The adventures of buying a used car in Canada

Pin It

Ah, the freedom of having your own wheels. Nothing beats being able to take off when you please, to wherever your little heart desires. Whether its to the shop when you’re out of something, or on a road trip of any length. It wasn’t until I’d finished my 5 years at university that I got to experience this sort of freedom for the first time, and own my own used car.  But with all great freedom comes responsibility. A deal that seemed great at the time, actually turned out to be a dud. By some stroke of luck, I found my beloved Pipi the People Moving Pulsar, who served me well for two years until she met her match (the back end of a truck).

nissan primera used car by the mountains

My first car taught me “all that glitters isn’t gold”… the hard way.

Not all used cars are created equal

I’ve since been traumatised by making such a naive decision, and Thom’s done no better with his choice of car purchases. so together we make a great team.  Back in NZ, we invested in a 4 wheel drive Isuzu MU, which has done quite well since September. Thom found it posted on TradeMe, and drove down to Tauranga (about 7 hours away, one way) one weekend with his dad and returned home with it.

Isuzu MU lucky used car

The MU was a lucky break after our combined car history

But buying a used car in Canada isn’t quite the same as what we were used to in New Zealand. Kate, from @30Traveler wrote a great guide to how to find some wheels in New Zealand. I wish it was that simple here.

Know before you go

We began our search in Vancouver online, before we even left NZ. I was looking Kijiji to see what was around, and to judge what we should be setting our budget at. I later found out that Craig’s List is generally more popularly used, and then adjusted my scouting to there instead. Once we landed, Thom had a good look, and soon had a list of potentials.

We knew what we wanted – something reliable that could cover a distance of 7k+ without dying or costing us a fortune, something that would be fairly economical on gas (sorry Thom, there goes your V8 ideas) and something roomy enough that if need be, we could sleep in it if we got stuck.  We were also aiming at $5 000.

Ready, set, search!

On Friday after Shirley finished work, we hit the greater Surrey/Langley area used car dealerships. We thought we’d have a look to see what was available there too. That in itself would prove to be quite the learning experience. We had decided to look at dealerships rather than private sale because we thought it might be more reputable to trace back just in case something went wrong during our journey.

First stop, we met Tony. He only had family caravans available in our price range. We hadn’t actually considered a van initially, but now we were. Tony was making us offers but if buying my first car had taught me anything, don’t take the first offer! Keep looking!

Next we came across a similar van, with an elderly man named Wally. Wally had a cheap van that he said he wouldn’t let us near and a similar ’02 Dodge Caravan, which he turned on for us. Now, I am no mechanic and have never claimed to be anything of the sort… But even I can tell when a motor shouldn’t be making *that* sound. Wally inevitably taught us quite a valuable lesson: when considering ANY car, makes sure you at least listen to the engine if you don’t test drive it.

I played the girl card and asked about the noise that made me cringe, to which he told us that it must be something with the fan belt, which he would replace if need be… but not before spraying WD40 on it to try to make it better (which only made the sound worse). And as quickly as it had been considered, now that van was no longer an option.

Thanks Wally, we’ll take our valuable lesson and be on our way.

Don was the next entertainer salesman, an eager little beaver, who greeted us with “are you interested in saving 5 to 7 thousand dollars today?”  I can be cheeky at the best of times, and in my mind, if I was saving $5 000, I wouldn’t be spending anything. I told him that I was only looking to spend that much. That send hi for a loop, but he persevered. He said he was just new at the job, and I guess I took pity on him and agreed to let him show us what he had to offer.

Next thing I knew, I was sat at a table being asked for our details and describing what we wanted. Obviously a bit of a nightmare for a new guy at a dealership that clearly didn’t have what we needed, Don got the office girl to tell us our options. Talking up the more expensive option (as of course they do), a Toyota Swift, Don was off to show us the car. Well it took him longer to figure out which key it was to get in, as we watched awkwardly from not quite far enough away to justify him bringing it to us.

Once he got it to us, he couldn’t open the boot/trunk, but he brushed that off. It was definitely smaller than I’d envisioned and I knew we wouldn’t be buying this one, but the laughs came when I asked him if you could sleep in it (as we’d specified). He then lowered the front seat down flat, into the back seat and pretended to sleep.

“Could you sleep like this?” he asked in all seriousness.

I was just in shock. “… Could… YOU sleep like THAT?” I wish I took a photo to show you him ‘sleeping’ in the front seat.

The search continues

Saturday morning we hit up a Ford dealership clearance tent. There was a 2002 Ford Focus wagon, which we test drove even though we knew it was out of our price range (listed at I think $7 995). And then there’s remembering to add taxes and fees on top of that. We went with Wally’s lesson of at least turn it on, drove it around the block, but I was a bit put off with the old man’s bully techniques of telling me that we wouldn’t find what we were looking for in our budget. The was left with only that, and no sale.

