I was recently sitting around in my underwear, browsing the Internet for used cars at 4 a.m. This will come as a complete shock to those of you who know me, because I’m usually in bed by three.

But there I was, poring over Autotrader and eBay and car forum classified sections, when I noticed a message from one of my Twitter followers alerting me to an extra special used car: a V8-powered Audi S4 station wagon located in my general area of the country. And not just any V8-powered S4 station wagon: a stick shift model painted Nogaro Blue. This is, in the world of the 4 a.m. car searcher, a unicorn. An automotive bigfoot. A Loch Ness monster. I celebrated the occasion by eating another Cheeto.

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And then I did what any responsible, rational human being would do: I called the dealership right then and there, at 4 a.m., hoping to reach a go-getter salesman, or a sales manager whose wife kicked him out of the house, or at least an English-speaking janitor, so he could tell me about The Problem.

The Problem, for those of you who don’t know, is an issue that affects all V8-powered Audi S4 models of this era. Although I’m not sure exactly how to explain it technically, I think the general idea of what happens is that you’re cruising along one day, minding your own business, when all of a sudden your engine explodes like Los Angeles in Independence Day.

So when they called me back the next morning while I was driving along the New Jersey Turnpike, I was very eager to take the call. So eager, in fact, that I dropped my speed from a “keeping up with traffic” 130 miles per hour to a more reasonable 105, at which point tractor trailer-drivers were flipping me off as they went past. Here’s how the conversation went:

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“So,” I said. “Has this car had the timing chain service?”
“Absolutely,” said the sales manager, who seemed very familiar with used Audis. “It’s very clearly been done.”
“Do you mind sending me the paperwork on it?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s no paperwork,” he said. “The guy who sold it to us assured us he had it done, but he couldn’t find the records.”
“OK,” I asked. “Could we track down the records?”
“No,” said the sales manager. “We tried that. But our technician is a master Audi tech, and he says there’s no question the service was done.”

Although the conversation continued for a few minutes after this, my mind started wandering (What the hell is a “Turnpike” anyway?) the moment the words “our technician says” escaped the guy’s mouth. And it isn’t because I don’t think the service was done. In fact, I do think this particular S4 had the service completed, probably at a cost in excess of six thousand dollars.

I say this because the dealership seemed unusually honest, they have strong reviews on the Internet, and it appears they really do know Audis in the sense that they have dozens of used Audi models on the lot, from all generations and model lines, but not one single first-generation Allroad.

But when it comes to a major service like this, the kind of service that can make or break an automotive purchase, I won’t buy a vehicle based on an “our technician says.” And that’s why the theme of today’s column is: if you don’t have service records, you don’t have anything.

To help explain my point, consider what will happen when it comes time to sell the vehicle. If I was selling S4 in question, here’s how the conversation would go:

Potential Buyer: Do you have the paperwork for the timing chain service?
Me: No, but don’t worry! The out-of-state used car dealer where I bought the car said that the guy who traded it in swore the service had been completed.
Potential Buyer: You are the problem with America today.

Or maybe it would be more like this:

Potential Buyer: Do you have the paperwork for the timing chain service?
Me: No, but don’t worry! The out-of-state used car dealer where I bought the vehicle said that the guy who traded it in swore the service had been completed.
Potential Buyer: Do you accept belly button lint as a method of payment?

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I say this because there is not a single potential Audi S4 buyer currently living among us who doesn’t know that the S4 has serious timing chain issues. There are human four-year-olds, who currently believe Velcro is magic, who will grow up to be car collectors one day, and they only know three things: apple sauce is tasty, mommy and daddy make funny noises when they go to sleep, and the Audi S4 has serious timing chain issues.

So when you’re selling an S4, every single person will ask you about it. And if they don’t, then you tell them how great your S4 is, and how fun it is to drive, and how nice it looks when it’s clean, and then you take them on a test drive and accept their offer. Then you sign over the title and move to another part of the country.

Of course, this situation isn’t limited to the S4. When it comes to re-selling any vehicle that requires an expensive major service, any expensive major service, simply getting the service isn’t enough. If you ever plan to re-sell the vehicle, possessing the records that prove you got the service is almost as important as actually having the service done at all. Otherwise you’ll be trying to sell a car based on the word of a long-gone prior owner or an unknown used car dealer. And you’ll be lucky to get belly button lint as payment.

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@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.