Those Dealership Calculators Lie

…and what you should do instead.

If you’ve spent any time online looking for cars, chances are you’ve seen those online payment calculators; plug in your loan amount,interest rate,down payment, trade-in, and *ping* you get your estimated monthly payment. Pretty cool, huh? Finally, a payment you can live with.


Um, they forgot something. Taxes, title, and registration fees. In most cases, unless you are coming in with a sizeable down payment, you need to calcuate your estimated payment down to the penny (well, as close as an estimated payment can get).

Here is are the same perimeters, this time with taxes, title, and registration fees:


Next, plug in your down payment, if any:


Next, select your loan term and interest rate:


Sure, it adds up to a paltry $17.00 a month difference, but if you’re on a tight budget, $17.00 can mean the difference between some extra veggies/fruits in your shopping cart or skipping them altogether and grabbing some cereal or mac and cheese instead. For many of us, it could mean the difference between being in the hole each month or still being able to pay toward your kid’s lunches.

I learned this the hard way. I’ve been car-shopping. My city is cutting transit service to the bare bones soon and I need to be able to get around. I was fortunate enough to get approved for a car loan at a decent rate, thanks to a pay raise.

I found I car I really liked, crunched some numbers using the dealer’s online calculator, test drove the car, fell in love, called my insurance agent to get a quote, and started picturing what life with a car was going to be like…finally.

Fortunately, I had enough presence of mind to tell the salesman I will be going home to sleep on it. I needed to get my wits about me, get the new-to-me car smell out of my nostrils, and do some deep thinking. And number-crunching.

I had been stalking, er, I mean, reading for awhile now (no affiliation) and headed over to their payment calculator. I plugged in the sales price of the car. Following their screens, I also plugged in taxes and DMV fees (those vary by state).

Big surprise. The difference in payment was enough to rule out getting that particular car. Since it was a no-haggle pricing policy, I was hosed in terms of negotiating a deal.

Lesson learned.

Why I didn’t do that in the very beginning escapes me, but it shouldn’t escape you. Always take into consideration the sales price, your down payment, if any, your trade-in, if any, along with your actual interest rate, selected loan term, and those pesky taxes and DMV fees.

You will save yourself a rude awakening and will be able to budget more accurately and see if the payment will fit into your overall household budget every month. You may even have some additional leverage in negotiating your out-the-door price with the dealer.

Either way, do as I say, not as I do ūüėČ

The Ratio That Can Make or Break Your Car Loan

debt-to-income ratio

A few months ago I applied for a car loan and got promptly roasted by the credit union’s loan underwriter. My credit score is strong, so I wasn’t sure what happened.

“Your debt-to-income ratio is outside of our guidelines,” she told me.

Oh, snap. I think it was her way of politely saying that I earned jack shit, because my only debt is a student loan under income-based repayment and my rent. That’s it.

Just how is the debt-to-income (DTI) ratio calculated anyway?

In simple terms, your debt-to-income ratio(DTI) is the percentage of your income that goes to repay debts such as credit cards, student loans, existing car loan payments, and your rent or mortgage payment. Lending institutions such as banks, credit unions, and finance companies watch this figure closely and it plays a big part in whether or not your application gets approved.

Crunch those numbers

Let’s suppose you rent a room and your rent payment is $600.00 a month. You have a minimum credit card payment of $30.00, along with a student loan payment of $50.00 per month under an income-based repayment plan.

Total debt: $680.00 per month.

Your income before taxes: $1900.00 per month.

$680.00/$1900.00= 36% of your income goes to repayment of existing debt. In most cases, that would put your application in either the “no” queue or the “secondary financing” queue for higher-risk borrowers.

Well, sometimes

Depending on the loan approval guidelines for a given lender, you may still get your loan approved if you have a high credit score, a co-signer, or you’ve been at your current job for a few years. Lenders refer to these factors as “compensating factors” that can offset a less-than-ideal DTI ratio in some cases.

Generally speaking, the lower your DTI ratio and the stronger your credit score, the better chance you have for getting your loan approved by a first-rate lender (trust me. You’ll want a first-rate lender for many reasons).

If your overall debt load is 36% or higher, the lender will view you as a higher risk of default and you may get stuck with a higher interest rate, a larger downpayment requirement, or end up getting financed through some backwoods finance company that will make your life hell.