Lastly, in the heat of the afternoon sun, we stumbled upon A1 Autosales – with Thom’s handwriting, I was looking for Al’s Autosales… but we found it. A string of flashy tinsel and gated lots, every typical cliche of used car lots you can imagine.. At first I thought they were all one. Then I thought maybe they were all owned by the same company, masked to be separate. Both theories were wrong, but we had a look in each since we were there.

Our gut feeling played a big part of the whole process. It appeared that most used car salesmen were retired men. If they’re living purely on commission, I don’t envy them at all. But good on them if they can do it.

The first of the four we’d visit, didn’t sit well with us at all. We took a quick nose around, and quickly moved on.

At one point we considered a Subaru wagon. It was a bit older, and the kilometres were up over 220 000. That’s when we start asking about the timing belt (I’ve also heard this called a Cam Belt, and my knowledge ends at the fact that it has to be replaced every 100 000km, and if it goes, the whole engine is gone).

The suave man trying to talk up this subi was willing to turn on the motor, and take bits apart to have a look at the timing belt, since he couldn’t tell us if/when it had been replaced. You see, from the dealership we had also learned that used car shops will buy wholesale from the dealership, regardless of any issues. They have no way of tracking work.

Mr Suave was willing to give us the Subaru for $5k including the taxes, but gut feeling said keep looking, and that’s just what we did.

Another lot, another dude that didn’t jive with us. I was already over dealing with used car salesmen and the pressure of spending a lot of money

Used car lot in Surrey, BC

Then, we found one more lot, tucked up in the corner. Out front and centre was a little two door 2002 Ford Explorer. It had 151 000km on it, which was reasonable. Rick came out and greeted us. He turned the engine on, and it sounded the best out of all the ones we’d heard previously, and it was clean. Really clean.

I did hear a tick, and quickly asked why, but Rick assured me that it was the air conditioning. Thom agreed with him.

The back seats folded down flat; this was ideal and exactly what we were after. It was a short wheel base, much like our MU at home. We took it for a test drive around the block. Thom had his first go at driving on the ‘right’ side of the road!

It was listed at $5 900 (+ tax again… oh how I hate tax), slightly more than we we were wanting to pay. But then again, so was the subaru we’d just seen, and he’d knocked it down to  $5 thousand. That’s what negotiation was for, right?

Test driving used cars

Thom’s first time driving on the ‘right’ side of the road!

Upon our return, Rick greeted us with “so I know you love it” and I told him he knew how to do his job.

Thinking that it would be the same, I asked Rick if he’d take $5 000 including taxes. That didn’t quite go down so well. He showed us all the receipts for the work that had recently been done and parts that had been replaced.

Eventually, after lots of tax talk, we settled on $6, 200 with taxes included, and an additional $500 for Power Train warranty (Unlimited claims, with a maximum of $3000 per claim) insuring the engine and all parts that make it go to the value of $5400.


Yes we went over budget, but with that we also bought some piece of mind. You can’t get that buying personally. We’ve got a looooong drive ahead of us, and it’s reassuring for us (and our families who are supporting us from afar, who can only do so much when they’re so far away) to have a little something to fall back on.

Going with our gut instinct, here’s hoping our little Explorer will help us explore Canada safely and without drama.

We are now the proud owners of a 2002 Ford Explorer.

We are now the proud owners of a 2002 Ford Explorer.

Pin It

Related posts:

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Nick May 13, 2013, 1:39 am

    I wish I knew you were looking for a car. My experience is that people often end their trips here, hence modified cars/trucks are often going for a discount bcs their plane is leaving in 5 days! Hopefully the next Kate will start in Tofino!

  • Kate May 13, 2013, 5:20 am

    Great post Kate. I love this style of post that shows all the steps the person took as well as the outcome. Thanks for including the link to my post. I’ve just shared this on Facebook.
    Kate recently posted..Our First Few Days in Hawaii – Spending, What We Forgot to Bring, and MoreMy Profile

  • Melissa - The Mellyboo Project May 17, 2013, 9:39 pm

    Reminds me of my time trying to find Amelia the Familia back in NZ. Not in the fact that there were sketchy used car salesmen… but just the search itself.

    Glad you were able to find a suitable vehicle. I’m not gonna lie, I’m tempted to call it Dora II ;)
    Melissa – The Mellyboo Project recently posted..Money Saving Secret: Reward Credit CardsMy Profile

  • Clifford June 16, 2013, 12:28 pm

    Good job, in today’s ever trying economy for me i think its very reasonable to find a perfectly condition 2nd hand cars. As long as you know what to do to get the right one. Your post is a very good encouragement for everyone. Its a good virtue to be frugal nowadays.

    • Kate June 21, 2013, 4:31 pm

      I am all for second hand cars, I don’t think I’d ever buy a brand new one! I’d like to think I’m getting better at buying smarter… but I think lots of it comes down to trusting your gut. Being frugal will get you far, I believe!

Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge