It started with a theory: A 10- or 12-year old truck bought in Texas could be a better deal than one that spent a decade or more in Iowa winter conditions. Just about every vehicle that old in winter-weather places has some rust. Or a lot of rust.

So, knowing I would be going to Texas for the estate-settling business, I started looking on-line for a medium-sized pickup. I was willing to consider any make and model, although I had decided I needed something with four doors because I wanted to have plenty of space for my collection of granddaughters. My preferences included numbers: 6 cylinders, around 100,000 miles, 10-12 years and with in the KBB price range (more on KBB later).

The first truck I saw was way cheaper than that the KBB listing – which is often as sign that it’s not really a vehicle for sale, but a scam.

It was.

When I contacted the “seller” for more information, I received a reply telling me that the truck is in an “E-bay storage center.”

Nope. There ain’t no such thing. There is a long-running but not very common scam, claiming that the money you send the “seller” will stay in an E-bay account until you are happy with the vehicle.

To say the obvious: Do not buy a vehicle from an E-bay storage center. E-bay has warned people of this scam. I saw a similar scam on an Iowa Craigslist page a few years ago.

So, my on-line search continued.

I saw some promising – or at least, less likely to be scam-sounding – leads, including a “showroom condition” Dodge Ram 1500 offered by a private seller who said his son was retired military. Although it was one of the few colors on my least-favorite list (red), the truck looked good enough and unique enough to consider. I corresponded with the guy for a while, but by the time I arrived in Texas, he had gone to another city and taken down his ad. He told me he did so because he was overwhelmed by the amount of interest in the truck, and also that he had a family emergency.

So, the search continued.

The first truck I went to look at in person was “pristine” and “garage-kept,” according to its seller. It was within my price, year and mileage preferences, and even looked good in the photos. After a nice drive through what Texans call the “Hill Country,” we discovered that “pristine” is apparently a Texas synonym for “coverered with hail damage.” There were scores of little dents above the cab, and several dents throughout the rest of it. Also, the seller had absolutely no information about the vehicle’s maintenance, even though he claimed to be good friends with the previous owner.

Again, the search continued.

The next day, we looked at another truck, very similar to the hailmobile, without any dents or scratches.

A young man who apparently lived with his parents in a nice neighborhood was selling it.

His father, who spoke very little English, came out.

“Bueno, bueno,” said the father.

The truck sounded OK when we started it, although it clearly needed a muffler. We drove it for a while and it seemed to run well. Just to make sure, we stopped at the shop of a Spanish-speaking mechanic named Ram. He offered to look at it for just $25.

“Come here,” Ram said a few minutes later, and led me to the lift.

“Look at this,” said Ram, pointing to several significant oil leaks as well as a red spot where apparently someone had tried to stop or hide the leak with silicon.

Ram’s wife works at the shop and had welcomed us. She came back to see what was up.

“Mucho leaks,” he told her.

The truck stopped running well and we sputtered back to the owner. A search of the VIN indicated it had changed hands several times in the past few months. (More on VIN searches later.)

That truck didn’t change hands that day. Back to the search.

We decided that maybe we should abandon the web-based search and toured some local dealerships. Somehow, the Texas used car lots had managed to get their hands on rusty trucks, which they offered for several thousand dollars more than privately sold vehicles. I did not explain to the salesmen that my entire purpose of shopping in Texas was to avoid rust; maybe I should have.

We did find one that looked good in photos, so we drove around until we found it.

It did not start.

I was starting to wonder if maybe I should abandon my quest. I still had a couple of trucks to look at, but they were not nearby and one of them was bright yellow. I started to imagine what kind of unique problems I would discover with those vehicles.

At about this time, I saw a reply to a Craigslist ad I’d forgotten I’d responded to. It was a Dodge Dakota quad cab, similar to the oil gusher, but black. The owner told me he was retired USAF and had kept diligent records.

Our previous experience had taught us to be skeptical, and my wife pointed out a spot on the street under that truck that reminded her of the street under the oil gusher.

We went anyway.

We met the owner at an auto shop he had paid to display it, since he lives in a gated community. We were just a couple of miles from John T. Floore’s Country Store, where Willie Nelson got his start (and still returns for concerts every year).

The man gave us a folder containing the original window sticker, as well as the receipts from every oil change and every repair he had paid for in the past 12 years. With the exception of a few scratches and the need to replace one non-essential bulb, the truck looks, runs and sounds like it’s in nearly perfect condition. The only accessory it lacked: Granddaughters.

