4 tips for buying a used car or truck

What to look for before you buy a used vehicle

Cody Paxman’s business requires confidence. As the manager of the Calgary branch of Inspectacar, and co-owner of it and the original Lethbridge store with Sheldon Anderson, Paxman has to stand by his assessment of a used vehicle when – and it happens – an owner or potential buyer is unpleasantly surprised by the list of necessary repairs.

“There are some people who obviously don’t appreciate the information I give them,” says the Automotive Service Technician grad (class of ’05).

During his time in front of the cameras in the den, however, the dragons left him literally weak in the knees. He and Anderson travelled to Toronto in 2013 to ask for $85,000 for 15% on the hit CBC show. But his nerves quickly proved to be for naught. Forgoing the usual Dragons’ Den bartering, Bruce Croxon and Jim Treliving offered exactly what the automotive experts were seeking. “I totally get it,” said Croxon of the concept. “I’m very excited.”

This year, they’ve set up to franchise – nationally, Paxman hopes – on the strength of that concept. Their approach is to provide inspections but no repairs, eliminating an inherent conflict that can lead to upsell or biased assessments (Inspectacar does offer basic maintenance packages, Paxman points out, but nothing requiring a licensed tech).

With used models continuing to dominate the market – comprising about 62% of the 4.5 million vehicles sold in Canada in 2013 – here is Paxman’s guide to buying secondhand with confidence.

Do your homework

“Get as much information as you can on that vehicle,” says Paxman. Much of this involves the simplest form of communication. Nope, not texting – talking, on the phone or, better still, in person.

“Get a feel for what kind of person that is. Is it someone who is easy to talk to, or someone who loses their temper when you ask them a simple question? By talking to the person, you can find out maybe how he or she treated that vehicle.”

Visit the car dealership

Paxman once did an inspection on an all-wheel-drive SUV that the potential buyer had the owner drop off, sight unseen. It wasn't what it seemed. “I showed him that it was a front-wheel drive vehicle,” says the technician. Not only did the potential buyer not get the SUV he wanted, he had to cover the cost of the inspection – which, arguably, saved him some trouble.

While Paxman’s advice to “physically look at the vehicle” sounds too much like common sense to bear mentioning, he stresses it nevertheless. Looking back at that situation with the SUV, he adds, “I’ve run into that a few times.”

Ask for vehicle histories             

Inspectacar has partnered with 2 major providers of vehicle histories: Carfax and Carproof. The company provides both types of reports with its final assessments.

In Paxman’s experience, those documents have turned up enough interesting information that every used-vehichle shopper should invest in them.

He recalls one vehicle that the reports revealed to have been written off, and another where the paint colour had been completely changed. The reports will also show if money is owing on the vehicle. If you buy, you take on that debt.

Get an inspection

Reports and conversations are important, but they won’t tell a vehicle’s whole story. During one inspection, Paxman noticed the Vehicle Identification Number – the serial number on the dash beneath the windshield – was a sticker.

Underneath was the original one, engraved on a metal tag the way it’s supposed to be.

“It ended up being a stolen vehicle,” says Paxman, adding that the average person might have missed this detail. So might some experts – the thieves went so far as to match the fake number to the vehicle’s make, model and year.

Not all revelations are so astonishing, but they may help you make a decision about buying, or negotiate for a lower price. With a vehicle up on the hoist, Paxman can find an oil leak, worn-out brake pads and more.

“You want to make sure that you [stay] within budget in purchasing a vehicle,” he says. Whether or not you like what you hear in the end, “an inspection will help you do that.”

The real Dragons' deal

When the deal between Inspectacar and the Dragons was finally done, no money or equity actually changed hands. Those who appear on the show do so knowing that what happens on camera is not binding. For company co-owner Cody Paxman, “That was the case.”

The benefits, however, made the experience worthwhile. Backing dragons Bruce Croxon and Jim Treliving endorsed the Inspectacar on its website and on their own social media channels. They also provided accounting assistance and business advice.

Most importantly, the dragons gave the sort of exposure Paxman and business partner Sheldon Anderson believe they would have had to spend thousands on.

“We still get phone calls from across Canada regarding our franchise and expansion,” says Paxman. And “in the long run we found that it was good to keep all the equity in the company.”

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