Buyer’s Guide: Buy or Avoid a Used Car That Had a Major Problem Fixed?

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Should you buy a used car that had a major mechanical problem that has been repaired? We poll the experts.

New Car Ourchase

Used car shopping can be tricky, as there are many ways to end up with someone else’s problems. But one common choice is hard to avoid: should you buy a car if it had a big problem, say an engine or transmission failure, that was then repaired by a reliable mechanic?

On the one hand, a component that failed may have a design issue, and could fail again. On the other hand, many failures are not common to every car of that model type and year. Perhaps a car with a major problem is a gem since it is “pre-disastered.”

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To answer the question, we reached out to a diverse group of industry experts. These are folks that are in the business in one way or another and also have had a lot of used-car experience of their own. Here are the two arguments for and against buying a used car that has had a major repair properly completed.

Trust Garp – Keep It On the List!

T.S. Garp (Robin Williams in the video) most clearly expresses the concept of “pre-disastered.” While shopping for a home with his wife, a plane hits the one Garp is considering. The video explains the idea best, but think about it; If a car has already had its disaster, isn’t that the perfect one for you!  What are the chances it will have another major problem?

As a habitual buyer of cars in the first year of their new designs, I am a true believer in this philosophy.  I owned a Subaru Legacy that had its engine fail at 11,000 miles. Subaru replaced it, and the Legacy was swell from them on.

My Accord was one of many in which the transmission quit and was replaced by the dealer. It was then normal until the day I bought a newer Accord. Both had no more major failures, just the usual kick in the shins that most used cars offer every few months or so.

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John Paul, of AAA and the Boston Globe Car Doctor series, told us that “…with enough time, money and talent just about anything can be fixed, cars included. If if is a major mechanical issue such as an engine or transmission, these can be refurbished or replaced as an entire assembly.” John does say he’d walk away from any flood-damaged car.

My local, trusted mechanic, Mark McMullen, of G&M Services, says, “As long as the car was repaired and documented and has some warranty, there is no reason that the vehicle shouldn’t be reliable for years of service to a buyer.” Another experienced mechanic we turn to advice, Brian Mushnick, of Brian’s Garage, said, “Buying a used car that has had a major mechanical issue solved by a competent mechanic is not a bad decision, so long as the job is done correctly.”

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George Kennedy, Boston Globe, U.S. News, and BestRide alum thought outside of the box and gave a qualified yes answer. George says a Certified Pre-Owned car solves the dilemma entirely. He told us, “I’d consider Certified Pre-Owned, not because they are any better than any other used car on the lot, but because they are more likely to have a factory-backed extended warranty. Having a warranty from the automaker itself is the most crucial element. If you break down in Poughkeepsie, the local service department might not honor the warranty of a hole-in-the-wall dealer in Watertown, and then you’re left with a big repair bill.”

BestRide Editor-in-Chief Craig Fitzgerald has been there and done that. He has bought cars with major repairs.  Craig told us, “I’d much sooner buy a car that’s had a transmission replacement and an exemplary repair history than a car with its original transmission, but a lousy repair history.” Craig went on to say, “Buying a car with a recently swapped transmission from a reputable shop and a limited warranty should give you some peace of mind that the transmission itself won’t suffer a failure any time soon. But if the remaining components and systems haven’t been maintained properly, the likelihood of failure is high.”

Freelance journalist Tim Esterdahl said yes about as definitively as anyone we spoke to. Tim said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a vehicle after a major mechanical problem has been fixed.” However, Tim also offered the same good advice many of our experts brought up and added,  “Just because the vehicle had a problem with one part, even though it maybe major, doesn’t mean the rest of the vehicle’s parts are broken. In the end, a vehicle’s reliability has to be larger than one issue. I would look at the vehicle as a whole and then decide if I wanted to purchase it.”

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The Cautions Types

Many of those we spoke to would not give a “yes” answer without firm qualifications.  BestRide’s Managing Editor Philip Ruth, the author of the “Junkyard Therapy” series, is adventurous, and would by a car that had a prior disaster. However, he says he would not advise a friend to buy a car with a major problem unless the fix came with a warranty.

Bill Griffith, the Boston Globe’s current and long-running car reviewer, himself the owner/rebuilder of some modern classics, was uneasy with the premise. He feels that no matter what, a car that is used should always be pre-inspected. Our colleague, Junior D ‘Amato, a writer who goes by Auto Doctor, and also the owner of Junior’s Automotive Sales and Service is also hesitant to answer with a blunt “Yes.” Junior says there is more to it than that. He says, “Was the failure due to lack of maintenance or just a mechanical failure likes a valve or head gasket? Does the major repair have a transferable warranty? Does the make have a history of the failure? Mileage and service records are also very important. Either way, the vehicle should have a pre-purchase inspection by an ASE professional technician.”

Conclusion – Definitely Maybe

In the end, the ayes have it. This is a well-grounded group of industry experts with both theoretical and hands-on experience buying used cars and dealing with used cars, and they would not exclude a car from consideration just because it had an earlier – properly fixed – disaster. However, this exercise highlighted the importance of a pre-purchase inspection. None of our trusted insiders left out this critical aspect to new car shopping.

One expert we spoke with was Steven Lang, a used car buyer and seller, who also has contributed to many publications on the topic of used car ownership. Steve summed up what we learned by saying, “The truth is most folks don’t have the x-ray vision needed to figure out the other problems that may lay within. A car with a recent major repair should be treated like any other used car. Take it to an experienced mechanic who looks at these types of vehicles every single day.”

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John Goreham

John Goreham