What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

We are picky when we buy cars. We like to buy them old but in good condition. (See my post Ways to Save Money: Owning Old Cars for the low-down on why we like to do it that way and some tricks we use to make it work for us.) The Man, who was an aircraft mechanic for almost 20 years and is now a pilot, has developed a detailed list of what to look for when buying a used car.  It will give you the confidence you need next time you make a used car purchase.

This is the ultimate list of what to look for when buying a used car so that you don't waste your money on a lemon. I will feel more confident when I buy my next car!

This list has served us very well.  So well, in fact, that I was recently able to purchase a car while he was out of town — all by myself, y’all!! — all because I knew the telltale signs that show whether a car has been abused or taken care of, whether it will be a good deal or a lemon.  So read on, and then pin this for future reference. :-)

What to Look For when Buying a Used Car

First and foremost:  AVOID BUYING FROM A DEALER.  Try with all your might to buy from a private individual instead.  This means Craigslist becomes your best friend.  It also means it’s best NOT to be under some kind of time constraint.  Sometimes you are just stuck in a hard place and gotta make a purchase NOW, but even then, there should be plenty of cars available without needing to go to a dealer.

The reasons for this caution are manifold, but here a few to consider:  1) Dealers are experts at masking a car’s problems and making it look good.  2) Dealers are salesmen — they do this for a living — so they know how to answer any question with a half-truth and make it look like they are as sincere as the day is long.  3) At a dealer you will be paying an inflated price, because they need to make a profit and cover whatever costs they incurred getting the car ready for sale.  All of this means you won’t save as much money as buying from an individual, and the car you get may have problems that won’t show up until it’s too late.

Age of car – don’t even worry about it.  Sounds funny, I know, but it’s actually a case of the older the better, in order to find a low price.  We generally get them anywhere from 15 – 25 years old.  Anything older than that, though, especially if it’s in good condition, is probably a collector’s item or someone’s “baby”; and then you’ll be paying top dollar instead of bottom dollar.  So yea.

Mileage – Under 150K is best, and lower still is even better. This number can depend on the make/model of the car.  But if you can find the combination of a fairly old car with low mileage, that’s the type of thing to jump on. These are usually the cars that have been owned by a gramma or grampa, kept in a garage somewhere, and used very little.  That means low wear on the engine AND the interior of the car.

The way to verify how hard the car has been driven is to call and speak to the owner. Find out where and when they bought the car. If they are the first owner, this is a very good thing. If they are the second owner, this is also acceptable – especially if they can tell you about the first owner, or if they have put the majority of the miles on the car.  If they have paper records of when they serviced the car, this is a very neat thing!

EXTERIOR

Start with a good walk-around of the car.  Start at one point and slowly inspect in one direction.  Need I say this should all be done in DAYLIGHT?  Never look at a car after the sun has gone down.  Not even in a lighted garage — there are too many shadows where problems can hide.

Is the paint shiny or oxidized? Shiny paint means a garaged car. Oxidized paint means a car that has been kept outside in the hot sun and other weather.  Are there dings or dents? Ask where they came from. If the car has been in an accident, you may want to walk away from the deal. You can often see evidence of a repaint job by looking on the inside edges of the engine compartment or on the inner rim of the door, where the latch is.  Or there may be parts that don’t require paint that show overspray on them.  Another way to spot a repaint is if one panel or door is a slightly different color or texture than the rest of the car.

Check the rubber seals around the doors. Are they soft and supple or dry and cracked?

Look for rust.  Up north you can hardly avoid the stuff, but get down and look UNDERNEATH the car to see how bad it is.

Try closing the doors from the outside. Don’t push them, just let them fall closed. Do they close fully? Do the door lines and the car lines match up? Sometimes a door will be out of alignment, which is a sign of a possible accident in the car’s past. This means you’ll probably have air noise inside the car, which I personally find really annoying…

Check the tires.  How new are they?  Are they evenly worn?  Has the spare tire been used?  You can tell by feeling for the rubber nibs that should be sticking out if it has not been used.  If it has been used, that’s an indication that the owner had a flat, which may mean he drove the car with tires that were overly worn.  This indicates that if he was not taking care of his tires, he may not have been taking care of the rest of the car, either.

While you are outside, have someone test all the headlights, turn signals, and brake lights to make sure you can see them.

UNDER THE HOOD

Is the engine clean or dirty? This is an indication of where it has been driven and whether or not it has been maintained well. Can you see any moisture anywhere? Visible leaks are a big red flag.  Examine the bolt heads.  Is there evidence that a wrench has been on them?  Cars with low mileage should not have needed any major engine repair.  (We bought our 1994 Suburban with 94,000 miles on it back in 2010.  My husband was amazed to see that NOTHING had been changed on that engine.  It IS possible to find them like that!) Also look for corrosion on any metal parts.  This is another indication of where the car has been living.

Turn the engine on and watch it from outside the car. Does it shimmy and shake, or does it run smoothly? How noisy/quiet is it? Does it start right away or does the key need to be held and the starter cranked for awhile before it catches?

