Car Buying Tips

Shopping Guide: Buying at a distance

In the market for a Civic or Camry? Good news, best-seller status means there's probably one within your postal code. Heck, you might even just be able to find a nice example for sale on your own block.

Start shopping for something a little rarer, and suddenly the hunt becomes trickier. It's not just the exotica, sometimes finding a machine with a combination of decent mileage, the colour you want, and a lack of distasteful modification requires going the distance.

So how exactly do you buy a car you can't touch, see, test drive or feel? Here's a guide to flying in and driving away without getting any unpleasant surprises.

Refine your search – but not too much

There is, regrettably, no such thing as a used car factory. Thus, a little flexibility in colour choice or year might be necessary to find something to fit both budget and needs. Once you've worked out your deal-breakers, plug them into the search engine, and make sure the distance setting is set as wide as possible.

However, you've also got to take into account that the dealership that just took in the perfect car on trade might not have a flawless track record at labeling, particularly if it's an off-make machine. This Subaru WRX STI hatchback, for instance, was listed as a sedan. If the search hadn't been widened, it would have been missed.

Make your due diligence list

Just as when you're buying a car from any other dealers, there are several must-ask questions (many of these the dealer must declare, but best to check anyway).

  • What's the accident history of the car?
  • Is it a local vehicle, or out of province?
  • Was it ever used as a rental, or as a lease?
  • Was the vehicle ever smoked in?
  • Did the previous owner ever have pets in the car?
  • When does it next need servicing?

Essentially, the more you can find out about the car at this stage, the better equipped you are to see if it stays on the list, or gets crossed off. A CarProof report can be very useful here, especially as it often will list locations where the vehicle was serviced, helping you put a picture of the car together.

Securing the vehicle, with conditions of sale

Buying a car isn't that much different from buying a piece of real estate. Just like putting an offer in on a house, you're perfectly within your rights to hammer out something with conditions attached. For private sales, it gets a lot more complicated and the risks are much higher – you don't have a lot of protection if you send money as a down payment.

Further, sometimes negotiating over the phone is easier than dickering over the price in person. Just be sure that whenever you're dealing on price, you're making sure to have all extra fees declared. Almost all dealerships have a documentation charge, and it may be possible to get this waived. Some offer interior and paint protection packages as well as extended warranties. Make sure the price you've worked out is to a tax-in total, and remember that a far-away dealer isn't going to be much use to you in after-sales care if you're hours away.

For conditions, it's of course a good idea to have a satisfactory final test-drive and viewing as a condition of completing the sale. Also important is the pre-purchase inspection.

Warranty, and mechanical considerations

Any new car generally comes with brand-new tires, brand-new brakes, and a warranty to cover you if anything goes wrong. With a used car, even one in good condition, wear items may be consumed, so that low-mileage example with only 50 or 60 thousand kilometres on the clock may soon be due for a major bill.

Even if you trust the dealership you're dealing with (if it's a Certified Pre-Owned car or similar from a reputable brand), spending money on a pre-purchase inspection is never a bad idea. Not only will it sometimes identify minor concerns like wiper blades getting long in the tooth, but an outside inspection agency's loyalty is to you, the paying customer, rather than the dealer.

Dealers generally don't love doing a PPI as it's an extra step (which you pay for). However, and especially if the car is at an off-brand dealership, it's something you should push for; and if it's refused, that's enough of a red flag to walk away. If buying privately, a PPI is an absolute must.

Travel considerations and ownership

Getting to the dealership is certainly something to be factored into the cost of purchasing a car from far away, although most dealers will at least pick you up from the ferry or airport or bus station. Make sure you're absolutely clear on what you need to bring with you – generally a driver's license and a cheque is about it – and don't forget your old plates if you're transferring them, and make sure you have all your insurance and registration lined up before heading out.

If buying out of province, odds are you'll have to get the car safety inspected in your home province. In some cases, this'll involve further fees in forms of sales tax (a car purchased in Alberta and registered in BC will be subject to the latter's sales tax). Generally, the provincial safety inspection is less rigorous than the solid pre-purchase inspection.

And lastly, the route!

Assuming all's gone smoothly, you've got the chance to run your new-to-you car home either the direct route, or the long way. The choice is obvious – you've spent all this time and money tracking down a machine that checks all the boxes, so why simply take the highway back.

Take the time to run your car in properly, getting to know its character, controls and nuances, and giving yourself the chance to feel how it goes. You've spent the money – might as well take the time to enjoy it!