Used Car Repair Histories
Whenever buying a used or new car, it's always advisable to take a closer look at the vehicle's historical repair record. There is a saying in the investment world that past performance is not a guarantee of future performance; but when it comes to used cars, historical repair records need to be carefully considered.
Car Design and Repair Records
The production process of today's automobiles is one of the reasons it's so important to look at repair history. It costs automobile manufacturers billions of dollars to design a new car. The amount of engineering that goes into each an every part is simply astounding.
Once the design is complete, the car manufacturer needs to find suppliers for all those individual parts. In some instances, they may be able to use parts that are being produced for existing cars. In other instances, a part may have to be manufactured to new engineering specifications.
Poor Designs Last for Years
The engineering, manufacturing of parts, and retooling of assembly lines necessary to put a new model of a car together makes the entire process an expensive undertaking. To recover many of these fixed costs, a car may only be redesigned once every five years. While a 2020 model may look different on the outside from a 2019 model, many of the changes are very likely cosmetic. Most of the mechanical parts under the hood may actually be the same.
This is why looking at a used car's repair history is so insightful. Poorly designed car parts will fail relatively early, and this pattern will likely repeat itself in the future. Car parts are manufactured with tight tolerances, and that can either help or hurt a car's historical repair record.
Used Car Repair Records
Arguably the best source of car repair history is the Consumer Reports magazine. Each year, they conduct a survey among their readership that includes questions concerning their repair experiences for the cars they own. This survey results in a remarkable wealth of information concerning the reliability of cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs.
This is published as an annual report and includes trends that support the design information discussed in the paragraphs above. For example, when one car reports a poor history of repair or part failure, the models sharing the same design in adjoining years will almost always report a similar pattern of negative experiences among those owners.
Oftentimes, it's possible to find a copy of Consumer Reports at a local library. But if in a hurry, there are several good online resources too.
Online Sources of Car Repair Information
The first resource worth mentioning is the Consumer Guide, which utilizes a rating system that allows users to find a best value by price range. Another great online resource is Edmunds.com. They have an extensive database of reliability ratings augmented with customer satisfaction information from J.D. Power and Associates.
We've also published a list of dependable used cars, which summarizes data collected by J.D. Power and Associates. The research they conduct is comprehensive and the process they follow involves compiling data from the collective experiences of 50,000 owners of cars, SUVs, minivans, and light trucks. The information is gathered through a questionnaire fielded each year.
Finally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, maintains an extensive database of complaints received from consumers about their automobiles. They also maintain databases on vehicle recalls and part defect investigations. Vehicle recalls don't happen very often, and they are expensive propositions for manufacturers. For example, the Firestone recall of tires back in 2000, wound up a legal battleground for Ford and Firestone. Much of that dispute was over the money involved with the recall.
Car Defect History
Defect investigations are akin to recalls that never happen. If the NHTSA received enough complaints to conduct an investigation, some of those investigations wind up as recalls. But most investigations don't turn up enough evidence to warrant a car's recall, and the defect investigation is merely closed out.
Don't be alarmed by the information in these defect bulletins. All used cars can be expected to experience some repairs during their useful life. Read through the materials, and make comparisons for the vehicles being considered for purchase. Look for patterns of complaints that might indicate potential trouble for any of the vehicles on that list.
When buying a car that has been recalled for some reason, make sure to obtain proof from the prior owner the vehicle has been returned for repair, and the recall defect has been eliminated. It doesn't make a lot of sense to purchase a used car, and then have it sit in a shop for a couple of days while a repair is being made to the vehicle.
Individual Vehicle Reports
Finally, there are a number of services that provide information for an individual vehicle. The most common provider of these reports being CarFax. Oftentimes these reports are offered free of charge when searching online used car websites. A CarFax report will include information on accidents, routine maintenance, mileage, as well as ownership. For example, the report might reveal if the car was involved in an accident, how well the car was maintained, a record of the car's miles, in addition to the number of prior owners.
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