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A Single Girl’s Introduction to Buying a Used Car (In South America or Elsewhere)

So You Brought Too Much Gear To a Foreign Country….

I moved to South America with the grandiose idea of covering most of Argentina, Chile, and Peru overland, climbing mountains and surfing cold water as a means to explore a little bit more of what independence means to me. In theory:  a great idea. In reality:  a logistical nightmare.

The only way I’d get close to realizing this dream would be to buy a car—because how else was I going to dirtbag around the continent with snowboards, avy gear, climbing stuff, and surf gear??

So I decided to buy a car, and I dedicated my first week in Santiago, Chile to finding, purchasing, registering, and unfortunately, fixing my car. She’d later come to be known as Stella the Outback. A 1998 Subaru with leather seats and dual sun/moonroofs, she seemed like a dream. At first, of course 🙂 Below a little bit of the story….

Wherein I Decide to Buy a Car in Chile

Used cars are a great deal, right? They’ve been gently loved, you can pay in cash (and not owe anything), and after all the papers are signed, you’ll get that amazing sense of satisfaction that you bought a car on your own. Now imagine:  you’re doing this in a foreign country, and your handle on the native language is middling at best. Plus, this is the first time you’ve ever bought a car on your own.

Now if that’s not a recipe for fun, I don’t know what is!

As great an idea as this may seem, actually putting this all into action is difficult. There’s a healthy sense of caution you should have, because aside from the typical reservations you might have as a single girl buying a car (which believe me, are all well deserved), lacking basic car mechanical knowledge could seriously hurt you in the long run. Even if you don’t know anything, don’t want to bring along a “friend” to help out, or are just trying to stick it to the man (pun intended?) to do it on your own, there are a few questions you can ask that can make this process easier.Inspect the Car

A Few Things To Consider Before Buying a Car (In General) a.k.a. The Standard Stuff

  • Speak the native language. If you are trying to buy a used car in South America, you should be able to speak fluent Spanish. If you’re in North America, obviously English helps (but of course you already knew that since you’re reading this post). Spend 1 hour learning the very basics of car terminology. Google is your friend.
  • Has the car ever been in an accident? Regardless of the seller’s answer, closely examine the car’s lines, i.e. where the metal and plastic pieces meet each other. For example, you can tell if a car has been in a front end collision by eyeballing the lines around the headlights, and looking closely at the paint in the front bumper. If you see squiggly lines or any layering of material under the paint, then it’s likely the car hit something at some point. You can also look under the hood: does the metal around the radiator look warped? That’s an indicator that the radiator has been replaced after a collision.
  • Brakes:  when were they last changed? When you drive the car, listen for squeaking or screeching coming from the wheels. If you hear a deep “thunk” when you go over potholes, then ask about the shocks. (Note:  you can easily replace your own brakes. Check out YouTube for a tutorial. Go to your local AutoZone, O’Reilly, or Napa and ask for the brake pads for your car’s make and model. If you have the choice, go for the ceramic OE option).  Once you know how to change your own brakes you’ll never again pay someone to do it for you.
  • Shocks:  Have they been replaced recently? Read this article to learn why shocks and struts are so important.
  • Lights:  is everything in working order?
  • Tires:  Are they threadbare, new, or somewhere in between? Try putting a dime in between the treads of the tire to see how deep it sits. If the tread is flush with the dime, the tires are totally done, and you’ll need to get new ones. Good tires shouldn’t have any serious cracks in the rubber. If you see little tiny wires of metal poking out of the tires, this is another sign that the tires are completely done.
  • Temperature/Thermostat:  This indicator should typically show the needle hovering at the midpoint mark on the temperature scale. If the car is overheating, you’ll want to check the radiator and coolant fluids (as mentioned below), and if you’ve already done that, take the car to a mechanic to have them run a pressure test on the coolant system. Note:  if your potential new car is consistently overheating, this could either contribute to (or be an indicator of) a blown head gasket or another serious pressure regulation issue. This is absolutely no good, and you need to figure out what is going on with the car before you buy it. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
  • Fluids to check:
    • Radiator & Coolant – See the above note on temperature and thermostat.
    • Power Steering – Very very carefully open this up to see if there is fluid inside. If not, refill it with fluids from an auto store.
    • Oil – Use a clean rag to wipe off the dipstick after you’ve pulled it out. Then re-dip it into the oil reserve and examine the level on the dipstick. There are markers you can use to gauge if there is enough oil, and how dirty it is. Clean oil will be a light caramel color, while dirty oil is a darker brown.
    • Windshield – This is the stuff that squirts out when you want to clean the windshield. If it’s empty, no big deal. You can refill it with a nice water-Windex (and one drop dishsoap) mix.
It’s key to make sure that all the car’s records are in order. You can check Kelly Blue Book to get an idea of how much the car is worth, which will help you negotiate down your price. Most importantly, though, test drive your car for at least 30 minutes. Go through the neighborhood, on the freeway, and back. You want to hear the car, pay attention to its temperature, and get a feeling for how it drives.

Buying a Car in Chile–What You MUST Do

Find a local mechanic (not one that works for a dealership) before you go to look at cars, and let them know that you’ll be asking them to check out the car. Tell them you will use them for future work. Ask if there is a fee for the checkup. Straighten this out before you bring the car there to avoid any surprises.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things you should be looking for, or asking. But at least, here’s a start. Do your homework, and at the end, you’ll have a kickass car. And the person you’ll have to thank for it is you.
Good luck.

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