Buying a Used Car?
Here are some things to look for before you purchase!
Buying a used car can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming. You never know if can trust what the seller is telling you, and it’s hard to tell if there are any major problems that may be hidden from plain sight. Don’t get me wrong… buying a used car can be a smart play financially, but you need to be sure that it won’t cost you an arm and a leg in repairs after a couple months of driving it. Before you shell out your hard-earned cash, here are a few things to look for that will give you a better idea of the true condition of the car. The best part? You don’t need to be a mechanic!
First and foremost, ask to see any service records. A good owner of a well-maintained car ought to keep the service records for most routine maintenance, and ESPECIALLY for any major repairs. Look for any large gaps in the timeline of service records, as that may cause some concern. If there are no service records at all, that is definitely concerning. That being said, not all owners keep every record, so you can use your judgment, and at least get a confident verbal confirmation of proper service practices. While you’re checking out the records, ask to see the title. If the title has the word “salvage” anywhere, stop right there and DO NOT go any further unless you know what you’re getting yourself into! That means at some point the car was deemed totaled and has been repaired to functioning condition. If you aren’t familiar with this kind of title, take your money and RUN.
Now that you are confident the car has been mechanically taken care of properly, there are a few small things to give a once over on a quick walk around. Some obvious things to check are the brand and sizes of the tires. You want to make sure they are all the same, otherwise, that can raise some concern about the overall commitment to the care of the car. You also want to check each panel for visible wear & tear like cracks, rust spots, discoloration, or cracked paint. For older, higher mileage vehicles this can be normal, but it’s good to make sure you don’t see anything that doesn’t fit the expected condition of the car relative to its age.
Okay, so you’ve made it this far… everything is looking okay, not too many concerns, and you’re ready to hop in and show off your new ride. Before you start throwin’ money at the guy, let’s take a look under the hood. Is there any sign of fluid leaks beneath the car? If so, rub a little between your fingers. If the fluid is clear and thin, that is completely normal after the car has been running for a little while on a hot day! If the fluid is oily and has a distinct color, that may raise concern for a possible fluid leak. Next, drop some oil from the dipstick on a clean white rag. If the oil looks black and gooey, that is a sign of very poor engine maintenance. If you see any metallic pieces in the oil that is a serious concern about the condition of the engine. Even if it sounds and feels like it’s running great, metal flakes in the oil is a sign of interior engine breakdown that can cause very serious and EXPENSIVE problems.
Time to hop in the car and do a few final checks before you drive away in your cool new ride. Turn the key to the “on” position without starting it. Check out the dash and make sure the warning lights all illuminate when you do this, otherwise, there may have been some tampering with the lights to potentially hide a “check engine” warning or something similar. If they do illuminate, start the car to make sure they don’t stay illuminated. While you start it, listen for any strange noises like a rubbery squeak, or an exhaust leak. An exhaust leak will make the car sound more like a hot rod, or racecar. If you hear any high-pitched squeals, the belts could be in rough condition. If the car has an automatic transmission, listen for any loud clunks or grinding when you put the car into gear. That could be a sign of some serious transmission issues that would need to be looked at by a mechanic.
Let’s take this baby for a spin! Always take a quick test drive before you buy a car. Make sure you like how it drives, and that you are comfortable behind the wheel. While you’re driving, do a few quick tests. First, brake firmly. If the pedal feels soft or non-responsive, it could mean worn out breaks. Now take it on a highway, and make sure there is no vibration at higher speeds. While you’re racing around on the highway, accelerate quickly and listen for any loud noises when the transmission shifts gears. As you’re accelerating, listen for any knocking in the engine that gets faster when you speed up. That could be a deal breaker, as it’s a sign of some more serious engine complications.
Understand that this is by no means a complete checklist that ensures a car is in great condition. When you buy a used car, there will always be some risk of developing mechanical problems that you can’t detect without a very thorough inspection. That being said, this should give you an idea of the general condition of the car. If there are more than a couple concerns that you are uncomfortable with, you should always get a professional opinion. If the owner has nothing to hide, they will likely agree to a more thorough inspection. Buying a car is a big financial commitment, so never rush into anything that you are not confident about!
At FIXD, our mission is to make car ownership as simple, easy, and affordable as possible. Our research team utilizes the latest automotive data and insights to create tools and resources that help drivers get peace of mind and save money over the life of their car.