Like most of life’s expenses, there will be times when your budget, or complete lack thereof, will dictate the quality, the design, even the point of purchase for the needed item. One such perceived bargain is used winter tires. You’ll see them offered in a variety of places, be it grainy cell phone snaps on Kijiji, a dusty tire shop rack, even Canadian government surplus. The Porsche Centre in Winnipeg will sell you used studded winter tires, though they’re best described as day-old bread tires, having seen minimal use at the Porsche Camp4 winter driving school in Quebec. (And you’re not buying those skins for 50 bucks a pop.)

Every year, the Rubber Association of Canada does their due diligence, advising Canadians on the benefits of switching to a proper winter tire for maximum performance on snow and ice. You’ve probably heard this expression when the first frost arrives; “The worst winter tire is better in the snow and ice than the best all-season tire.” The key is the proprietary winter tire compounds, which stay flexible in sub-zero temperatures for maximum grip. It all sounds great, until you start pricing them out. A winter tire and wheel package prices out around the $1,000 mark for popular vehicles. That’s a lot of KD and ketchup.

Unless you punch your time card at the local Tire Barn, you fall into the category of Tire Condition Novice. This means that your understanding of tire condition and construction is limited to the most obvious of visual problems, like grapefruit-sized bulges, knife-inflicted punctures, and whether the tires are still round. It’s important to remember that the condition of a used tire has a lot to do with who owned it, and whether they actually own a tire gauge. Tires need love, just like the shiny parts of your car. You can probably dismiss a few of the want-ads by visuals alone, especially if they’re lying in a snowbank, under the broken snowblower. Tires should be stored in a cool, dry and dark place, as UV rays can dry out the rubber. Cracks on the exterior of the sidewall can be part of the UV damage, as well as an indication of under-inflation. Irregular wear patterns could be indicators of a poorly-maintained vehicle, which may result in irregular handling once they are mounted on your ride. The costs associated with tire mounting and balancing will vary, so check with your preferred vendor, and factor that cost into your budget.   

Make a point of asking why the winter tires are for sale. If the seller mentions things about the tire’s performance, such as steering feel, this could be an indicator of an internal problem. Many first-time users of winter tires are not aware of the increased noise levels that can occur, which could be the reason why a very fresh set of used winters is on the tire shop rack. There is nothing noisier than a studded tire, so if you can handle the din, you’re in. Studs can also be removed, though its best done by a tire professional, instead of your Dad’s needlenose pliers.

You may come across the odd set of used winter tires mounted on rims. Check the edges of the rims for gouges and abrasions. If damage is evident, remember that the sidewall of the tire probably hit the gouge-inflicting thing first.

Online information is plentiful, from tire and wheel websites, for determining the proper wheel size for your vehicle, as well as wheel size variances. This can get a little tricky, depending on the vehicle. A wheel may have the correct offset and bolt pattern, and there may have been a 15-inch wheel option for the base car, but does your vehicle require a 17-inch wheel to clear your performance brake package? If the seller ‘thinks’ the wheels will fit, move on, and search for an ad that is very detailed as to what vehicle the tires and wheels originated from. When in doubt, you could always do a quick tire change in the driveway to check. (Bring your gloves.)

If you really want to embrace the pre-owned tire lifestyle, invest in a tire tread depth gauge. The current recommendations for winter tire minimum tread depth is around 6/32nds of an inch, though tread depth and built-in tread wear indicators are just part of the story. You’ll need to do some research on the winter tires you are considering, since the benefits of the proprietary compounds may have departed with initial wear, leaving a tire that looks respectable, with all the winter stick of an all-season tire.

Every used tire, be it all-season, summer, or winter spec, has a past. Like people, that past could include a few skeletons in the closet. You never know when that tire will blurt out its secret, usually through the sidewall, at speed.

The only used tires to consider are those that have been loved, and they are very few and far between. The what-ifs for the everyday motorist are beyond an acceptable risk, and the perceived savings are simply not worth your life. New winter tire savings do exist, through online tire retailers, as well as your local tire shop, with access through distributors to lesser-known brands. Remember that an inexpensive new tire will not possess the highest concentrations of rubber, carbon black, or mileage life expectancy. The new inexpensive winter tire does have the advantages of a warranty, perhaps not as all-encompassing as the single-malt brands, but a warranty just the same. There’s also the universal tire truth; it will stop faster, in winter conditions, than the all-season tire. Always.