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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Eddie spent 35 years in the automotive business with Honda. He is an ASE Certified Master Technician and has bruised knuckles to prove it.

A Checklist for Buying a Used Car

Having a basic checklist for buying a used car can prevent you from making an expensive mistake. I have made you a checklist for buying a used car, and I made it extremely easy to follow.

The only tools you will need are two eyes, a nose, some feelings, time, flashlight, pen and paper, and a paper towel.

Print this checklist out and bring it with you as you go shopping for your used car. It will help you make an educated evaluation of the vehicle and can prevent you from making a costly mistake. It will also help you establish a fair price when buying your next used car.

A First Mistake When Buying a Used Car

I see this all the time. You're buying a used car, and you take it for a road test. You drive it up the road for about ten minutes and drive back to the dealership or wherever. This is a mistake.

Because you are making one of the largest purchases of your life, you need to drive the car for a good half hour or so. Some transmission problems don't even show up until the transmission is warm, so drive it on the highway and through the city. Do some errands or something that is like a normal routine for you. You need to put the vehicle through a test; you need to test it as if you already own it.

And even before you take your test drive, take a walk around the vehicle. Look at the tires and the general cosmetics of the vehicle. Don't be afraid to get on one knee and look under the vehicle. Sometime you can't see the inside tread of the tires, so getting on one knee to look at the tires is a great idea. Keep an eye out for any leaks or puddles under the vehicle; if there is a noticeable leak, point it out and ask about it. A separate article describes what kinds of fluids might leak from a car and what they mean.

Used Car Buying Checklist: Your Test Drive and Afterwards

You've taken a look and it's time for a test drive. As you're driving around, take it on the highway and pay attention to how the car drives. Have a pen and paper with you and write down everything you hear, smell, see, or feel as you go through this checklist:

  1. Does the car drift or pull to one side, or does it drive straight?
  2. Does the car vibrate or have a steering wheel shake?
  3. How is the transmission? Is it shifting smoothly?
  4. Do the brakes pulsate if you apply them lightly at highway speeds? Is there a grinding noise when applying the brakes?
  5. Do you hear noises: tire noises, wheel bearing noises, or wind blowing through a window that is not sealed properly?
  6. Does the cruise control work?
  7. Check the gauges—for example, speedometer, fuel, temperature, battery, and tachometer—are all working properly.
  8. Check your heat and air conditioning: run them at both ends of the spectrum, especially the air conditioning. Make sure the air conditioner produces cold air and listen for the AC compressor to kick on. Check the blower motor for the heater: run it at every speed, and listen for noises. Smell the air coming out of the heater vents: sometimes a critter will make a home inside a blower fan assembly, causing loud noise and a foul odor.
  9. Pull over and check the operation of everything in the vehicle that goes on and off: power mirrors, sunroof, power sliding doors, power door locks, all the windows that open and close (power and manual), interior lights, clock lights, instrument lighting (like the gauge assembly), shifter lighting, power outlets, windshield wipers, turn signals, power seats, seat heaters, steering wheel heater, horn, cup holder doors, glove box, and whatever else is in front of you. Be curious about how the car works and where everything is located; the more buttons you push, the better. This is a good time to find out the things that are broken or inoperative.
  10. Open the trunk. Look for the spare tire, tire tools, and car jack. Look for any puddles of water in the spare tire well. Smell for any musty odor; it might be a sign of a water leak, or it could just be someone's gym bag fermenting. Water leaks are common in trunks, often caused by a rear-end accident or leaking taillight gaskets.
  11. Drive back to the dealership and open the hood. Look at everything under the hood. Do you see anything out of place? How does the battery look; is there fur (corrosion) growing on the battery terminals? Do you smell any oil burning, or see any oil leaks? Is something dripping? From where? Don't be afraid to ask the dealer to put the car on a lift so you can look under it. Even if you don't know what to look for, be curious and just look.
  12. Break out your flashlight and look at the fluid levels. Most of the reservoirs that hold fluids are translucent, so you will be able to see if the fluid levels are correct. Check your brake fluid level, look at the coolant in the overflow tank, and check your power steering fluid level. Pull the oil dipstick: is the oil black, or creamy-looking? Wipe the dipstick, reinstall it, and pull it out again, that is the correct procedure to check the fluid level on a dipstick. Check the transmission fluid color and level. It should be red, or pink on the dipstick. On some vehicles, the engine may have to be running to check the transmission fluid level.
  13. Walk around the car and take a close look. Start at one end of the car and walk slowly around the entire car. Crouch down and look down the side of the car, from the front towards the rear: can you see any ripples or dents in the body? If so, look even closer at the paint. It's pretty easy to notice if a car has been painted after a crash because most aftermarket paint jobs have small bubbles and imperfections compared to factory paint.
  14. Looking at how the body pieces line up is another easy way to assess if the vehicle has had any bodywork. Check the gaps around body parts like the trunk lid, door jambs, and hood, the gaps should be even all the way around the vehicle. If you see large variations in the gaps, it may be an indication of an accident. Also, if the trunk lid, hood, or doors are hard to close, this may be another indication the vehicle has been in an accident.
  15. Look for a new VIN sticker. If a car has been in an accident and ended up as a total loss, it becomes a salvage vehicle. It is possible to buy salvage vehicles at auctions and refurbish them. In the U.S., a salvage vehicle will have a new vehicle identification number (VIN) issued to it on replacement sticker that is placed over the original vin# sticker on the driver's door jamb. The replacement sticker should have a new VIN number plus "Salvage Vehicle" in bold letters.
  16. Check for an odometer replacement sticker as well. If the odometer has been replaced, there should be another sticker in the driver's door jamb stating at what mileage the odometer was replaced. To find the vehicles true total mileage, add the current mileage to the sticker mileage. When replacing a faulty odometer, most shops will not pay to have the odometer calibrated. It can take weeks and cost around $100, and furthermore it takes the car off the road during the calibration because it is illegal to drive a vehicle with an odometer that is inoperative.

