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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Young woman shopping for cars

Buying a used car can be a stressful process. Here are 5 used car buying tips to make sure you don’t get scammed.

Tip #1:  Inspect the Car Exterior

You’ll want to do a quick visual inspection of the exterior for any damage. Here’s what to look for:

  • Body panels: Check for dents and scratches and misaligned panels.  If you think body filler may have been used to cover up dents or damage, place a magnet on the spot in question. If it doesn’t stick, that area has been patched.
  • Wheels and tires: This is very important. If the tires are in bad shape and need to be replaced soon, this could add hundreds of dollars to the price of the vehicle. You can use this knowledge to negotiate a better price when buying a used car.
  • Lights and lenses: Bring a friend to ensure all lights are working properly. Make sure the lenses are nice and clear and free of fog and cracks. 
  • Brake discs and brake pads: If there’s a massive lip on the brake discs, then you know you need to replace them. Also check the brake pad thickness. Thickness is often measured in millimeters and each millimeter of thickness can get you through about 5000 miles of driving.
  • Rust: Check under the vehicle and look in the arches and sills for rust. This “silent killer” can destroy a vehicle.

Tip #2: Check for Warning Light

As obvious as it may seem, never buy a used car without checking the dash for any warning lights or check engine codes. 

Even if a used vehicle’s warning lights don’t come on, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. There could be hundreds of other problems the seller isn’t telling you. To avoid a used car scam, do a thorough check with an OBD2 scanner like FIXD.

FIXD can scan the vehicle for fault codes and identify irregular issues the car might have, translating them into simple terms on your phone. It can even show you a service timeline so you know exactly what you’re getting into. The FIXD Sensor and app is compatible with iPhone and Android and works with any car made in 1996 or newer with OBD2 protocol.

2021 Toyota GR Supra review

Tip #3: Check under the Hood

Next, you’ll want to have a look at the engine before buying a used vehicle to check oil, brake fluid, and coolant levels.

  • Oil: Make sure the oil is topped off and in good condition. Remove the oil cap to ensure there is no white residue, which could indicate that oil and water have mixed. If this has happened, then the head gasket could be gone.
  • Coolant: WARNING: Do not open the coolant cap if the engine has been running awhile as it will be pressurized and can cause injury. Once it’s safe, remove the cap and make sure the owner has kept the proper coolant level.
  • Brake fluid: Make sure there is brake fluid in the reservoir. While you’re checking the brake fluid, take a look at the belts to ensure they’re in good condition as well.

While you have the hood up, check the chassis legs. Make sure these aren’t bent or deformed. If they are, this could be a sign the car has had a front-end impact.

Look down the back, side, and front of the engine to make sure there aren’t any oil leaks.

Last but not least, get under the car and check for any underboard leaks.

2021 Toyota GR Supra review

Tip #4: Check the Car Interior

Make the following checks to the car’s interior:

  • Windows: Do all the windows easily go up and down?
  • Gear knob: Is it in good condition?
  • Steering wheel: Is it worn? If the knob and steering wheel are both worn, this is a good indication the vehicle has been driven hard.
  • Hand brake: Is this moving up and down easily?
  • Seats: Are they in good condition?

Looking at the car interior can give you an idea of how well the owner has taken care of the car. A well-maintained vehicle is more likely to last longer.

While you’re checking out the interior, ask the owner to show you the maintenance history in their logbook.

You can also check the trunk for the original spare tire and kit. If the spare has never been used in a breakdown, that’s a good sign the car has been well looked-after. 

Check the floor for any ripples. If you notice damage, this could be a sign the vehicle has been involved in a rear-end collision. Also check for signs of rust to make sure the trunk is water tight.

Tip #5: Take a Quiet Test Drive

You should always take a used car for a test drive before buying. And when you do, make sure that the radio is OFF and the owner (or whoever is with you) stays quiet. Too much noise could mask any potential issues with the vehicle and make it hard to hear belt squeaks and engine knocking.

If you’ve done the checks above, the test drive goes well, and the price is right, then go ahead and close the deal. Just don’t forget this pro tip…

Buying a Used Car? First, Get FIXD

FIXD takes the stress out of buying a used car. Instead of simply taking the seller’s word for it, FIXD lets you hear what the engine has to say. Anyone can use this OBD2 scanner to translate check engine lights into plain English and spot hidden issues before you buy. Plus, with your free 14-day trial of FIXD Premium, you’ll get access to Vehicle History Reports, FIXD Mechanic Hotline, and more! Click here to get FIXD today for only $19.99 for a limited time.

FIXD Research Team

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.

We’re here to help you simplify car care and save, so this post may contain affiliate links to help you do just that. If you click on a link and take action, we may earn a commission. However, the analysis and opinions expressed are our own.


About the Author

FIXD Research Team

FIXD Research Team

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.

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