Fun with numbers

If you want to find out where you’ll really land on the DTI spectrum, factor in your proposed car payment along with your existing installment debt. After all, the lender will do the same thing when determining whether or not you qualify for that low interest rate.

When calculating your DTI ratio, only include installment debt such as student loans, existing car payments, credit card payments. Don’t include utilities or your cell phone bill.

By knowing your DTI ratio in advance, you’ll have a better idea as to how much you can afford to pay without giving a lender (or yourself) a heart attack, and your chances of qualifying for a decent interest rate and quite possibly the car of your dreams.

If your DTI too high, in the 40 percent range for example, it’s best to put off the car purchase until you can lighten your debt load. If you’re screwed and really need a car, prepare yourself for a higher interest rate and/or a limited selection of vehicles, and for dealing with a less-than stellar finance company.

Although your credit score plays a significant role in determining your eligibility for a car loan, your DTI can either help you or hurt you when it comes to getting a good interest rate with a reputable lender and the best shot at getting the vehicle you really want.

Co-signer Or No-signer?


Getting turned down for a car loan sucks. In some cases, credit or income issues may be all that stand between you and a new or new-to-you car. A co-signer with a strong credit history and good income may be the answer…or not.

If you’re a first-time buyer with little or no credit or just starting out on the job, chances are it’s tough to qualify for a car loan without a little help. In some cases, the lender or finance company will recommend taking on a co-signer for your car loan.

Your co-signer will sign the paperwork with you, and in turn, they are legally obligated to make the loan payments if you are unable to for any reason. Your BFF may have a great income and excellent credit, but would they be a good co-signer? Probably not.

Taking on a co-signer is a business transaction, so it’s best to leave friends out of it, even if they offer. Same goes for significant others. They mean well, but chances are there will be bad blood if they had to step in and take over your payments if you were unable to.

My neighbor had a rude awakening when his now-ex-girlfriend stopped making payments on the car they co-signed for. My neighbor found out the loan was 45 days in arrears, and the credit union came looking for him to make the payments and to bring the loan current.

Like I said, leave friends and SO’s out of it for everyone’s sake.

Enter mom/dad, grandparents or other relatives. Sure, they face the same risks as do other co-signers, but in most cases, they have the maturity and life experience to view it as a business transaction and treat it as such.

It helps to be on good terms with them in the first place. In that case, parents or other relatives can co-sign for you, and you can refinance the loan into your name only after you’ve made successful payments after a year or two.



If you and your family are on shaky ground for any reason, don’t do it. It will only strain the relationship even further. Money and family either mix or they don’t. Period.

Don’t do it if your co-signer isn’t fully clear-headed or in good health. Attorneys use the term “being of sound mind and body” for a reason. Grandparents may mean well and want to help, but if their health or mental faculties are fading, they may not fully understand their legal obligation to you and the loan should you lose your ability to pay.

They may also end up experiencing a health-related financial crisis in the near future that will hamper their ability to meet their own obligations, let alone a transaction they co-signed for.

Don’t do it if there are any kinds of strings attached, aside from meeting your obligation to repay the loan. Family dynamics are tricky, so as badly as you may need a car, it may not be worth bringing on a co-signer in the long run if your family relationships are unusually complicated.

Getting turned down for a car loan sucks, especially if you are in dire need of a car. Taking on a co-signer is a major business transaction that requires a clear head and some insight

Next up: How your debt-to-income ratio affects your car-buying chances.

Psst! Wanna Buy A Used Hybrid?

You can score a sweet used hybrid…just watch out for this one trouble spot.

Hybrids were once the exclusive domain of smug greenies and hypermilers. Trust me, I was throwing my fair share of shade at hybrids until I shut up and actually drove one.

These cars are no longer the Birkenstock sandals of the automotive world. Hybrids now carry broader appeal beyond the trippy-looking Toyota Prius.

The venerable Prius is a longtime hybrid favorite

2012 Toyota Prius

A used hybrid might be a good bet if you’re facing a long commute to work or school, or if you’d rather not contribute to the soaring levels of pollution. Either way, a bum battery pack could leave you stranded if you don’t know what to watch for in shopping for a used hybrid.

Garage Queen no more. Remember all that advice you’ve heard about low mileage cars? About how what a treasure they are due to low wear and tear? Yeah, fuggedaboutit. A low-mileage hybrid has a lower quality battery life due to its limited use. Look for hybrid that’s had an active life, such as a daily commuter.