Pull the transmission fluid dipstick. Swipe a little of the fluid on the back of your hand or on your wrist. It should be clear and fairly bright red. Smell it – it should NOT smell burnt. If the tranny fluid is brown or smells burnt, that is a sign that the transmission is not working well and could fail in the near future.

INTERIOR

Look under the floor mats for stains. Check the headliner for sagging or rips/tears. Flip the visors to look for dirt or rips. The upholstery should be in good shape. The driver’s seat will show the most wear, obviously, but if it’s in poor shape, that means the car has probably been used most often for around-town errands. A clean/unripped driver’s seat means the car has had more highway miles, which are less wearing for the entire car.

Check all the buttons such as seat controls, radio/cd, windows, a/c, etc.  This is one of the fun parts!

Check for wear on the pedals.  The brake pedal in particular can tell you whether a car has been abused or not.  Heavy wear means LOTS of stopping and starting and heavy breaking.  You might want to walk away from a car that has been treated like that.

Look at the dashboard. This is a huge indicator of whether the car has been kept in a garage. A car that has been kept outside will have a discolored or dry/cracking dashboard. An inside car will have a dashboard that is still intact and somewhat supple-looking.

TEST DRIVE

NEVER EVER EVER buy a car without driving it.  Do not play with the radio right away, lol.  Listen to the car itself — is the engine noisy or rattling?  Can you hear a whine when you turn corners (indication of a power steering problem)?  Does the car shift smoothly?

Drive under start-stop conditions, like around the block, but also get out on a freeway so you can get the car going faster.  Listen for wind noise from the doors/windows.  Watch the car’s tachometer (if it has one) to see how high it revs at faster speeds — this will give you a clue about the car’s gas mileage and whether or not the transmission is slipping.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Should you buy it?  Honestly, most used cars are not going to pass ALL of these tests.  So then it’s a judgment call for you, to decide if the problems it has are ones you can live with and/or fix easily and cheaply.  Avoid transmission issues like the plague.  A/C fixes can get expensive, but they don’t affect the life of the car — so that’s for you to weigh.  Interior and exterior cosmetic damage can be used as a bargaining chip; so if the engine and body are sound, you may be willing to accept having to replace a headliner or do some reupholstering, for instance, in order to get a better price.

Get a look at the title BEFORE you hand over your money.  Make sure it is not a salvage title.  Make sure there is no lien listed.  If there is, make sure the owner has the lien release also in hand.  Different states require different paperwork, so be sure you have everything you need before you walk away.  I cannot stress this enough!!

Don’t spend ALL your money.  Keep some in reserve in case there is a quick fix that you will need to do right away.  And don’t forget that it will cost you to get insurance and tags…

So, now you are armed with what to look for when buying a used car. Make yourself a cheat-sheet to take with you when you go to see one.  You’ll feel more in control of the whole transaction and have more confidence that you are in fact making a good decision. :-)

You might be wondering exactly what kind of a deal I was able to negotiate all. by. myself! :-)  Well, I am pretty excited about it, if I do say so myself — so here it is:  It’s a 1998 Buick Riviera with 116,000 miles on it.  A gentleman in his 70’s had owned it since 2001 and 24,000 miles.  This was the TOP OF THE LINE Buick in its day, and it has lotsa neat bells and whistles.  Who doesn’t love those?  And we purchased it for $2000, which is about 60% of its Blue Book value.  (As an aside, a Blue Book value is NOT the be-all and end-all, but it can give you a place to start.)  This means we were able to pay CASH.  ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA.

This is the ultimate list of what to look for when buying a used car so that you don't waste your money on a lemon. I will feel more confident when I buy my next car!

It’s important to know what to look for when buying a used car, so that you don’t get taken for a ride.  Pun definitely intended, LOL. :-)

11 thoughts on “What to Look for When Buying a Used Car”

  1. Just drive this until the last kid moves out, then get a little convertible that only seats 2! ;)

    I bet a car like that was HARD to find in Branson………..just sayin’……..

  2. We didn’t actually find it in Branson — it was up in Springfield… so you make a valid point. As for a convertible, we owned one back in CA, and we loved it! So I’ve got my eye on a Thunderbird convertible (one of the newer ones they made in the early 2000’s) for later in life! Woot! :-)

  3. Great points on buying a used car. We also only buy used, it only makes sense. Our daughter is looking into purchasing a (new to her) car for college. I’m passing this post on to her.

  4. I sold a Chevy Impala through a local weekly called The Thrifty Nickel. This was before the Internet came into every home. I had all the service records for it. It went in a matter of hours, for my asking price.

  5. This is s great post but one thing missong if I might have have missed it I always check is the temperature gauge. The radiator cap as well as the fans. Oh and the reservoir. To save you some headaches as well I would highly encourage people to invest in a compression tester or give a mechanic a few beers to check it for you.

  6. Excellent article, very wisely written. I can exactly correlate with whatever mistake I’ve made while buying a used car from a dealer recently.

  7. Michael Schulte

    Thank you for this helpful advice. My wife and I have never bought a used car before, but your article has equipped us with knowledge that is giving us more confidence and discernment as we move forward in this decision. Thanks for taking the time to share this!

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