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Buying a High-End Used Car

Pricing — and precautions.

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With sales booming and the "certified" market blossoming just as quickly, buying a used luxury car has never been easier. There are several clear positives to taking on an older but ritzier vehicle - and some equally clear potential negatives. Take some time to study the following before you leap:

Expensive cars depreciate, too - sometimes more quickly.The obvious positive is that you're paying Best Western rates for a Ritz-Carlton motoring experience. With a few exceptions (mainly extremely low volume or hand-built exotics such as the Maybach, McLaren F1, or Ferrari Enzo), even the fanciest luxury and ultra-performance cars tend to depreciate (that is, lose value) over time just like a Corolla or Taurus does. That's bad news for the person who bought the car new at full markup - but good news for you, its second owner.

For example, a top-of-the-line '05 S-Class Mercedes sedan currently carries an MSRP "sticker price" of $84,420, while a four-year-old version of essentially the same vehicle (2000 model-year S500) has an average retail value of just $55,400 - a difference of nearly $30,000.

Another example: A 2004 Porsche Carrera coupe lists for $68,600 new. But you can buy older 911s that are just as fast and sexy for substantially less: $58,300 for a three-year-old model (2001), a difference of $10,000. In addition to the reduction in up-front costs, you'll pay less in property taxes (in states that have them) and your insurance premium will be lower, since the rate you pay is based in part on the current retail value of the vehicle, not what it cost when new.

Don't forget the upkeep.
The main thing to be careful about when shopping for a used luxury and exclusive-brand performance vehicles is that they can be as expensive to keep up when used as they are to buy when new - particularly if they haven't been scrupulously serviced according to the manufacturer's recommendations. For example, major brake work on a high-end Mercedes (or any other premium-brand luxury vehicle) can easily be $1000 or more if the anti-lock system has not been periodically checked and the hydraulic fluid flushed.

Also bear in mind that major tune-ups can sail past $1000 on a high-end car like a Ferrari, Bentley, or Porsche - not to mention a BMW or a Saab, even. In addition to their more expensive to maintain engines and drivetrains, premium vehicles often have complex equipment and features, such as adjustable suspension systems, stability control, automatic climate control, DVD players and so on. These, too, can cost a small fortune to fix when they break down.

Finally, even "minor" things most people take for granted, such as wheels and tires, can amount to many hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in replacement costs on premium vehicles. For example, if you need to replace a damaged 19-inch ultra-light aluminum alloy racing wheel on a Porsche Carrera S4, it can cost as much as $500 for just the bare wheel. And the speed-rated, specialty tires used on many luxury/ultra-performance models can cost as much as $250 each or more and tend to wear out much faster than the all-season tires used on more common cars because of their aggressive tread patterns and softer rubber compounds.

Check it out, man. Those reasons and others are why it's important to have a used high-end vehicle thoroughly evaluated and all systems checked by, ideally, a factory-authorized technician at a dealership for that particular make/model of car. You will have to spend $100-$200 to have this check performed, but it is an investment well worth making. You should be very cautious about buying any used luxury or high-end/performance car that doesn't have a complete record of all service work done over the years - everything from oil and filter changes to any and all service procedures listed by the manufacturer in the vehicle owner's manual. If there are gaps in the record or it doesn't appear that a recommended service was in fact performed, you should factor that into your decision - either by demanding a price reduction equivalent to the cost of having that particular service done, or by moving on to another car.

Know where to look. Some outlets specialize in high-end, used vehicles. AutoTrader-type publications that cater to special-interest vehicles can be found in most 7-11s and convenience stores as well as major bookstores, as well as online. Hemmings Motor News is another great resource and is available online (for free) and in print at major bookstores.

But perhaps the best place to look for a good-condition and properly maintained luxury-exotic is in the classified ads section of car-club newsletters - the publications put out for the members of car clubs devoted to the make/model that interests you. For example, see the Web site of the Ferrari Club of America at www.ferrariclubofamerica.org and click on the classifieds. At the time of this writing, there were several affordable Ferraris from the 1970s and 1980s available - including a 1977 400 with 40,000 miles for $27,950 and a 1978 308 GTB (the "Magnum" Ferrari) with 39,000 miles for $29,000. To find other high-end brand clubs, simply type the name of the car into a search engine such as Google or Yahoo along with the word "club." You'll also be able to get in touch with fellow enthusiasts who are usually very knowledgeable about the specific vehicle you are interested in and will be able to provide valuable advice about what to look for - and what to avoid.

A well-maintained used luxury/performance vehicle can be a real bargain, especially when compared to the cost of buying such a car off the showroom floor. Beyond the much lower acquisition cost, today's high-end cars, like cars in general, are extremely durable and 50 or 60,000 miles on the clock is no big deal - comparable to what 10,000 or 15,000 miles was back in the 1970s. Assuming good treatment and regular maintenance, a late-model luxury car should have no problem running well beyond 100,000 miles largely trouble free. In addition, many of the most desirable and recognizable premium models have classic lines that change little over the years. The Jaguar XJ-Series sedan is one example; so is the Porsche 911. This means that a five or ten-year-old example still looks very much like a brand-new one - possibly at half the price.

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