Used Car Buying Guide

Buy Used Car very simple if you could just look at a car’s odometer and deduct the mileage from 100,000 to determine how much life a car has left. Such is not the case, however. Abuse, neglect and accidents can prematurely age a car to the point where the cost of necessary repairs exceeds the car’s value. The knowledgeable buyer will notice the telltale signs that indicate a car’s true condition. This isn’t always easy. Sellers can be very shrewd and many have developed tricks to conceal a car’s shortcomings.

How to Examine a Used Car Before Buying

A used car must be examined carefully. Here are some guidelines:

Outside of Car

Look at the vehicle during the daytime as darkness may hide problems. Do not look at vehicles in the rain, which hides nicks and scratches, as well as making thin, worn paint look slick. Be sure to concentrate on big defects and not minor repairs that can be made easily and inexpensively.

  • Take a general look around the outside of the car. A very common practice is to have the car detailed to increase its appeal. Usually this includes a thorough cleaning inside and out, waxing and the repair of minor cosmetic items that can hide abuse or “wear and tear”.
  • Examine both sides of the car from a distance (both front and back). Look for ripples, waves, poorly fitted panels and mismatched colors, all of which may indicate that bodywork may have been done. Look for dents or rust around the bottom of the doors and fenders. A bubble along molding or chrome indicates rust underneath. Also look under the vehicle for rust as well. If the rust has gone through the metal, you could be looking at major repairs.
  • Check for welding spots on the frame that may indicate a serious accident or repairs. Open and close the doors, hood, trunk or hatchback. Be sure they fit and are easy to close without slamming, sagging or sticking.
  • Conditions noted previously may indicate that the car was wrecked, poorly kept or has been driven excessive miles. Stand back approximately 10 to 15 feet from the car and see if the car is level. If one corner seems lower than the others, it suggests a broken spring or other chassis or suspension problem.
  • Check the shocks by pushing down on each corner of the car and letting go. Your car should bounce upward only once and then settle back to its original position. If the car bounces several times, new shocks may be needed.
  • Check the tires. They should be in good shape without sidewall cracks. Uneven tire wear may indicate improper wheel alignment, tired shocks or worn front-end components. In addition, check the inside of the tires for brake fluid leakage (indicating leaking wheel cylinders).
  • Look under the car for oil spots, or leaks from the transmission, power steering or shock absorbers. Open the hood and check belts and hoses for cracks or wear. Remove the radiator cap. The coolant should be a clean, greenish (or blue or yellow, depending on brand of coolant used) color. Brown sludge inside the radiator neck may indicate poor maintenance.
  • Pull out the oil dipstick. If the oil is gummy or grayish, the engine might have serious problems. If there is a black buildup near the top of the dipstick, smell it. A burnt smell indicates that the engine or transmission has been run hot. The automatic transmission fluid should be clear and reddish in color, not brown or black. A burnt smell or low fluid level indicates neglect.
  • Be sure and check the fluid level in the master cylinder as well. If the fluid level is low, check for leaks and have brake pads checked. Look inside the trunk. Make sure there is an inflated spare tire, a jack and a lug wrench.

Inside of Car

The interior can give you a good idea of the overall condition and how well the entire car has been maintained.

  • Check the mileage to be sure the car has not been used too much for the price being asked. Today’s cars average approximately 12,000 miles per year. In addition, compare the service stickers on the doorjamb or under the hood to see if the recorded mileage is consistent with the odometer reading. It is possible to obtain a history of service as well, depending on where the vehicle was serviced.
  • Check the condition of the seats, belts and carpeting. Lap belts and shoulder harnesses should be in good shape with no rips, tears or frayed webbing. The upholstery should be clean with no large rips or cracks.
  • Check the windows to see if they open and close easily. Manual windows should crank smoothly. Power windows should not hesitate. All glass should be free from serious cracks or scratches.
  • Look at the brake, accelerator and clutch. These pedals should work smoothly without strange noises or binding. Check all exterior lights and flashers on the car to ensure they are operating properly.
  • Start the engine and check the warning lights and gauges as well as all the accessories to make sure they work. No matter what the temperature is outside, be sure to check both the heater and the air conditioner.
  • Check the glove box for the owner’s manual. It contains maintenance information and important data on engine tuning, fluid capacities and replacement parts.

