Smart Consumer: How you can bag a bargain when buying a banger. . .
It might sound like the type of challenge those three idiots on BBC's Top Gear would relish, but for me it was a serious matter.
Buying any used car can be full of pitfalls, but the prospect of trying to find a reliable family car for about €1,000 would probably drive most people to drink.
After all, there are far more heaps of rubbish at this price point than decent motors you can depend on.
However, I was hugely inspired by reading a book called The Bangernomics Bible; a superb, no-nonsense guide to buying a 'good' banger.
Bangernomics 'advocates' say that for a budget like mine, condition -- not age -- is everything. So a 15-year-old car that has been well looked after will almost always be a better buy than a 10-year-old one that hasn't.
Dealers rarely have anything less than €2,000, so my only realistic option was private sellers advertising on websites such as Donedeal, Gumtree, Autotrader and BuyandSell.
In my initial enthusiasm, I was prepared to travel all the way to the midlands to see a sleek-looking BMW which was more than a decade old with 110,000 miles.
Two things stopped me. The first thing was a friend reasoning that keeping the search to local areas made far more sense. After all, why waste time and money travelling halfway across the country looking at old wrecks when you can do it on your doorstep?
The second thing was a look up on a car history-checking website (in this case, Motorcheck.ie). For a small fee, you can enter in the reg number of the car you are thinking of buying and it will reveal what is on file about when the car was first registered, number of previous owners, previous NCTs, any accident damage reported, etc. It can also tell you if a used car is a UK import.
It revealed that the Beemer, a UK import, was 'clocked' -- ie tampering with a car's mileometer to reduce the mileage displayed -- to within an inch of its life. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
The first car I actually saw was a '99 Ford Focus with just 60,000 miles on the clock. The ad description didn't give much away, but the price and low mileage were tempting.
My first inkling that something was amiss was that the NCT was up the following month. It also emerged that, other than the vehicle registration cert, the owner had no paperwork whatsoever; no previous NCT certs to confirm the low mileage, and no receipts for any of the apparently recent work, including the clutch, timing belt and a new exhaust.
A look underneath told me the exhaust seemed relatively new, but there was no way to prove the other work.
Still, I went through my inspection checklist: the oil and water were both clean; the tyres were new-ish; the interior was spotless and unworn; and it drove very well, except for a brake pedal that went almost all the way to the floor before biting.
In the absence of any paperwork, I quickly convinced myself I was missing some potentially expensive NCT failure point -- most likely those brakes. As The Bangernomics Bible advises: "If in doubt, walk away." I did.
Next up was an '01 Seat Leon (based on a VW Golf) with 100,000 miles and a year's NCT that might normally have been outside my budget. But the asking price in this case wasn't too far out, and the ad had the standout phrases, 'full Seat dealer service history,' 'price drop' and 'quick sale needed'.
In my haste to get there first, I agreed to the seller's request to see the car when he got home from work that evening which, in November, meant seeing it in the dark.
That was a serious mistake. In the dimly-lit street outside his house, I could barely see anything.
But what I could see inside the car immediately made me very uncomfortable. The centre console, the side pockets, the glovebox, every possible orifice or storage space was stuffed to the gills with empty energy drink cans, baby bottles, various child toys, smelly socks, newspapers, tissues, CDs. . .
Was it too much to expect that he could have cleaned it out? Sitting in this total stranger's car, I felt I was intruding into his personal family space.
Maybe that was part of his selling strategy, to put me off nosing around and finding more horrors.
But a quick look around the outside and a test drive quickly brought out evidence of serious neglect: several dash warning lights that wouldn't go out after starting the car; an engine that kept cutting out at low speeds; and four dangerously bald tyres.
The engine oil was black and sludgy, the water was orange (should be green or blue-ish) and the road tax had been out since July (but it was still being driven around).
He showed me the so-called 'full Seat dealer service history', but the last stamp was in 2006 -- four years ago.
Then I found that not only were the dip lights not working, but just one headlight worked on full beam. "The other one was working 10 minutes ago," he said. I made my excuses. "Best of luck with the sale," I said. You'll need it.
Later that week, I arranged two viewings for bright and early on a Saturday morning. The first was a '00 Seat Cordoba estate with a fresh NCT that was okay for the money, but it was so slow an electric milk float could have shown it a clean pair of tail lights.
The second was a '00 Opel Astra hatchback that was far more promising, albeit more expensive. It had just one owner from new who had it serviced at his main dealer for the first seven years of its life. And only 80,000 miles on the clock.
My now well-memorised military inspection procedure revealed a car that was as clean as a whistle and drove as tight as a drum. It felt more like a five year-old car than a 10 year-old one. It had four new tyres, a new NCT, and an unworn interior.
When it came to the haggling, I was caught out by one of the oldest tricks in the book: the car was being sold by a friend who said he couldn't bargain on the owner's behalf.
Of course, I could have walked away, but I was seriously fed up with looking at old heaps in the freezing cold. Plus he seemed a nice, genuine fellow. So I agreed to go a bit above my strict budget.
A deal was done and a deposit was handed over. I felt practically delirious with relief on the way home.
So, why do you see me in the picture with a nice old BMW? Later that afternoon, and purely by chance, a good friend offered to sell me his much-cherished and well-looked after 1993 BMW 3 Series Touring for well under my original budget. It's a car I had lusted after for some time, and came with a massive service history file.
I didn't hesitate. A phone call and some swear words from the Astra seller ensued, but he was able to sell the car again the following Monday without any problem and graciously returned my deposit, less €20 for his trouble.