Used cars are often sold with hidden damages or problems which you may not find out right away. To help you avoid buying a lemon, follow this checklist of 10 Things You Should Check when Buying a Used Car.
Test Drive the Car
Never buy a car without a test drive. We don't recommend buying cars from a public car auction. If you are going to buy the car from a private owner, ask if it is OK to take the car for a test drive. Drive at slow speed and higher speeds for at least a 30 minutes.
A car could have issues at high speed such as not shifting properly or feel unstable over 50 mph for example. Drive around a neighborhood, with lots of stops and go. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge during the test drive and also on the oil light. The oil light should only come on for a few seconds when you turn on the ignition.
The temperature gauge should never go over the halfway mark. Check out the electronics and the operation of the air conditioner. If it winters, you should still turn on the AC and see if it is working properly and the compressor is engaging. During your test drive do not drive with the radio on, but listen carefully for engine and suspension noises.
Body / Frame / Interior
The physical condition of the car is a key factor You should note any damage and negotiate the price accordingly. If a car has been in a minor accident, it's not a major concern as long as the seller is being honest and telling you what happened.
If you find damage and the seller is trying to hide it, you should be concerned with the purchase. Check the frame under the hood and also in the rear by the spare tire. You will often notice repairs done here if the car was involved in a serious accident. Look under the car for rust and avoid cars that show an excessive amount of rust.
Open the hood and check the fluid levels. Note where the car was parked. Park the car in a clean area and let it run for at least a couple of minutes. Now move the car forward or backward one full car length. Look where the car was parked. Do you see any wet spots underneath?
If you see any black spots, this could be engine oil. If you notice any green fluid on the floor, this means that the anti-freeze is leaking, which is typically accompanied by a strong smell. In some cases, you may also notice pink fluid which is usually the transmission.
When you shop for a used car, check the price of the car that you are interested in. NADA and KBB are good starting points but do not base your purchase on the numbers you get from these two guides.
You should search for similar listings in your area and compare the price. Don't go for the cheapest car that you can find; they can be the cars with the most problems.
Pre-sale Inspection at Certified Mechanic
Less than 10% of used car buyers do an inspection at a certified mechanic before purchase. Many used car buyers end up visiting the mechanic shortly after they buy their cars. Most sellers will allow you to take the vehicle to a mechanic of your choice near their residence.
Find a couple of auto repair shops near the seller and call them up. Tell them that you are interested in buying a used car and would like to do a pre-sale inspection. Ask how much it cost as you will be the one responsible for paying the bill. The cost to have a car inspected by a professional is worth the cost.
No matter how carefully you look, a mechanic who works on cars all day long can discover hidden problems quickly. You want to avoid getting a car that will have major problems with the engine or the transmission. Ask the mechanic for their opinion if you should buy the car or not.
Sleep on It
Don't rush to buy a car because someone else is looking at the car at the same time you are. You don't want to make a decision based on emotions when buying a car.
It is best to talk to the seller and make arrangements for inspection and the negotiation on a price. Then sleep on it for a night. This will give you time to make a clear decision on your next purchase.
Run History Report
Even a VIN History Report may not show all the problems but it always a good idea to run a report. A Vehicle history report will show if there are any title problems or if they have been any reported accidents.
It will show if the car has been flooded and reported to the insurance company. It will show if the car has been reported with frame damage. In some cases you may even see maintenance records reported on the vehicle history report, but not always.
If you are spending thousands of dollars on a used car, you should always spend a few dollars on a history report. There are services like Carfax and Autocheck, but now there are other companies that offer vehicle history reports which not many people know about.
For example, VINAudit provides vehicle history reports at a much lower cost than the two big names mentioned above.
Research Common Problems
Every car make and model has problems that may be specific to that model. Do some search online for the car you are interested in. See if there are any major problems that other owners have experience.
When buying a used car check forums as well and feel free to ask the community what they think of a particular model. Every car will have some issues, so don't expect to find a perfect car. You want to avoid models that have major problems, especially related to the engine and transmission.
Check the specific engine that you are looking to buy. One car model car comes with two or more engine sizes. For example, a VW Jetta could have a 1.8T or a 2.5 liter engine. The 1.8T may have some major issues while the 2.5 litter may be the bulletproof engine that you want to buy.
Read trouble codes
One of the things that everyone should check when buying a used car is to scan for fault codes. You hear it all the time when the sellers disconnect the car battery to reset the check engine light. Or you want to buy a car, but the airbag light is on.
You can easily get a hold of an OBD II code reader which within minutes will read the engine fault codes. If you don't have an OBD-II code reader we recommend the #1 scanner listed on Amazon Best Selling Code Reader List.
You will also be able to tell if the check engine light was recently reset. To check that, look at the scanner and it will tell you that several systems on the car are Ready or Not Ready. If you have more than one Not Ready reported system be careful as the light was recently reset to hide possible problems.
The car will take several driving cycles to test all the systems and set them to Ready status. Now if you wanted to do even further testing, you can get a diagnostic scanner that will scan the transmission, ABS, airbag and all the systems in the car. The procedure is the same to read the car. An excellent scanner to have that will do a complete diagnostic test on the car is the Launch Credit.
If you are buying a car from the dealer, often they will give you a 30-day warranty. In some states, this is even required. If not, they may sell third party warranty.
You can also ask a private seller for a guarantee if a major problem comes up in the first 30 days of ownership. For example, write up a contract that will cover any major defect over $500 that may come up in the first 30 days or even 7 days of ownership. This is a good way to ensure that you will not have any major problems as soon after you purchase the car. A seller that knows their car and is being honest will not have a problem with this.
Get this in writing on a bill of sale. This may sound crazy, but it is the best way to protect yourself when you buy a used car.