Buying a used car can be a great way to save money, as long as you know what to look for. By following a few simple steps, you will be sure to find not just a great car, but a great value.
Perform a Title Search
There are many companies from which you can obtain a vehicle’s title history, and it’s worth the small fee that they charge. Using the vehicle’s VIN number, you can see the full ownership history and find out whether or not it’s been involved in a serious accident. If the vehicle has ever had a ‘Salvage’ title, that means it was written-off by an insurance company as a complete loss, but then repaired. Naturally, it’s a good idea to avoid cars like these!
Perform a Vehicle Inspection
- Look for body panels that are shinier than others, as this may indicate a repair of previous body damage.
- Look for rust beneath the doors, around the wheel wells (the body part around each tire), under the vehicle, in the floor, and around the suspension (the pistons or springs under the car on the inside side of the wheel, as well as the plates and bars that may be attached to them).
- Look under the vehicle for leaks of oil or other fluids. Besides looking on the ground under the car, look around the bottom of the engine, the transmission (the large, long, triangular-shaped part shaped like a small, chubby rocket), rear axle, front axle, and transfer case (the large, bulbous part shaped like a round pyramid that’s attached to the front or rear axle on vehicles equipped with rear-wheel drive [RWD] or 4-wheel drive [4WD]).
- Look at the tread wear on all four tires. Uneven tread wear can indicate suspension problems or alignment issues.
Inspect Under the Hood
Using a flashlight, look for oil leaks around the engine, frayed wires, and cracked / worn belts and hoses. Oil leaks sometimes look like wet or sticky accumulations of dirt.
- Check the oil. If you notice a burnt smell, or see water, metal slivers, or chunky matter in the oil, don’t buy the vehicle.
- Check the radiator when the engine is cold. Don’t buy the car if you see oil in the antifreeze or big chunks of rust.
- With the engine running, check the automatic transmission fluid. Walk away from the sale if you notice a burnt smell or metal fragments.
- Look for parts that have numbers or letters written with a paint pen, as this is how salvage yards mark their parts.
- Look for water or flood damage by pulling back the carpet in the trunk and/or cargo area.
- Test the operation of ALL the vehicle’s accessories.
Start the vehicle and let it idle up to operating temperature. If the engine is cold, it should ‘idle down’ (lower engine revolutions [RPMs]) after a few minutes. If it stumbles, skips, surges, or continues to idle at unusually high RPM’s, the vehicle could have engine problems.
Manual Transmission Check
- Put the vehicle in gear and listen for a pronounced ‘clunk’ or ‘bang’, as this could indicate worn CV/universal joints.
- Manual transmission vehicles should engage a gear fairly low in the clutch pedal travel. If it doesn’t engage until you’ve nearly released the clutch pedal, then it may need a new clutch.
- Clutch engagement (when the clutch catches the gear) and shifter action should be smooth, and the vehicle should never ‘jump’ out of gear on its own.
Automatic Transmission check
- The vehicle should upshift and downshift smoothly. If it seems to get stuck in a gear, stumble when automatically changing gears, or slip out of gear unexpectedly, there may be serious problems with the transmission.
Other Important Checks
- Test the performance of the brakes.
- Look for unusual noises, vibrations, and unusual engine behavior.
- After the test drive, look for leaks and the smell of burning fluids.
If the vehicle passes all of these tests, then negotiate a deal and drive away in your new car!