In my short time writing about cars in this little corner on the internet, I have amassed more than few criticisms about my unorthodox approach to used luxury car buying advice, but the reality is: I'm not simply "lucky," luxury cars can be a great value, and there is a method to this frugal madness, starting with these four essentials.
Would you reserve a table at an expensive restaurant without first checking reviews? Of course not, because the last thing you want is a overdone $300 steak, and it's not like it can un-cook itself, can it?! Every car purchase is worthy of some research, but with mechanical and electronic complexity rivaling the Curiosity Mars rover, some luxury cars have unique quirks and expensive repairs that may make the purchasing and ownership experience overwhelming for the uninitiated buyer. That's why, just as in the jungle, you need to be stronger, faster, and more adaptable than the average naive greenhorn that sees a dirt cheap salvage title BMW and thinks "I can't wait to rub this in the face of my high school guidance counselor."
When researching a car from a luxury make, forums and message boards are paramount to anything from choosing which models are the most trouble-free and desirable, to determining why there's a flashing red sign on your dash that says "REPLACE HAMSTER" while your car slowly starts smelling like the unmistakable and pungent aroma of dead rodent. If the model is popular enough, there can be entire sections dedicated to buyer's guides, DIY projects, maintenance guides, as well as fluid analyses, technical service bulletin recalls, and indispensable classifieds sections. It'll also give you real-world insight into what kinds of people are buying and writing about the car you're researching, for better or worse. If you devote a few hours to solid information-seeking, you can go into any showroom or private sale knowing exactly what you want and what potential issues to look out for.
" But I'm not mechanically inclined at all! What do? WHAT DO?!", you ramble as you struggle to swallow your homemade Frosted Flakes. Stop rambling, and those are just Corn Flakes with sugar on them. You don't necessarily need a deep encyclopedic knowledge of mechanical theory to check out and properly diagnose a specific used luxury car. All you would need is...
Good help is hard to come by, unless we live in any year after 1995, in which case, good help is absolutely everywhere. Luxury cars, especially higher-end models such as the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-series, often have specialty shops that deal with manufacturer-specific issues. Happily, their services are at deep discount when compared to prices at a dealership – a place you should never, ever visit unless you're Doug DeMuro, you have $1,600, and your Range Rover's glove box light goes out and needs fixing right this second.
You can use the pervasive and omnipresent internet to find reputable mechanics, also known as "indy shops" in the area – a resource that would've been relegated to simply word of mouth a few short decades ago. Another option if you're the kind of person that doesn't trust your fading status symbol to anyone is that you can do the work yourself.
While DIY work doesn't require a privileged education or ample garage space for most things, working on cars can be quite time consuming, so understanding how downtime plays a role is also an important aspect to consider in taking on projects. DIY guides online help ease the burden by setting up a paint-by-numbers approach to car repair, maintenance and modification. As an example, when I was 18, I completed my first major car modification, a five-speed manual transmission conversion – on my only car that I absolutely needed to get to my $8.25 an hour job, with a $30 set of Chinese-made tools I bought on sale at Pep Boys, in my parents' driveway, over the course of a weekend. The most involved modification I did prior to that project was change taillights, and my only source of guidance was a DIY tutorial I found on the internet, because the friends I recruited to help were either as useless as I was, or bailed out at the last minute, leaving me pondering if car insurance fraud was really such a bad thing after all. Ten years later, I still look to guides as my go-to source of true-to-life hands-on car advice for anything that needs doin'.
Even if you have a 50-year veteran of the mechanical arts and the well-optioned luxo-cruiser of your dreams waiting for you on eBay, you'll still need...
With a cheap luxury car, sometimes the purchase price is the largest expenditure you'll have, and sometimes it's the beginning of a long series of checks that may or may not bounce depending on how fast you can run to the nearest ATM. If you've researched right, you can come up with something that most impulsive and impatient buyers neglect – a working budget. With used luxury cars out of warranty, you'll be on the hook for repairs, maintenance, and modification, so it's good to start a rainy day fund in case it pours early and often. There's no magic formula to determine how much to set aside, but a good rule of thumb is to determine the most expensive common problem that the car has, and factor for that even if the car shows no symptoms of that particular issue. That way you'll have a wide safety net, and with the parts and mechanic sourced, you'll have minimal downtime.
A budget also means having an exit strategy if things get out of control. Consider how much the car would be worth in its worst state, and subtract that from your total spent on the car. This would be your worst-case scenario depreciation cost. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but even with this, it's very likely you'll pay less in depreciation than the average new car buyer, with at least some time in a premium automobile to show for it. But even on top of a budget that allows for contingencies , mechanical knowledge of the car you're purchasing, and enough research to stump the original engineers in a themed game of Trivial Pursuit, you'll still need...
Before buying a used luxury car, you have to ask yourself several very important questions honestly, because a car can be a large financial burden as well as one of effort and time. Can you accommodate a day or more of downtime for repairs? Do you have any alternate means of transport? Would you feel safe letting others drive it? Does the car have a spare tire? Do you have AAA or a similar towing service on call? Do you need the car for work? If so, how far will you travel for work, and what will that mean for the car's current mechanical state? If the time comes to sell, how much will the car be worth? How much will your insurance premiums cost, and will your current coverage cover the higher cost of parts and repair on the car?
These questions are no-brainers for anyone that are seriously considering buying anything higher-maintenance than the hum-drum mass-market automotive coffins seen everywhere, but they bear repeating and condensing into one chunk of useful text. If you take the time to research, learn how things work or delegate the work to a trustworthy specialist, make a budget and ask yourself the tough questions, you will have no problems in used luxury car ownership.
It's not difficult, but it is something that deserves concentration and effort, like all truly great things in life. That's how I got to own two Mercedes S-Class sedans, multiple BMW M Cars, a Porsche, and a few rare Japanese sports cars. I'm not lucky, I wasn't born with automotive privilege, and I'm not the exception to the rule. I simply wanted to buy great cars at a great prices and planned accordingly, tailoring my choices around the mantra "Life is too short to drive boring cars." So far, I think it's working out pretty well.
If you'd like to start your own journey into luxury or sports car ownership, see what crazy deals you can find here.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.