How to Buy a Used Vehicle

7 min read

| By Chilton Staff |

Many people believe that a two-to-three-year-old car is a better buy than a new one. This may be true. The new car suffers the heaviest depreciation in the first few years and is usually not old enough to present a lot of costly repairs. Whatever the age of the used car you want to buy, a little patience will help you select one that should be safe and dependable.

Shopping Tips

First, decide what model you want and how much you want to spend. Check the used car lots and your local newspaper ads. Privately owned cars are usually less expensive, but you won’t get a warranty that, in most cases, comes with a used car purchased from a dealer.

Never shop at night. The glare of the lights makes it easy to miss defects in the paint and faults in the body caused by accident or rust repair.

Once you’ve found a car that you’re interested in, try to get the name and phone number of the previous owner. Contact that person for details about the car. If they refuse information about the car, shop elsewhere. A private seller can tell you about the car and its maintenance history, but there are few laws requiring honesty from private citizens who are selling used vehicles. There are laws forbidding the tampering with or turning back a vehicle’s odometer mileage reading. These laws apply to both a private seller and commercial dealers. The law also requires that the seller, or anyone transferring ownership of a vehicle, must provide the buyer with a signed statement indicating the mileage on the odometer at the time of transfer.

Write down the year, model, and serial number of the car before you buy it. Then go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website at and search if the car has ever been included on any manufacturer’s recall list. If so, make sure the necessary repairs were made.

Use the Used Car Checklist below and check all the items on the used car that you are considering. Some items are more important than others. You’ve already determined how much money you can afford for repairs and, depending on the price of the car, you should consider doing some of the needed repairs yourself. Beware, however, of trouble in areas involving operation, safety, or emissions.

Problems in the Used Car Checklist are arranged as follows:

1–8: Two or more problems in this segment indicate a lack of maintenance. You should reconsider your selection.

9–13: Indicates a lack of proper care, but these can usually be corrected with a tune-up or relatively simple parts replacement.

14–17: Problems in the engine or transmission can be expensive. Walk away from any car with problems in these areas.

Used Car Checklist

1. Mileage: Average mileage is about 12,000 miles (19,300 km) per year. More than average may indicate hard usage. Some catalytic converter–equipped models may need converter service beyond the 50,000-mile mark.

2. Paint: Check around the tailpipe, molding, and windows for overspray, indicating that the car has been repainted.

3. Rust: Inspect fenders, doors, rocker panels, window moldings, wheel wells, flooring, and in the bed for signs of rust. Any rust will be a problem—there is no way to stop the spread of rust except to replace the part.

4. Body Appearance: Check the moldings, bumpers, grille, vinyl roof, glass, doors, tailgate, and body panels for overall condition. Look for misalignment, loose hold-down clips, ripples, scratches in the glass, rips, or patches in the top. Mismatched paint, welding in the bed, severe misalignment of body panels, or ripples may indicate crash work.

5. Leaks: Get under the car and take a good look. There are no normal leaks, other than water from the air conditioning condenser drain tube.

6. Tires: Check the tire air pressure. A common trick is to pump the tires up hard to make the car roll more easily. Look at the tread wear and the spare tire condition. Uneven wear is a sign that the front end is, or was, out of alignment.

7. Shock Absorbers: Check the shocks by forcing downward sharply on each corner of the car. Good shocks will not allow the car to rebound more than twice after you let go.

8. Interior: Inspect the entire interior. You’re looking for an interior condition that agrees with the overall condition of the car. Reasonable wear can be expected, but be suspicious of new seat covers on sagging seats, new pedal pads, and worn armrests. These indicate an attempt to cover up hard usage. Pull back the carpets and/or mats and look for signs of water leaks or flooding. Look for missing hardware, door handles, control knobs, etc. Check lights and signal operations. Make sure all accessories, such as air conditioner, heater, radio, etc., work. Air conditioning, especially automatic temperature control units, can be expensive to repair. Check the operation of the windshield wipers.

9. Belts and Hoses: Open the hood and check all belts and hoses for wear, cracks, or weak spots. Check around hose connections for stains, indicating leaks.

10. Battery: Low electrolyte level, corroded terminals, and/or a cracked battery case indicate a lack of maintenance.

11. Radiator: Look for corrosion or rust in the coolant, indicating a lack of maintenance.

12. Air Filter: A dirty air filter element indicates a lack of maintenance.

13. Spark Plug Wires: Check the wires for cracks, burned spots, or wear. Old or damaged wires will have to be replaced.

14. Oil Level: If the level is low, chances are that the engine either uses an excessive amount of oil or leaks. If the oil on the dipstick appears foamy or tan in color, a leakage of coolant into the oil is indicated. Stop here and go elsewhere for your car. If the oil appears thin or has the smell of gasoline, go elsewhere for your car.

15. Automatic Transmission: Pull the transmission dipstick out when the engine is running in park. If the fluid is hot, the dipstick should read “full.” If the fluid is cold, the level will show about one pint low. The fluid should be bright red and translucent, with no burned odor. Fluid that is brown or black and has a burned odor is a sign that the transmission needs major repairs.

16. Exhaust: Look at the color of the exhaust smoke. Blue smoke indicates excessive oil usage, usually due to major internal engine problems. Black smoke can indicate burned valves or carburetor problems. Check the exhaust system for leaks. A leaky system is dangerous and expensive to replace.

17. Spark Plugs: Remove one of the spark plugs. An engine in good condition will have spark plugs with a light tan or gray deposit on the electrodes.

Road Test Check List

Engine Performance: The car should have good accelerator response, whether cold or warm, with adequate power and smooth acceleration through the gears.

Brakes: The brakes should provide quick, firm stops, with no squealing, pulling, or fade.

Steering: There should be sure control, with no binding, harshness, or looseness—and no shimmy in the wheel should be encountered. Noise or vibration from the steering wheel means trouble.

Clutch: Clutch action should be quick and smooth, with easy engagement of the transmission.

Manual Transmission: The transmission should shift smoothly and crisply, with easy change of gears. No clashing and grinding should be evident. The transmission shouldn’t stick in gear, nor should there be any gear whine evident at road speed.

Automatic Transmission: The transmission should shift rapidly and smoothly, with no noise, hesitation, or slipping. The transmission shouldn’t shift back and forth—it should stay in gear until an upshift or downshift is needed.

Differential: No noise or thumps should be present. No external leakage should be present.

Driveshaft and Universal Joints (U-joints): Vibration and noise could mean driveshaft problems. Clicking at low speed or coast conditions means worn U-joints.

Suspension: Try hitting bumps at different speeds. A car that bounces has weak shock absorbers. Clunks mean worn bushings or ball joints.

Frame: Wet the tires and drive in a straight line. The tracks should show two straight lines, not four. Four tire tracks indicate a frame bent by collision damage. If the tires can’t be wet for this purpose, have a friend drive behind you to see if the car appears to be traveling in a straight line.

If you’re satisfied with the apparent condition of the car, take it to an independent diagnostic center or mechanic for a complete checkout. If your state has a state inspection program, have it inspected immediately before purchase, or specify on the invoice that purchase is conditional on the car passing a state inspection. Road test the car. If your original evaluation and the road test agree, the rest is up to you.

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