Five Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Before shelling out big bucks for a brand new car, or shackling yourself to an expensive lease, you should consider buying used. There is an element of risk, as these vehicles are usually sold “as is.” (Although some dealerships do offer warranties on used vehicles through a pre owned program.) I know quite a bit about cars, and even I have been burned a few times.

C’est la vie.

But overall, I’ve had great luck. And most importantly, I have been able to live my life without an outrageous monthly car payment. Here are the top five things I look for when buying a used car.

  1. Mileage

The number of miles a car has been driven is your first indicator of how much life it has left. Even when properly maintained, higher mileage cars are going to have more wear and tear on the engine, transmission, suspension, etc. I won’t buy any vehicle with anywhere near 200,000 miles on it, simply because most vehicles don’t last much longer than that without needing extensive—and expensive—repairs. At such high mileage, the cost of replacing or rebuilding major components is usually more than what the vehicle is worth.

  1. Maintenance

That being said, a neglected and poorly maintained vehicle will fall apart long before reaching high mileage. Here are some indicators of whether or not a vehicle has been properly cared for:

  • Regular oil changes: Pull the dipstick. Is the oil a clear, golden-amber color? Or is it black, sludgy, and burned smelling?
  • Leaks: Open the hood and check for leaks around the valve covers, power steering pump, and radiator. Check hoses and other connections for drips and other signs of moisture. Crawl under the car and look for wet spots or oil splotches on the ground. Is the underside of the vehicle clean and dry? Or is it coated in oil and grease?
  • Tires: Check the tread on the tires. Excessive or uneven wear can indicate alignment or suspension issues.
  • Cleanliness: How well a car has been cared for will often show in its overall cleanliness. Check the interior for spills, stains, burns, rips, tears, or excessive build up of dirt, crumbs, trash, etc. Examine the exterior for scratches, dents, and other damage.
  1. Engine

After checking all the above, it’s time to turn the key. Make sure the seller hasn’t warmed up the vehicle before your arrival, so you can hear what it sounds like on a “cold start.” Does the car start easily, without hesitation? Turn off the radio, AC, and heat so you can hear the engine as clearly as possible. Listen for any squeaks or squeals, or any grinding, pinging, or knocking.

Press the accelerator a few times. Is the engine responsive? Does it rev smoothly? A healthy and balanced engine should purr like a kitten—or growl like a lion—depending on the size and exhaust system. If you hear anything that sounds wrong, or feel any shaking or excessive vibration, walk away.

  1. Transmission

If the engine sounds good, it’s time to take a test drive. Go somewhere where you can accelerate the car up to highway speeds—at least 60 mph (or 100 km/h). Pay attention to how the vehicle shifts gears. If it’s a manual transmission, you should be able to shift easily through all the gears, and the clutch should feel nice and tight.

A healthy automatic transmission should be barely noticeable, and shift smoothly through all the gears without pushing the engine to high rpms. If you feel the engine struggling, if the transmission shifts hard and jerks the vehicle, or if you feel the transmission “slipping” and not catching like it should, then forget it. This is a very expensive repair.

After bringing the car up to normal operating temperature, you should now check the heat, AC, and all electronics, including the lights, stereo, power seats, windows and locks, cruise control, etc.

  1. Vehicle History

If all the above checks out, the final consideration is the history of the vehicle. A Carfax or other report is always a good idea. Check the title of the vehicle. If it’s a “salvage” title, don’t buy it.

How long has the seller owned the vehicle? How many previous owners were there? Ask them where they bought it, why they are selling it, and what repairs they’ve done. Pay attention to their body language; an honest seller will look you in the eye, shake your hand, and should have no problems answering your questions.

I steer clear of people selling a vehicle they have owned for less than a year. There’s usually a good reason they don’t want to keep it—and you won’t either. The ideal is a “one owner” car, with receipts documenting all repairs and maintenance over the years. These are rare, and hard to find, but almost always a good investment.

So there you have it. Thanks for reading, and good luck in your search!

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