But not too active: As with standard-fuel vehicles, high mileage and expired warranties can put you on the spot for some hefty repair bills. Hybrids in California and California-compliant states carry a 10-year/150,000 battery pack warranty. Non-California hybrids carry an eight-year/100,000 mile warranty.

If you buy a hybrid with a battery¬† that is out of warranty, you run the risk of shouldering the cost of a new battery pack. Replacement costs are based on the make and model of the car, as well as its size. It’s cheaper to replace a battery pack on a Prius than a hybrid Ford Escape, for example.

Parts/labor for a new battery pack can range from $2700 all the way up to $10,000 depending on the model year of the car. Stick with hybrids with in-warranty batteries whenever possible.

Heat will toast more than the car’s interior. Depending on the manufacturer, hybrids have different systems for cooling the battery pack. The Toyota Prius, for example, cools its battery pack by pulling cool air out of the car’s interior. In doing so, it also draws in dust, cigarette smoke, lint, and pet hair, which clogs and degrades the cooling system if left unchecked.

A quick review of service records can help you determine how well the car was maintained. As with gasoline power trains, be leery of any hybrid that has a spotty maintenance history or has been neglected. There will be a good chance the battery pack is in sad shape with infrequent cleaning.

Other reasons to say “nope.” Infrequent use and declining MPG are reasons enough to pass on a used hybrid. Infrequent use can lead to battery pack failure over time, and declining fuel efficiency is a surefire symptom of declining battery life.

Reasons to say “yes.”¬†Hybrids are equipped with a regenerative braking system. Each time you apply the brakes, the battery is replenished with additional “juice.” Even better, these brakes can go for up to 200,000 miles before replacement.

Lower fuel prices mean more drivers are returning to the standby gasoline power train. The end result? Lower prices and lots of used hybrids to choose from, so choose wisely. With their improved handling, performance and appearance, hybrids are gaining appeal as a viable used car option.

Why Uber’s Xchange Leasing Program Is A Bad Idea

High turn-over creates demand for an endless supply of drivers, even those with no access to their own car. Don’t be one of them.

Uber's Xchange leasing program

Let’s face it. The recession of a few years ago opened a huge can of whoop-ass on millions of hard-working people. If you watched your family go through the recession or if you went through it yourself, the changes in the job market and the overall economy were hard to miss.

Some¬† of those changes involved¬† the emergence of the gig economy, or “sharing economy.” The latter just means that some rich kids in Silicon Valley or Silicon Beach developed a service-based app and hired a bunch of independent contractors to do their bidding, usually for less than stellar pay and no rights or benefits.

Ahem. Anyway….

Uber is by far one of the most successful service-based apps, with a worldwide presence.So successful that you no longer need to have your own car to drive for Uber. You don’t even have to have decent credit to get a car to drive for Uber. How did that happen?

Enter Uber’s Xchange short-term leasing program.

A sweet deal…at first glance

Unlike a conventional lease whereby you pay the first month’s payment, a security deposit, plus tax and license, Xchange only requires a $250.00 payment up front.

Hell, even I can scrounge $250.00, but I’m not so sure I’d want to spend it on this.

Here’s where the program gets you in the shorts: lease payments range from the mid-$100s to $200.00 weekly.

Unlike a traditional lease where you’re bound to the car for the term of the lease, Uber’s Xchange lease allows you to turn in the car within 30 days, pay a $250.00 disposition plus any remaining balance, and walk away.

They make it sound so…easy.

After all, it’s no skin off their back if for any reason the car is repo’ed.

Still tempted?

Time for a little math. Let’s assume that you want to lease a 2016 Toyota Corolla¬† or Honda Civic through the Xchange program and use it for Ubering your ass off. Let’s also assume you have a bad week and don’t pick up a lot of fares. Instead of the $200 week you were hoping for, you only clear $100 after Uber takes their cut.

Weekly lease payment:                               $150.00

Your total Uber haul for that week:        $100.00

Remaining balance:                                    $ 50.00

The remaining balance of $50.00 gets rolled over into the following week’s lease payment, leaving you $50.00 in the hole right out of the gate.¬† Uber has also cut their fares, making it harder for drivers to make a profit over and above Uber’s deductions and any lease payments.

In plain English, if you have a couple of bad weeks, you’re screwed. Fall far enough behind or have your Uber account randomly¬† deactivated, and you can be on the hook for hundreds of dollars that you didn’t have in the first place.

