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Your Next Used Car: Keep Future Maintenance Costs Low

Today's cars and trucks last a long time, often surpassing 300,000 kilometers with little more than routine maintenance and an occasional repair. But those repairs can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and that bargain you picked up can suddenly turn out to be a big mistake. While there's no way to entirely take the risk out of buying a used--especially an older used-- car, there are some common sense things to look for that will help keep your out of pocket costs low after you've brought the vehicle home.

1. Single exhaust. We all like those pretty chrome dual exhaust outlets coming out the back of so many vehicles these days. Except, that is, when it's time to get a new exhaust. A full dual exhaust system can easily run $2,000 to $3,000 (or more), about twice that of a single exhaust. Most factory exhaust systems of recent vintage came from the factory with stainless steel systems, which usually last for many years, but when replacement time comes it can be quite a shock.

2. Timing chain. Most vehicles today are equipped with overhead cam engines, with the valve train driven by either a rubber belt or a steel chain by the crankshaft. Belts are usually quieter, but are considered a regularly scheduled service item, with a typical service interval between 96,000 to 193,000 kilometers. You have to get this done, or you could cause catastrophic damage to your engine. A steel chain, on the other hand, is designed to last the life of the engine and should not have to be replaced. Most engines today have a chain system, but many older cars came with a belt. Try to find one that has been recently replaced, or budget anywhere from $400 up to get it done.

3. Solid rear axle. Also known as a beam axle. In everyday driving you give up very little in terms of ride quality or handling to a more complicated independent rear suspension setup. With fewer (and often cheaper) parts, this simple design has the added benefit of never needing alignment - this design is always in alignment.

4. Regular gas. Many higher performance engines require 91 or even 93 octane gas, so make sure you know the octane requirement before you buy. Premium gas carries a premium price, usually anywhere from 10 to 15 cents more than regular 87 octane. The extra cost per litre can add up quickly. Using regular gas in these engines on a regular basis is not advised as it can cause poor drivability and even damage your engine.

5. Two-Wheel Drive. You may need all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, but if you don't it's a good idea to stay away from it. With added electrical and mechanical complexity, there's more to go wrong. Bonus - you know it was never driven on a beach, an activity that almost always manifests itself into rust later on. Those of you near an ocean know exactly what we're talking about!

6. Non-boosted engine. That means no turbos, no superchargers. The extra performance these devices bring can be exhilarating, but our goal here is to limit your exposure to expensive repair bills. Remember?

7. Documentation. An owner that keeps receipts for all work done is usually a good owner. A record of the repairs and service a car has received can give you confidence of proper maintenance and tell you if any major items have been replaced -- which may just keep you from ever having to replace them. It also can alert you to a lemon that is constantly in the shop or a vehicle that only sporadically needs repairs.
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