How To Buy the Luxury Car You Desire… Used

No doubt you’ve heard — repeated again and again — the old adage: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Sure it goes for the office, but the parking lot?

For those with Maserati taste and a Honda Accord budget, consider buying a used high-end car that’s in great shape. Sound good? Check out these tips:

Choose Your Look

Without a doubt, older luxury cars are interesting and great conversation pieces. An older model Mercedes-Benz can be romantic, elegant and classic, while a vintage BMW can look as if it has adrenaline pumping beneath its sheet metal.

Because used luxury cars range in quality and upkeep, it’s hard to recommend specific vehicles. If you’re a car aficionado you may already have a favourite (say the 1995 BMW 5-Series, perhaps). Once you’ve chosen your manufacturer, it’s time to shift down for some serious research.

Consider that more “mainstream” luxury automakers — like Saab, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Porsche — often have more inventory on the market initially, and therefore, more cars on the secondary market. More inventory means a lower used car price tag. When compared to more unusual high-end companies, such as Ferrari or DeLorean, these makers are also more likely to have service facilities in your area, and independent mechanics who feel comfortable about maintaining your vehicle.

Dynamics of Aged Luxury

Sure, you can have the sweetest car among all your entry-level peers; but if you keep showing up late due to car trouble, you’re better off driving a brand new Accord than a pre-owned Beemer. In other words, do your homework.

Kelley Blue Book is about to become your best friend. This publication and online service provide information that will walk you, step-by-step, through the car buying process. These guys know cars. Suggested retail values of used cars can also be found on the Web site, so you can gauge if you’re getting a good deal.

“This is the most complex consumer item that you could get,” says Charles Vogelheim, executive editor for Kelley Blue Book, when asked about buying older luxury vehicles. “Anytime you’re looking at a car five years or older, the history of that car becomes so much more important…whether it was cared for properly and how it was maintained by previous owners. At this stage, you’re getting to a point in a car’s life where you could have things starting to go wrong. Also, whether it was parked inside or not, waxed and cleaned regularly are important factors.

“At a certain point the mechanics cost more and the parts cost more, so a good history is really important. There are fewer qualified mechanics that can work on them–this is all part of what you’re buying into when you purchase an older luxury car,” added Vogelheim.

So, don’t be shy; ask lots of questions, including maintenance history. For example, did the owner change the oil every 3,000 or 6,000 miles, and was the recommended service schedule meticulously followed? Refer to Kelley’s “10 Steps to Buying a Used Car” for a detailed listing of suggested questions to ask.

SharpNote: Consider following up the salesperson or previous owner’s contention that the car was maintained. A luxury car is often serviced by the same shop — and the same service agent or mechanic — throughout it’s time with an owner. Ask the owner for the name of the dealership or shop where the car was maintained, then call, with the Vehicle Identification Number to follow up. Dealership service agents can look up the car and service record, smaller shops may remember a meticulous owner by name and car model. Seem like a lot of work? Wasn’t it also a lot of work to earn the money you’ll spend to repair a previously ill-maintained car?

Locating Vintage Beauties

When you decide it’s time to buy a used luxury car, you have two options: buying from a private individual or a dealership. Each choice has its own advantages and disadvantages.

According to Kelly Blue Book’s online guide, private parties often offer lower prices than a dealership due to the “refurbishing” a dealer must do to ready the car for sale. For example, they list a 1999 Mercedes-Benz SL-600 roadster with 112,000 miles and in “good” condition as having a suggested retail value of $31,105 at a dealership compared to $24,465 from an individual.

The upside of buying from a dealership is that there may be some kind of extended or “after-market” warranty. The vehicle may also participate in a program that “certifies” its condition. In fact, some manufacturers make it very easy for you to locate dealers’ pre-owned, certified cars. The Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Web sites have a nationwide search for certified models, while BMW offers a similar search within 500 miles of your zip code, as does Audi.

Conversely, buying from a private party most often means that you are buying a vehicle sold as is, which may or may not be the best deal.

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used To Be

Older luxury cars can be a lot of fun to drive; however, do note that these are used vehicles, which means they have a lot of miles under their timing belt, engine, tires, interiors and the like. Kelley’s Vogelheim emphasizes looking at the details: “leather can age gracefully or can be a problem depending on how it was maintained…it can be cracked or not in good shape. Before it starts to crack it gets very hard. It’s the little things which should make you cautious.”

Vogelheim also suggests, “be aware of the car that you’re getting …the first year some cars came out they had problems, which were fixed over subsequent model years. They may have even had a recall. We recommend using CARFAX. It’s always nice to know whether it was involved in any kind of accident that required bodywork.”

CARFAX is an online resource that, for a fee, will provide you with a vehicle history report for the specific vehicle you inquire about. Yes, the actual one you have your eye on. You’ll need the vehicle identification number (VIN) for the car to obtain the report.

Each CARFAX report includes information on whether the vehicle associated with the VIN was:

  • Totaled in an accident/salvage
  • Sustained flood damage
  • Odometer rollbacks were observed
  • Has a “lemon” history
  • Has “junked” titles
  • Passed or failed state emissions inspection
  • Includes any lien activity and/or
  • Whether the vehicle was used as a taxi, rental, lease, etc.

The service costs $24.99 for unlimited vehicle history reports or $19.99 for a single vehicle history report. A Safety and Reliability Report on the overall make and model is also included with the $24.99 report, providing information on crash tests, safety recalls, reliability ratings and warranty information.

SharpNote: You can also obtain make and model recall information by visiting The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site.

Of course, prior to negotiating a price or signing on the dotted line, it’s a smart idea to have the vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic of your choosing. Consider approaching a mechanic at the dealership, who has an incentive to find something wrong with the vehicle.