Learn the History of the Vehicle

Finding out the history of the car you want to buy is half the battle. If it's been in a major crash, it's possible things big and little were knocked around and not repaired adequately.

Most dealerships will have the CARFAX report if the car is worth selling; it tells if the car has been in a flood, salvaged, had multiple owners, or sustained "major damage" (though the damage doesn't in fact always turn out to be major). If you can't get a CARFAX from the dealer, you can check it yourself. It's money well spent.

Was This Used Car in an Accident?

Misaligned hood means possible damage from an accident.

Misaligned hood means possible damage from an accident.

Uneven gaps where the body panels meet are definitive signs of a front-end accident.

Uneven gaps where the body panels meet are definitive signs of a front-end accident.

Was the Car Repainted After a Crash?

Paint peeling after three years is not a sign of good body work.

Paint peeling after three years is not a sign of good body work.

This is called "orange-peel" paint. It's a sign that the surface was not prepped properly before painting.

This is called "orange-peel" paint. It's a sign that the surface was not prepped properly before painting.

A Great Idea: Pay a Mechanic to Do a Used Car Check

One of the smartest things you can do when buying a used car is to get a third party involved. If you have looked over the car and driven it, and the price is right, but you need just a little more information before you buy, bring your car to a reputable garage for a used car check. It might cost you $100, but it's money worth spending.

What Is a Used Car Worth?

If you need to find out what a used car is worth, a few sites will help you make an educated decision.

Kelly Blue Book is a great place to start your research when buying or selling a used car. It will have you enter all the car's characteristics, like mileage, condition, and accessories, and come up with a fair price. This quote can be used as leverage when negotiating a price on a private sale used car. When you have the information on a used car you are interested in buying, just punch in the facts at kbb.com and print out the results. That way you can have them with you when you go look at the car.

If you are trading in a used car or buying a car from a dealer, go to NADA for pricing. Most car dealers use NADA, not Kelly Blue Book, to find out a car's value. You'll notice the prices are a little lower at NADA for whatever reason.