Just like payday lenders and buy here/pay here dealerships, Uber’s leasing program targets financially vulnerable people who have few other options and very limited access to decent cars.

Don’t let the easy-peasy friendly language on Uber Xchange’s website fool you. There are other side-gigs out there that actually let you keep the money you earn and not piss it away on weekly lease payments.

You  got your hours cut and need a side gig to feed your family or to pay for tuition. You want some holiday money. You need to pay down a medical bill.

I get it. I really do.

However, Uber’s Xchange leasing program isn’t the way to go about it. Honest.

(For the economic nuts and bolts of the program, check out Bloomberg’s post).

The Rookie’s Guide To Walking An Auto Show

Getting ready to walk your first big-city auto show? Follow these tips to preserve your sanity and budget while gazing at the cars of your PowerBall-fueled dreams.

You may think that walking a car show is a piece of cake and you’ll get a chance to see everything, but most big-city car shows are have several football fields worth of cars and displays. Here’s how to enjoy a large-scale car show with your wallet and sanity intact.

Detroit Hosts Annual North American International Auto Show

2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI

  • ¬†Follow them on social media: Most car shows organizers rely on social media to communicate with attendees and to announce discounts, giveaways, and other treats. It’s also a great way to reach out to organizers with any questions. I messaged the staff of the Orange County International Auto Show with a question and got a reply that same day.
  • Look for discounts: Some shows will offer same-day discounts while others will offer Early Bird discounts, large group discounts, and student/senior discounts. Every little bit helps.
  • Devise a game plan: Grab the show map from the show’s website and decide which stands to hit first. If the crowds get to be too much later on, you will have at least seen your favorite cars or must-see displays.
  • Dress for the show hall, not the weather outside: The outside weather at the OC Show was a scorching 95 degrees, but the show hall was much cooler. I froze. Lesson learned.¬† Even with more than a few shows under my belt common sense took a back seat.
  • Go on a weekday: True, this is next to impossible if your employer doesn’t offer sick pay or vacation days, but if they do, go for it. Crowds are smaller and it’s much easier to see everything you wanted to see and then some.
  • Get there when the doors open, especially on a weekend: Most big-city shows open at 9:00 a.m., so beat the crowds and be there when the doors open. Car shows are much more fun when you’re not jostling for space with thousands of other people.
  • Make a day of it. If the show hall is within walking distance of other attractions or places of interest, make them a part of your day. There is nothing like a “daycation” to make the week go by just a little faster.
  • Pack your own snacks. Show hall food is expensive and not all that tasty.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking. A lot. Seating is scarce in the show hall.


    “Honey, it wants to follow me home. Can we keep it?”

  • Take it all in. If you’re a true car geek, very little compares to having acres of cars at your disposal. You’ll see the cars of your dreams up close with no hovering salespeople. The vibe at the shows I’ve been to has always been laid back and friendly. Enjoy the hours-long break from the “real world.”
  • Make sure your camera works. I tossed my camera into my backpack only to find out that it had a dead battery just as I walked into the show hall. My cell phone camera sucks, so fortunately my partner in crime shot some great pictures.

Nothing beats a big-city car show for a one-day getaway from the real world. My day job bores me to tears, so the one day I spent at the OC Show did wonders for my outlook. A big-city car show is an instant vacation that doesn’t cost a fortune.

Should You Take That Older Car?


“It just needs a ‘little work’ but it’s yours!” Minor warning or famous last words?

When a beggar needs to be a chooser

A friend, a grandparent, or¬† a co-worker’s cousin’s best friend heard that you’re hard up for a car and has offered you their old car for next to nothing. People mean well, they really do. After all, they’ve seen you struggle to get around and they’d like to help.

You’ve known that you need a car to get to and from/work, school, and as a means of picking up a side gig. Besides, you’re sick of bumming rides and/or relying on mass transit.¬† An old car is better than no car, right? Should you go for it?

Five reasons why you should:

  1. The car is in great shape. Your mechanic checked it over and said “Take this thing and run! It just needs some new brake pads and you’re set!”
  2. You have some pocket money. If you can comfortably shoulder the costs of the needed repairs and ongoing maintenance, go for it.
  3. You have the tools and the time. If you’re lucky enough to have the tools, skills, and space to perform your own maintenance and routine repairs, go forth and get the car.
  4. One of your friends in an automotive genius and has offered to help you with major repairs/maintenance.
  5. You can live with ambiguity. Old cars carry a lot of uncertainty, especially if they need repairs, or if there are no reliable maintenance records on file. If the prospect of the unknown doesn’t faze you, the car might be a good risk after all.

