Regrettably, I can’t find the most important car-appraisal tip thread to which I contributed–lieu, was it yours?–but the trick is to be able to identify and elucidate the basic potential problems a vehicle may have and note your concerns as you negotiate your deal with the salespeople.
If you don’t know the car you’re going to buy, what goes wrong with them, and how they typically fail or get damaged, you’re not negotiating fairly.
For example, if you check the paint-line of a Nissan 300Z from the 1990s by running your finger along the door jambs to see if there is a raised line where the new paint job terminated, you’ll likely find it’s been repainted, because when that car was tested beyond its limits, it tended to break loose and put it’s ass-end into whatever tree or telephone pole it was passing, and that seemed to happen every time Dad lent his Z to the kid. Worse, you have to check for the factory paint line which is also in the same place. So you have to look for a double paint line, which is far less than a milimeter thick and, if the vehicle has passed through the hands of a true expert, indiscernable.
That line in turn indicates that the car’s suspension is likely rebuilt, according to the personal acumen of the repairman at hand. That’s extremely risky, and should be counted against the value of the car. A shade-shop with an excellent painter and mediocre mechanics is the very worst kind of place you can see, and I’ve seen 'em.
The problems are confined to the individual makes and models, which one needs to study in advance. And they’re not just problems; they’re issues of basic understanding about what you intend to buy.
I learned this to my considerable experienced car-appraising embarassment when I counted five plugs on a Jeep distributor cap and couldn’t see the sixth because it was at night and cold as hell and out of view. It turned out to be a four-cylinder Jeep, rather than a six, as my beloved better half is occasionally wont to remind me. She fortunately has used her considerable persuasive skills to make that benefit her, as the sale bordered upon fraud, but my errant appraisal of such an obvious thing (and the fact that our dealer was willing to allow my error to persist until the papers were signed) is the root of the problem.
Here’s an observation which might be a GQ in itself: when I worked in a dealership which sold Range Rovers, it was rumored that other emerging SUV-makers were voiding warranties for taking the vehicles off-road or on the beach. I’m not kidding, I heard 'em, but they probably fall under Chuck Close’s “Cant Possibly Be True” heading. Do I know if it’s true? Certainly not. But if you take the time to check your potential mark’s warranty policy, and lie on your back to see if mud is lodged in the underbody (which auto detailers often neglect to remove), you might be able to extract a major concession from the dealer (and potentially pay the price if you don’t unload it at the right time). Or, a no-sale until the dealer can find a less clever buyer.
Whatever you do, don’t let your salesman make your spouse cry during negotiation of the sale. I’ve heard so many stories of salesmen saying, “well then I guess you’re not getting the car,” and having the rattled spouses agree to the bullshit deal in order to defuse the short-term crisis, rather than win the larger war. Used car salesmen are often considered disreputable because, like film producers, many of them are. Find out about the dealership before you buy, if you can. They are most certainly not created the same.
By the way, the salesperson might not have been the greatest and hopefully merely uninformed, but the manager of the used car lot at Darcars in Upper Marlboro, MD? Man, that guy has a heart of gold. Truly a saint, when he didn’t have to be.