No leaks. No rust.

My search ended there.

I paid much less than I would have had one of those rusty dealer models. The 2006 Dodge Dakota met all of the numerical goals I mentioned above. I paid $4,000 less than the rusty one I had seen at the dealership, and I am totally fine knowing that Bobby, the seller, got more than the dealers would have paid him.

PS. It looks great at sunset, but will look even better with granddaughters.

I did much more research on this vehicle than I did on my more recent purchases, when I relied solely on my own limited experience and knowledge. Most of the vehicles lasted as long as I expected them to based on what I paid and their age and condition at the time, although my last purchase, an 05 Kia minivan, has not done as well, thanks in part to a series of screw-ups at a certified Kia dealership which sent me home with a missing engine cover and broken dip stick, as well as an undiagnosed problem that was immediately obvious to the mechanics at the dealership I took it to fix the first place’s errors.

There is no way to totally guarantee your used vehicle is in good condition and will run well in the future. But there are some simple steps you can take to increase your chances of a successful purchase.

  1. Have a mechanic look over any vehicle before you buy it. It’s worth the price to get an honest second opinion.
  2. Ask for service records. While it’s unlikely that a current owner kept all oil change receipts, like my seller did, there should be some good documentation of any major repairs or consistent maintenance.
  1. Check the VIN number to verify that the car has not been in an accident, and that ownership history and mileage claims are accurate. One dealer told me a car had 83,000 miles; the VIN report, however, indicated it had passed the 100,000-mile mark years ago. You can pay for a service like Carfax.com for a complete report. Carfax also lists vehicles for sale from dealerships that have completed Carfax reports for the cars and trucks they sale. A Carfax report will also tell you where the truck has been sold before. The Kelly Blue Book lists the range of prices other similar vehicles have sold for in your area, and also includes reviews from owners and professionals, and also lists vehicles for sale in your area. There are also free, but not as comprehensive, VIN reports at www.vehiclehistory.com. A government web site, https://www.nicb.org/how-we-help/vincheck offers a check to make sure a vehicle has not been stolen or reported as a total loss.
  2. Use your senses. Look at a car for blemishes, leaks, or poor repair jobs. While dings and scratches are normal for a car as old as mine, serious flaws could be indicators of an overall poor maintenance history. After you test drive a car, look inside the hood and under the engine for leaks and check for the smell of oil or antifreeze. Take it out on an open highway to see how smoothly it accelerates – and brakes. A good used car will look, sound, smell and feel good. And while talking to the owner about the vehicle and its history, make friendly small talk so you can get a sense of how real the seller is being with you.
  3. Know your geography. If you are in an unfamiliar place, realize that you are very unlikely to be familiar with anyone you deal with. Be extra skeptical. Also, know the possible problems a geographic area may present. Iowa means winter weather, snow and salt leading to rust. In Texas, buyers must beware of hurricane-damaged vehicles as well as the potential risk of sea-salt damage for areas along the Gulf Coast.
  4. Know before you go to see a vehicle what consider necessary to have (for me, that included space for granddaughters) and know what you are willing to compromise on (color, etc.).
  5. Be skeptical. Not everyone you will encounter is as honest and real as you are.
  6. Expect to get what you pay for. The Kelly Blue Book lists prices for virtually vehicle and year, based on condition and whether you are buying from a dealership or private owner. Any vehicle listed for much lower than those guidelines calls for extra skepticism. The KBB guidelines for a 2006 Dodge Dakota indicate that one should expect to pay $2,000 or so more to buy one from a dealer than from a private seller. If a dealer concerned about his reputation followed all of the above guidelines, then that $2,000 may be well-spent. If the dealer merely bought a vehicle at an auction, dusted it off and stuck a sign on the windshield, then you’re not likely to benefit from paying dealership prices.

  7. Be patient, and don’t ever feel obligated to buy anything that you don’t feel great about buying.
  8. Have fun. You are likely to have amusing experiences like I did, and meet some interesting people. Enjoy the ride of looking for your next one.
  9. If she’s willing to come along, take your lady with you. Two eyes, noses, ears and instincts are better than one and hey, she owes you for all the time you went shopping for her stuff, and all the hours you had to put up with Hallmark movies or “The View.”
  10. And finally: Whatever you experience, share it with others, to make their used car-buying quest more successful.