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Damaged Goods

A question I sometimes hear from people who ask what I do is something along the lines of “Why does a newer car need an inspection? Cars are so reliable today, is it really necessary?”

Sometimes a story is a great answer to a question, and so I’ll share a couple. Not long ago I received a phone call from a local automobile “wholesaler”- more on those quotations in a second. The caller was requesting vehicle condition reports for several vehicles he was selling to dealerships for resale. This is not a large part of my business, but certainly something I’m capable of handling. All the cars were late-model, 5 years old and newer. We scheduled a time to meet.

A couple days later, I arrived at their facility, which was basically nothing more than a dirty and disorganized repair shop. Several cars needing reports were lined up alongside a row of car lifts, each of which had a damaged late model car in various states of disassembly and repair sitting on them. The cars had mis-matched body panels and paint, and all had suffered some sort of front or rear end crash damage. One car, a Mercedes, was likely a theft recovery; missing all four wheels, its engine, transmission, and most of the interior electronics. Chunks of grassy soil were still visible on a few parts of the chassis, as if it was stripped out and left in a field somewhere.

The completed cars had issues. While waiting for the owner to come out, I spent a couple of minutes looking at a Ford which had obviously had its entire front clip replaced. As if I needed any proof of that, I noticed the wrecked remains of an identical model Ford front clip resting on a wooden pallet in a far corner of the shop. The Lincoln in front of the Ford had poorly fitting rear doors and trunk lid, and a shiny new exhaust, with not so much as a trace of carbon inside its tailpipe. Hit in the rear and repaired.

I sighed and put my clipboard back in my bag.

Just then the owner came out into the shop, and I politely told him I couldn’t inspect the cars. I explained that I was unaware that these cars had been in accidents, and had no prior information about the types of accidents these cars had been involved in. I simply wasn’t willing to put my name on a report pertaining to the condition of any of these cars, as they all still had clear titles.

Unfazed, he replied that it was no problem, he’d find someone else, and I left. I have no doubt that he will find someone else who will look the other way and give him the condition reports he needs to help move his inventory. And THAT’S what makes a pre-purchase inspection service necessary.

Many of the issues I observed with these cars would not be obvious to the casual car shopper. Those cars are headed back out onto the used car market, likely to become someone else’s problem. I feel bad for the poor chap who winds up with that Mercedes once it’s finished. I suspect they will have a volatile relationship with their car.

Another story comes to mind back from my days long ago as a car salesman. One night, some kids managed to steal a Chevy Caviler Z-24 from the lot. The car was found a few days later, sitting literally in a recently harvested cornfield. Stripped of its wheels and stereo, it came back to the dealership on a flatbed, covered in mud, (must’ve been a hell of a joyride) rolling on four temporary spares the dealer had laying around. Within days, flashy new aftermarket rims and tires had been ordered, a new stereo had been installed, the body was polished and the interior detailed. The mud coated chassis was cleaned up enough to be presentable, but a competent inspector would have questioned all the scrapes and damage present under the car left by the off-road joyride. The dealer took a gamble that a buyer wouldn't look carefully underneath the car. Not many purchasers do. To my chagrin, back onto the lot it went, at the same asking price. It’s worth noting that the dealership I was working for was not some small time operation, but one of the largest and busiest in town.

If you think this was some isolated incident, you’d be incorrect. Cars are stolen from dealerships regularly. A friend of mine who works at a busy dealership here in town says they’ve lost three cars so far this year. Sometimes they make it back to the dealerships, other times, they are scrapped out by thieves and lost forever.

Look, accidents happen. Once we figured out how to strap an engine to wheels, we started having crashes. Three of the 19 vehicles I’ve owned in my lifetime had been involved in minor accidents. The difference is I knew this going into the deal, knew the extent of the damage and quality of repairs, and negotiated a (much) lower price accordingly. My wife’s SUV hit a deer before we bought the car, and as such, had its grille, hood and a front fender replaced. We used this as a major point of negotiation, and now 8 years and 100,000 miles of reliable service later, the fact that it was ever in a crash is meaningless, and the car has been perfectly reliable.

I don’t recommend that my clients buy previously wrecked cars. On the occasions when I have discovered repaired accident damage on a potential purchase for a client, that’s usually all it takes to cool them off from a deal. And I strongly discourage people from buying cars that suffered major crash damage. Cars that have sustained major structural damage really are never the same post-repair, for lots of reasons good for another article sometime. I do recommend pre-purchase inspections, even for late model vehicles, for the reasons outlined in the stories above. The “wholesaler” I visited recently really is just in the business of repairing wrecks and selling them off to dealers looking to fill inventory. The average new car purchaser usually has no idea such operations exist. The car business is a great way to make a lot of money, and luckily there are many, many honest people in this business. Sadly however, there are still some dishonest people operating on the fringes of this industry, and it’s still true that sometimes the worst car accidents happen on the showroom floor. A competent pre-purchase inspection is smart insurance.

Look carefully, you've got to admire this shop's work, transforming a MR2 into an MX5!

Look carefully; you've got to admire this shop's ability, transforming a MR2 into an MX5!

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