And five reasons why you shouldn’t…

    1. You’re tight on cash. You have just enough left over each month to cover food and other essentials. If a tail light goes out on the car or if the battery dies, you’re hosed.
    2. The car isn’t safe. At the very least, the car should have Electronic Stability Control (ESC), operational air bags, Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS) and secure child seat latches if you’re hauling a kiddo around. All the safety features need to be fully operational. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ll never have to rely on them at any point in time, because chances are you will someday.
    3. It needs work. Lots of it.  Deferred maintenance and repairs quickly add up, taking the car from a means of transportation to a money pit quickly. Thank the seller or gift-er and move on tactfully.
    4. It would be a nightmare to insure. Some cars, no matter how old they are, can carry a high theft risk (Google 90’s Hondas and you’ll see what I mean). Some older cars may also carry a salvage title. Either scenario means your insurance agent will freak out and hike your rates considerably or drop you altogether.
    5. Parts are scarce or insanely expensive. Search online or call around to see if current or future replacement parts are readily available and affordable. You could be in for a very expensive awakening otherwise.

If you’re offered an older car for nothing or next to nothing, you may be tempted to grab it. Keep a cool head instead and treat it as you would any other used car by asking yourself whether the financial risk and potential repair bills are worth it in the long run.

A car should be a pathway to financial gain, not financial ruin.

So Many Shiny Toys: My Day at the Orange County Auto Show

The OC Auto Show was the happiest place on earth for a car geek like me.

(All photos are courtesy of catmomma/Flickr)

Located within walking distance from the Disneyland resort, the Orange County Auto Show at the Anaheim Convention Center was a delight from start to finish. I sure as hell can’t afford Disney, so I opted for the automotive Fantasyland of the Orange County International Auto Show.

Although it doesn’t have the cachet of the Los Angeles International Auto Show, the OC show offered acres of shiny toys, interactive displays and activities (including test drives) and a variety of cars to suit nearly every need, budget, and taste.It was a stellar show in its own right.

Of course, I couldn’t just go by myself, so I asked a friend and fellow car geek Cheri to come with and to make a day of it. After a quick ride on Amtrak and an even quicker Uber ride, we were at the show hall when the doors opened.

The first time stepping into the show hall is magic for me. Between the lights and the new car smell, it’s car geek heaven. It never gets old. The day it gets old is the day I need to find a new hobby.

We agreed to walk the show from one end to the other so as to not miss anything. Our first stop with the Chrysler-Fiat stand, featuring the much-anticipated Fiat Sypder 124. It didn’t disappoint. In one word: Whoa.

We also came up close with the Fiat 500e, which is a favorite here in CA. I test-drove one and it’s a peppy, eager to please treat. For those of you like me who weren’t feeling the orange paint, the 500e has additional colors to choose from.

Psst! Wanna ride?

Typically, one can’t test drive a new car unless they’re willing to put up with a dealer sales pitch, or if they’re a journalist with access to a press car. Fortunately, several of the automakers offered test-drives to car geeks like myself.

After a quickie survey, a breathalyzer test, and a scan of my driver’s license, I was in the driver seat of a Fiat 500e, accompanied by Chrysler-Fiat rep Mya riding shotgun. The 500e fun to drive and I was surprised by its liveliness.

Cheri road-tested a  Fiat Spyder and I don’t think she’s stopped smiling since. At about $27,000, the Spyder is a roadster within reach for most car buyers.

While other automakers such as Kia, Nissan, Mazda, Honda, VW, and Toyota also had test-drive kiosks, we decided to keep moving in order to beat the crowds since the hall was quickly filling up.

Tonka Toys come to life at Camp Jeep

My partner in crime headed for Camp Jeep, an interactive display in which show-goers were treated to hills, stairs, bumps, and a variety of other obstacles while riding in one of Jeep’s models. I’m a huge chicken, so I opted for terra firma. Still, it was a blast to watch as Jeeps full of people tackled the course. Beats the hell out of sales pitch.

Honestly, it was hard to contain ourselves as we moved from one stand to another, ogling cars and/or sitting in them. Seriously, when else am I going to have the chance to sit in a $53,000 Kia K900 or a Volvo S60? Not unless I’m at a car show.

