Buying a used golf cart can be a very confusing undertaking. There are many variations and types of carts available these days, from the very basic to wildly modified. Buyers have many options, but caution should be used to ensure they don't inherit someone's albatross. Knowing what to look for, could save big expenses later.
The first decision to be made is whether you want a gasoline or battery powered cart. Each has its strong and weak points.
Gasoline powered carts can be more powerful, making them well suited for utility service or hauling loads. They do consume the precious fossil fuel though and can be noisy with an undesirable exhaust odor. Battery operated carts are stealthy quiet and odorless, but have a limited range between charge cycles. When the batteries are drained, you're done until they can be recharged, which can take 8 hours or more. After you decide which fits your needs the best, and you've found the candidate, determine if it is really what you are looking for. Know what you are buying before you write that check.
Tire Wear. Take a general assessment of the tires and their condition. Are they all the same brand and do they have similar and even wear? Uneven wear can be indicative of serious alignment problems, a bent frame or worn out steering components. Tires of mixed brands is an indication that the cart may have seen excessive use or be a rebuild of junk parts. This may not necessarily be the case, but keep it in mind as you continue looking over the candidate cart.
Steering. Never buy a cart without taking some time to drive it. Take it over some rough terrain as well as a solid concrete driveway. Sloppy steering should be an immediate concern for you. Worn 'rack and pinion' steering boxes are expensive to replace. If the rack and pinion is worn, you can also reasonably expect the steering 'rod ends' and spindle bushings also need attention. None of these components are necessarily cheap to replace. The steering wheel, pulling to the left or right can be caused by uneven pressure in the tires or unmatched sizes. If the cart pulls, check the tire pressure first to see if the problem corrects. If it does not help, the spindle (on the same side that it pulls to) may have a bad wheel bearing causing dragging. You can jack up that corner of the cart and see if the wheel rotates freely.
Battery age. Most golf cart battery manufacturers stamp the date of manufacture on the top of one of the battery posts. You can easily see a '08' or '09' etc, even with the battery cable connected. Be aware that batteries that are more than three years old will require replacement sooner than later. Expect to pay $600 or more for a new set of batteries, no matter what the configuration or voltages are. Never assume that the batteries are of the same vintage as the model year of the cart either. Also, batteries of mixed years in the same cart could be a clue that the cart has seen some serious use in a fleet environment.
Brakes. Be sure the brakes are firm and stop the cart quickly without grinding or squealing. Brake shoe replacement is not usually a big deal unless service has been neglected to the point where the brake drum is gouged or otherwise damaged. Excessive rust and corrosion around the brake backing plates behind the rear wheels can be an indication of possible neglected maintenance.
Integrity of the frame. Steel frames are very susceptible to rust and corrosion, especially under the battery compartment. I have seen carts that otherwise look great, actually break in half due to battery acid seeping on, and eating the frame. Some manufactures, like Club Car, are now using fully welded aluminum frames which do not rust, but are still susceptible to corrosion in the form of aluminum oxide (instead of iron oxide). Corroded aluminum has a heavy layer of white fuzzy powder, which is equivalent to rust. Stay away from any cart that you suspect has a frame problem. The cart could end up being totally useless to you later.
Smooth ride. A well maintained cart should roll along smoothly and quietly. A wobbling or lumpy motion when driving on a smooth solid surface indicates a problem. A bent wheel, or worse, a bent axle will cause the cart to bob up and down with a frequency proportional to the speed. An 'out of round' tire can also cause a similar symptom but is usually not the case. Worn front end components will exaggerate the symptoms dramatically.
Wiring. Wiring should be neatly routed and protected from chaffing with factory clamps and terminations. Be wary of modified wiring if it does not look professionally done. Cobbled up wiring can cause you big headaches if you are not savvy with electrical systems. A shorted wire on an electric cart can be devastating. The tremendously high current capability of the batteries can turn a shoddy wiring system into a giant cigarette lighter. Look for splices and taped up connections that do not seem to belong, and then pass on the purchase.
Odd Noises from drive train. Turn off any radios and the like when you take your test ride. Listen for any odd noises that may be present. Grinding, excessive whining or clicking sounds can help you identify problems with the cart. The sounds a vehicle makes can tell you alot if you take the time to listen.
Gasoline engines. Be sure to look at the engine. Although you may not be an engine mechanic, you can still evaluate a few things easily. Gross saturation of the engine with oil and grease probably indicates a leaking crankcase or gearbox, or worse, a cracked crankcase or gearbox. Check for large amounts of sooty residue in the exhaust pipe, which is indicative of an oil burner (worn out piston rings). Be sure to let the engine warm up before you take a test ride. An engine will only reveal if it smokes a lot, after it is sufficiently hot. Take your time and check it out. Popping sounds in the exhaust or backfires can be caused by poorly adjusted carburetors, but more commonly by burned intake or exhaust valves in the engine. A rebuild engine can cost you dearly if you need one down the road. Be sure to give it the appropriate attention.
A well maintained cart can literally offer decades of reliable service. Taking time to select the right cart to fit your needs now will pay dividends later. After you purchase your cart, visit some of the vendors that offer great aftermarket products to personalize your vehicle. If you want to speed up your cart a little, visit Digital Overdrive Systems on the web for some more great tips.
Randy Wade is an Engineer, Golf Cart Enthusiast and inventor of the SpeedyLink Overdrive System for Club Car IQ carts. Learn more at www.digitaloverdrivesystems.com.