Drive Test

Start the engine and press down on the brake. The brake pedal should go down only an inch or two and should feel firm and solid, not spongy. Press down on the brakes for about a minute. If the pedal sinks slowly, there may be a leak in the master cylinder. As the engine warms up, listen for any noises such as knocks, ticking and rattles, which could indicate engine problems. Next, put the car in neutral and rev the engine. Look in the rear view mirror to see if there is any smoke coming out of the exhaust. If there is a lot of white or bluish smoke, the engine may need an overhaul.

  • At idle, the engine should be smooth and quiet. Punch the gas pedal to see if the engine responds without hesitation and then returns to normal idle. When first starting out, drive slowly to get the feel of the car. The automatic transmission should shift smoothly without jerking, slipping or hesitating. A manual transmission should shift smoothly between gears without grinding. The clutch should engage and disengage smoothly without grabbing or chattering and don’t forget to make sure the reverse works. Drive on a flat, smooth road and lift your hands slightly from the wheel. The car should track straight and be stable without vibration. If the car pulls in either direction or “shimmies”, a front end alignment or other front-end repairs may be necessary.
  • To test the brakes, accelerate to 30 to 40 miles per hour. Make sure there are no cars behind you, then step hard on the brake pedal. If possible, buy a car equipped with ABS Antilock Brake System. ABS simply keeps your brakes from locking up and allows you to keep your car from swerving and allows you to keep steering control on wet and slippery roads or during a panic stop.
  • The brakes should grab evenly and the car should slow down in a straight line. If the car pulls to the left or right, it indicates the needs for brake adjustment or a system re-build. A grinding noise indicates badly worn pads or linings. Drive at 35 miles per hour and listen for any unusual noises. If you hear a whining sound from the rear-end, it may need replacing.
  • Next, accelerate to 45 miles per hour. If the front end shakes or vibrates, the tires probably need balancing. Drive quickly over a rough road and listen for any loud squeaks or rattles. If the car bounces or bangs over small bumps, the shock absorbers may be worn and need replacing. After you have driven the car for a while, check the temperature gauge to see if it shows a high reading or if the temperature warning light (be sure this works!) comes on. These are signs of trouble with the cooling system and they can be very expensive.
  • To test engine response, accelerate hard on an empty road. The car should respond immediately. Back off and hit the gas again. There should be no hesitation or smoke from the car. The engine should accelerate smoothly with no strange noises. You may want to find a steep hill to check the engine’s power. If there is a significant loss in power while climbing, the car may need an overhaul or a tune-up. While you’re on the hill, test out the hand brake to make sure that it holds the car. When you are through with the test drive, it’s a good idea to turn off the car for a minute or two.
  • Then restart the engine to see how well it starts when hot. Check again for leaks under the hood and beneath the car. Some leaks may only appear after driving. It’s also a good idea to check the tailpipe. An engine that is burning oil will leave a black, sooty oil deposit. A white, powdery residue usually means good fuel combustion.

Mechanic’s Inspection

The first place you should test drive a car is to your trusty mechanics shop. With a bit of notice your mechanic will be able to go over the car with you. He’ll take a look at your car with a keen and unprejudiced eye.

  • Take with you whatever service records are available on the car, these will help your mechanic understand the vehicles past. Your mechanic will check the hoses and belts and condition of the oil. These are easy fixes if they need changing or replacing. Your mechanic will check the radiator fluid for coolant level and to make sure the fluid is going to protect in severe cold conditions. He’ll see how much oil, if any is present on the engine. Perhaps the car has been burning oil. He’ll check the transmission fluid.
  • Another thing he’ll check is the lights, inside on the dash and outside to make sure they work. He’ll check shocks, brakes, tires and alignment.
  • He’ll take a look at the body. Is there any rust underneath on the frame? Does all the paint match, or has the car been repainted? Is everything in alignment? Do the doors open and shut properly?
  • Let your mechanic take the car out for a test drive. He may be able to pick up subtle things, perhaps a shutter or hesitation or hear a sound that you may not. His is the best advice you’re going to get on the mechanical condition of a used car.

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