For two months at the beginning of the summer I worked as a detailer at a car dealership. My responsibilities included cleaning up used cars that had been traded in and needed to be cleaned before being sold again as well as preparing some of the new cars that were going out for delivery. This position meant that I dealt with nearly every used car that came though the dealership for the two month period that I worked there, something which gave me a rare behind the scenes look at what goes into preparing a used care for sale. When considering the points I bring up also keep in mind that I worked at an official OEM licences dealership, making it one of the least risky used care sales centres.
When a customer takes delivery of their new car the most important aspect is that the car look exactly like it did when it came off the production line. This expectation is very far from the reality of how a new car comes to being delivered to the customer. Most cars are shipped (from the factory or import centre) to a dealership on the back of a truck, driven onto and off of the truck, and then parked in the dealers lot and left there exposed to the elements for a year. In the case of where I worked, the cars were stored off-site and needed to be driven across the city to the dealership before they could be cleaned for delivery. This leaves a very large window of opportunity within which things can go wrong with the car, with the transportation causing most of the cosmetic issues and the storage causing most of the mechanical ones. The following is a series of explanations of what the most common issues that I encountered with new cars and how they were dealt with in order to still deliver the car.
Firstly, the most noticeably issue with new cars having been freshly painted is that any blemishes, chips, and scratches in the paint are extremely pronounced. These imperfections range from issues with the cleanliness of the painting environment causing minor dimples, chips in the paint from the car driving and being transported around, to scratches from movement by around the dealers lot. This wide variety of issues also means a wide range of solutions is needed to deal with the problems all while keeping the customer oblivious. There are unfortunately solutions for imperfections stemming from the original painting job, though if extremely obvious a panel might be sent away for a repaint. For issues like paint chips the solution is usually to apply a small amount of touch-up paint to the chipped area and hope that the customer doesn’t notice the difference. Scratches tend to be similar to chips in how they are fixed with the exception of those that are shallow enough to be buffed out. The issues with all of these fixes is that they are not nearly as good as the original paint job and often leave the area weaker and more susceptible to rust in the future. The worrying issue is the number of times a sale person has come to check on the condition of one of their cars, only minutes before the delivery, only to realize that it needs some problem fixed in a rush so that the customer is happy with the car. This job tended to fall on me which meant I really only have a few minutes to figure out how to fix the problem and then apply a very rushed coat of paint to the affected area. The unsettling reality is that very few customers realize there was something done to their car only minutes before they saw it.
There were a few cases which I worked on, and one I was told about, that if that had was my new car there was no way I would take delivery. Other than the common paint chip the worst paint incident was a situation involving a new van. It was being driven into the wash bay to be cleaned when the driver cut the corner too tightly causing the rear door to trade some of its black paint with the red of the support pillar. After removing the red paint and polishing up the area a sizable amount of touch-up paint was applied to the deep scratch. The van was then parked in a dark area of the lot so that the shadows would hide the repair. The most disturbing story though was one told to me by a sales person who was actually quite pleased with the way they were able to hide the problem without telling the customer. While cleaning the car for delivery the worker tripped off a ladder which then scraped all the way along one of the panels, leaving a huge scratch. The panel was sent away for repainting but was never really the same colour as the rest of the car and, as before, was parked in such a way that the customer wouldn’t be able to see the repair.
The second most common issue was problems with batteries, something which in most cases falls under the warranty coverage before is actually becomes an issue. This can be attributed to the cars sitting in the lot, unused, for extended periods of time as well as cars being left in the service bay with keys in the ignition, waiting to be delivered. Unfortunately this is because the car computers don’t turn off unless the key is removed from the ignition, causing the batteries to drain themselves quite quickly. The number of times I needed to boost a car and either plug it in to charge or to let it sit running is more than I a testament to this problem. Thought batteries are not a serious of problems because they are cheap, easy to replace, and covered under warranty, the fact that the problem exists is indicative of a systemic disregard for how cars are treated at dealerships.
When looking at buying a used car one has to approach the situation with the understanding that no used car is ever in the condition it was when it was sold, be it visibly or mechanically. With that in mind the issue to consider is not that people selling used cars are selling unsafe cars but that there is a tendency to do the absolute minimum repair work to get the car in a state where it can be sold.
While working on these used cars I notices a few things which one should be aware of when buying a used car:
The time a car has spent on a lot not being driven can have a huge impact on the condition of a car. Rust is huge concern when a car is sitting outside not moving for long periods of time and there are many cars that definitely look worse for wear when you look at the underside and hard to reach spots. Brakes start to seize up and rust, and though reparable, is still a cost being passed on to you. This is mainly the result of water or salt on the underside of the car, something which is rarely considered while cleaning as customers seldom check under the car. As such, finding out how long a car has been on the lot can be very important in determining the condition of the car.
There is almost no used car that doesn’t have some form of chip or scratch on it and, as mentioned before, the common solution of this is touch-up paint. These paints will help cover up the chip or deep scratch but don’t benefit the overall health of the paint other that covering over a potential rust spot.
Like anything you buy second hand you want to know how it was treated by the previous owner. You want to know everything from what their adherence to a maintenance schedule was, what their driving style was, to how clean they kept their car. One can usually be sure that there wont be anything immediately wrong, from a mechanical standpoint, with the car you buy, but that doesn’t mean parts that were affected by this mistreatment and neglect and wont start to fail further down the road. When it comes to the cleanliness of a car it’s not surprising that buyers are (and should be) be worried about the inside of their car, not only because of the time spent driving but also because if customers knew how filthy some of the cars I cleaned were when they were traded in they would never have bought it. Most people are slobs in their cars and and the messes I had to clean up on a daily basis would disgust you.
As I have mentioned before, buying used cars can be a gamble at the best of times and there is just as much a possibility of finding a lemon as there is a gem amongst all the used cars for sale. When you buy from a dealership there is usually a reduced risk of buying a broken car as they do a basic level of maintenance on all trade-ins. The disadvantage to this is that they know that you are looking for a quality car and they can rationalize charging a 25%+ premium over what you would pay for the same car from a private seller. So if you are resourceful, patient, and knowledgeable in your search for a used car you might find one that is in just as good, or better condition than those at a dealership but for only a fraction of the price.