We both enjoyed the well-laid out show floor, clear directional signs, clean cars, attentive staff, and of course, the cars themselves.  I’ll admit I’ve thought of the Orange County Auto Show as the L.A. International Auto Show’s poorer cousin, but no longer.

This one is a sure bet to be on my calendar for next year. My only complaint? The show website had out of date public transit links from last year. Aside from that, this show was top notch and a definite keeper.


Happy Name Your Car Day!


“Dude. The name’s Filmore. How’s it goin’?”


Leave it to social media to create holidays. (Siblings Day, anyone?) Today is a “holiday” I can relate to: Name Your Car Day! My social media feeds are lit up with car names that range from the endearing to the downright weird. Here are the cars who have graced my driveway at one point in time or another:

Raspberry: A 1992 Ford Escort LX that I bought with my own money. Loved the purr of the Mazda engine under the hood! I drove that poor car into the ground. Those were my serious road-tripping years.

Vanilla Bean: A white 1997 Ford Escort Sport. Raspberry’s successor. Vanilla Bean rose from the dead, but not in my driveway, unfortunately. More to follow on that one.

Kismet: A 1996 Volvo 850 GLT wagon that I bought in 2007 after Vanilla Bean’s demise. Kismet was totaled a few short months later by a girl yakking on her cell as she plowed into me. You could say Kismet died protecting me, like a true Volvo. I walked away without a scratch.

Nigel: A 1991 Volvo 750 base and Kismet’s successor. I bought him just as the recession was beginning to gather steam and most of us (me included) were packing up our desks and heading toward the door. Nigel was my side-kick during a fruitless job search and my eventual return to school. I miss him every day.

???: My next car. I think they name themselves. I have no idea what the future will hold or who will land in my driveway next, but you can be sure they’ll have a name.


Tools For Your Test-Drive Kit

Test-drive kit from household items

Items from your junk drawer can help you perform the visual inspection portion of your test drive.

If you have a junk drawer, chances are you can find the raw goods for a basic test-drive kit. These items will help you look for potential trouble spots and help you to to rule out beaters, junkers and other automotive  nightmares.

A visual inspection is a key component of your test drive.  While nothing will replace a thorough pre-sale inspection by an automotive tech., a visual once-over will help you decide whether or not to road-test the car and move forward with a pre-sale workup.

Pencil and notepad:  Take some time immediately afterward and write down your initial gut reactions to the car. Make note of any trouble spots to discuss with the seller or dealer (these trouble spots can also help with negotiating your final price). As an alternative, use the voice memo feature on your cell phone or tablet.

Coin: The perfect cheapie tool for measuring tire tread depth. You’ll want to aim for 2/32 inch at the very least. Take the coin and place it upside down, with the head side facing you. If Abe Lincoln’s head is completely visible, the tires are shot.

Flashlight: This is the ideal¬† tool for peering into nooks and crannies of engine compartments and other hard to see areas. It’s perfect for spotting cracked/swollen hoses, leaky fluid reservoirs, loose fittings,¬† and other potential trouble spots.

A clean cloth: Grab one that has enough space for you to test both the oil and the transmission fluid. The condition of both fluids is a good indicator as to the overall health of the car, and whether or not it has been regularly maintained. If fluids are sludgy or discolored, you could be dealing with a car that’s been neglected.

Magnet: Take a kitchen magnet and place it along any metal surfaces on the the car’s body that activates your “it’s been in a wreck” radar.¬† The magnet will fall off¬† any areas that have been patched or resurfaced. Areas that are dimpled, rough to the touch, or uneven are tip-offs. A magnet coupled with a thorough visual inspection will help you rule out beaters in disguise.

Tire gauge: Tires that aren’t inflated properly can affect the car’s handling and tracking. Tire gauges are relatively cheap and you can grab one for a few bucks at your local auto supply or on Amazon. Look on the sidewall of the tire for the manufacturer’s recommended inflation guidelines.

Mirror: Perfect for peering into engine compartment nooks and crannies to get an additional view. You can buy one for a few bucks online or at an auto supply store. I lent mine out, (and have yet to get it back) so in a pinch I glued an old compact mirror to a ruler. The seller had a good laugh until I spotted some serious trouble spots, nixed the road test and walked away.

If the thought of performing a visual inspection leaves you cold, bring a mechanically-inclined friend with you. You’ll get help in determining which cars are worth a second look and which cars to strike off your list.