station wagon met its end at the hands of a panel truck (I even made national TV), I go and look at the machine. It seems to comply with the basic definition of an automobile, i.e. it moves under its own power, so I go ahead and buy it. On my way home, I stall in traffic. The battery is dead. Andrei comes and tows me back to base camp.

Second to a home, a car is the most expensive thing you buy, so a little apprehension is natural. But there is enough of a market in Estonia that you can find a second-hand car to suit every taste - from an immaculately restored classic Porsche 911 to, um, a 250-euro beater. Determining what you are looking for should be your first priority. This seems hard enough to do, but it really isn't. Just ask yourself a few simple questions.

Budget

Take a piece of paper and write down the amount you feel comfortable spending on your next vehicle. Now crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash: the only thing you'll get for that money is an '82 Mazda 323. We're almost done with November here, and trust me - it is way too cold to be stuck in the middle of the highway.

Have a look at your savings account. A lump sum of several thousand euros will get you a few good years of service, or you can finance your purchase: banks are perfectly happy to back a deal on a nearly new motor, particularly a recent import, and you can even buy from a private party. As a rule, your monthly payment cannot exceed a third of the household's net income, so this should give you a price range.

Where to look

If you're in Tallinn, most of the used-car lots are in one spot, a few kilometers away from the Motor Vehicle Registration Center building. It is always good to see machines in the metal, and shopping around will give you a good idea of what's out there - but be aware that a private seller can mean a useful discount.

It's winter, and a keyboard drastically reduces the chances of frostbite. Good deals on old bangers can be found at the car section of the osta.ee auction Web site (or its Latvian and Lithuanian subsidies), but your main one-stop shop for a used motor is auto24.ee. The Web site has a highly useful search facility, nice large pictures and an entry for every noteworthy machine sold throughout the country.

What to buy

Are you even sure you need a used car? Ten thousand euros will buy you a fairly loaded Hyundai or Kia, and both come with a warranty not so much bulletproof as sheathed in depleted uranium. Yes, you are getting less car for your money, but five years' worth of peace of mind is pretty alluring.

If you aspire to something a bit more upmarket, start by deciding on nationality. Conventional wisdom says that Japanese cars are boring while French ones are exciting, which also means that a Japanese car will start, go and stop every time, whereas a Gallic machine will make your life unpredictable. German is the firm favorite in Estonia, with good build quality, decent (perceived) reliability and nice interiors. American imports are largely irrelevant, although servicing them isn't all that tricky any more, particularly in Tallinn - and some people just really, really want to drive an enormous Caddy hearse.

Look carefully at the options list. Anything other than a supermini is expected to come with air conditioning, but the cost saving on one that doesn't will probably outweigh the inconvenience on the three days a year that it's actually useful. On the other hand, electric heated everything comes highly recommended, with bum warmers being particularly endearing. Don't overpay for an engine preheater though: it usually comes with a wall plug, and you probably don't have an outlet anywhere near your regular parking spot.

Age matters less than condition, and a mileage reading is too easily faked, even on new cars with digital dashboards. A year-old victim of instant depreciation has the benefit of a factory warranty (most new cars are covered for three years), but if it was made in the previous millennium, don't be seduced by a number - you don't know where it's been. A logbook is usually a good sign.

Another useful thing a new car dealer can do for you is to run the Vehicle Identification Number through the system. EU accession means that most stolen cars that go through Estonia don't stick around - it is way easier to offload them in Russia - but if the factory says the car is a no-frills diesel sedan and you're being offered a loaded petrol V8 estate, something is amiss. Another threat that should also be considered is a swimmer - a car damaged in the big European floods a few years back and sold eastward by frugal insurance companies.

Take your time. Scan the best Web sites and specialty publications regularly, and wait for a car that is just right for you: chances are, you will find it.

Just like Andrei found his car. Believe it or not, he ended up with... a Mazda 323! Except his is about a dozen years junior, and much, much nicer. Apparently it had been standing around in the back of a used-car lot for six months, at which point the owner decided to cut his losses and sold it for two-thirds the market price. A bit of inexpensive engine work, and it's a peach. The problem is, the rubber seals on the windows are dried up, and the passenger side electric window has trouble rolling down. Ah, where's my can of WD-40...