Some other resources are Craigslist.org, Autohunteronline.com, and Autotrader.com. Go to these sites and compare prices; see what other people in your area are selling their cars for. This will help you when you're in the price-negotiating battle. If you find a used car, but the seller won't budge on price, don't be afraid to walk away from a deal. Leave the seller your phone number, just in case they change their mind. Most of the time, the deal will get sweeter, especially if it's a used car dealer, so play the game.

If you want to ask me a question, leave it in the comment box below and I will answer it as soon as possible. Thank you, I really appreciate it.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on December 09, 2017:

Great Dale, glad I could help :)

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on December 06, 2017:

We are about to buy a used car and, it has been so long since I have bought anything that wasn't brand new, this article helped remind me what to lok for Thanks.

Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on March 28, 2017:

Thanks Andrej, I will check it out.

Andrej Sorokin on March 28, 2017:

Very nice article Eddie!! I invite you guys to visit our website www.autoindigo.com where we want to implement a new feature to let you post your adverts and reviews about cars.

Thanks you.

Amy Ingrid on July 06, 2016:

I've been told that it's also important to remove the gas cap and check for rust in the neck and in the area around it, as well as checking to ensure the gas cap closes properly. Would you say this is good advice?

Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on March 14, 2016:

Thanks you Santhov, and thanks for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it :)

santhov on March 09, 2016:

Thanks for sharing your professional skills I Just wanted to let you know that your article very informative for a motorist.

Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on February 03, 2014:

Hi Kathryn, Got a brand in mind? When the time does come, and you have question about your purchase, don't hesitate to come back here and ask, maybe I can help :)

Thanks for the vote, and for sharing, I really appreciate it!

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on February 03, 2014:

Thanks for this useful checklist. I am in the process of planning for the purchase of a used car, and even though I won't have the money for it quite yet, I want to be prepared when the time comes.

Thanks for sharing this with us. Voted up and sharing.

~ Kathryn

Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on July 17, 2013:

Hi Sweerhearts2,

You are very welcome, and BTW, the Odyssey is an awesome vehicle. If you looking to bu an extended warranty, I recommend buying a Certified Honda instead, it's a much better warranty, but you still pay for it :) Let me know what you buy and if your happy with your purchase, thanks.

sweethearts2 from Northwest Indiana on July 17, 2013:

Thanks for sharing - also looking for Honda Odyssey. This hub gives me a little more confidence!

D Team from Taxachusetts on January 30, 2012:

good stuff eddie!


Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on January 04, 2012:

Sure Angela, it's my pleasure. Having a 100k Honda factory warranty is what I call, peace of mind, especially with 4 kids. You will pay a little extra for the warranty but it is well worth it, it is far better than buying an extended warranty from an aftermarket company, just make sure you ask what's covered in the 100k warranty, it may have changed but I don't think so.

Happy car hunting :)

angela p from Richmond, Virginia on January 04, 2012:

Hi Eddie - Haven't made the purchase yet but will soon. I am glad you told me about the certified pre-owned car thing. I will make sure that is what we get. Thanks so much for your help and will let you know what happens. Thanks again.

Eddie Carrara (author) from New Hampshire on January 03, 2012:

Hi angela p, If you're looking to buy a use odyssey, I would look at buying a certified. When you buy a Honda certified pre owned car you will save a few bucks because it's used and the warranty will be a 100k bumper to bumper from Honda. Not only does it have a Honda 100k warranty(not an aftermarket warranty), the car is brought up to date before it's sold, the dealership has to replace all worn parts before is can be sold, the tires need more than 5/32" tread, the battery cannot be more than 3 years old, the brakes cannot be more than 1/2 worn and everything needs to be in good working condition with no history of an accident, Honda will not certify it if it does not meet these conditions. The Odyssey is a great van, I owned one for 8 years and all my friends and neighbors followed my lead, lol. Let me know how you make out and if you have any questions, I am here for ya... Happy Car Shopping!!! Thanks for you comment, I really appreciate it :)

angela p from Richmond, Virginia on December 30, 2011:

I am in the market for a new used car. Probably in the next week or so. I have 4 kids and really want a Honda Odyssey mini van. I enjoyed your hub and will make sure I follow all the steps to make sure I get a good vehicle. Great hub. Your knowledge of vehicles shows.

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