What to Look For When Buying a Used Car

Updated on March 21, 2016

Do You Make These Mistakes When Buying A Used Car?

You need to know what to look for when buying your next 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 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.


First Big 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. 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 try to do 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.

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, unless you're in a skirt. Keep an eye out for any leaks or puddles under the vehicle, if there is a noticeable leak, ask about it, or point it out. See my article "My Car is Leaking Fluid, 6 Most Common Fluid Leaks from a Car"

Problems to look for when buying a used car

Miss aligned hood, possible damage from an accident.
Miss aligned hood, possible damage from an accident. | Source
Uneven gaps where the body panels meet, definitive signs of a front end accident.
Uneven gaps where the body panels meet, definitive signs of a front end accident. | Source
Paint pealing after 3 years, not a sign of good auto body work
Paint pealing after 3 years, not a sign of good auto body work | Source
This is called orange peal in the paint, it's because the surface was not prepped properly. Look for signs like this when buying your next used car
This is called orange peal in the paint, it's because the surface was not prepped properly. Look for signs like this when buying your next used car | Source

More good information when buying a used car

Used Car Buying Checklist

It's time for a test drive, as you're driving around, pay attention to how the car drives, take it on the highway, 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, does it drive straight?

2. Does the car vibrate or have a steering wheel shake? How is the transmission? Is it shifting smooth?

3. Do the brakes pulsate if you apply them lightly at highway speeds? Is there a grinding noise when applying the brakes?

4. Do you hear any tire noises, wheel bearing noises or obvious wind noises like a window not sealed properly?

5. Does the cruise control work?

6. There are several gauges in your car like the speedometer, fuel, temperature, battery, and tachometer, are they all working properly?

7. Check you heat and air conditioning, run it at both ends of the spectrum, especially the air conditioning, make sure it's getting cold, listen for the AC compressor to kick on. Check the blower motor, run it on every speed, and listen for noises. Smell the air coming out of the vents, sometimes a critter will make a home inside a blower fan assembly, and this could cause a loud noise and a fowl odor.

8. Pull over on your road test and check the operation of everything in the vehicle like the power mirrors, sunroof, power sliding doors, power door locks, check all power and manual windows for proper operation, interior lights, clock lights, instrument lighting like the gauge assembly, shifter lighting, power outlets, wiper operation, directional's, 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 when you will find things that are broken or inoperative.

9. 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 odors, 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, usually it's caused by a rear end accident or taillight gaskets leaking.

10. 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? 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, I'm sure you could see something leaking if it was dripping.

Break out your flashlight and just start snooping around. Look at the fluid levels, all the reservoirs for holding fluids are usually transparent, so you will be able to see if the fluid levels are correct. Check you brake fluid level, look at the coolant in the overflow tank, and power steering fluid level. Pull the oil dipstick, is the oil black, and is it at the correct level? Pull out the dipstick, wipe it, reinstall it and pull it out again, that is the correct procedure to check the level on a dipstick. Check the transmission fluid color and level, it should be red, or pink on the dipstick, the engine may have to be running to check the level on some vehicles.

11. Take a close look at the body of the car, start at one end of the car and walk slowly around the entire car. Get down low in a crouched position and look down the side of the car, looking from the front of the vehicle to the rear, can you see any ripples or dent's in the body, if so, look even closer at the paint, it's pretty easy to notice if a car has been painted because most aftermarket paint jobs have small bubbles and imperfections in it compared to factory paint.

Looking at body lines to see if they line up is another easy way to assess if the vehicle has had any body work. Check the gaps between body parts like the trunk lid, door jams 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 indications 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.

12. If a car has been in an accident that 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 US, the said vehicle will have a new vin# (vehicle identification number) issued to it and there should be a replacement sticker placed over the original vin# sticker. The vin sticker I am referring to is the one in the driver's door jamb, the replacement vin sticker will be a new vin # and the sticker will have Salvage Vehicle printed on it in bold letters.

13. Check for an odometer replacement sticker as well, if the odometer had been replaced, there should be another sticker in the driver's door jamb stating at what mileage the odometer was replaced, so you just add the current mileage to the sticker mileage to figure out the true mileage of the vehicle. When replacing a faulty odometer, most shops will not pay to have the odometer calibrated, it sometimes takes weeks and an added cost of around $100, plus, the car would be off the road for that time period because it is illegal to drive a vehicle with an odometer that is inoperative.

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, 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, and have them do a used car check, it might cost you $100, but its money worth spending.


Show Me the CARFAX

You hear it all the time, show me the CARFAX, most dealerships will have this information handy if the car is worth selling. Knowing the history of the vehicle is half the battle when buying a used car, if you can't get a CARFAX from the dealer you can check it here, http://www.carfax.com/, its money well spent.

What is a used car worth

If you need to find out information on what a used car is worth, a few sites will help you make an educated decision. If you are trading in a used car or buying a car from a dealer, go to NADA for pricing, most car dealers don't use Kelly Blue Book to find out a cars value, they use NADA, you'll notice the prices are a little lower at NADA for whatever reason.


kbb.com or 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 criteria like mileage, condition, and accessories the vehicle has, and come up with a fair price. This 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.


Some other resources are Craigslist.org, Autohunteronline.com, and Autotrader.com, go to these sites and compare prices, see what other people in you 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 liked the article, please vote it up, if you know someone who could use this information, please like it on Facebook or tweet it. 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.

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      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        10 months ago from New Hampshire

        Great Dale, glad I could help :)

      • GetitScene profile image

        Dale Anderson 

        10 months ago from The High Seas

        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.

      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        19 months ago from New Hampshire

        Thanks Andrej, I will check it out.

      • Andrej Sorokin profile image

        Andrej Sorokin 

        19 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Amy Ingrid 

        2 years ago

        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?

      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        2 years ago from New Hampshire

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

      • santhov profile image


        2 years ago

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

      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        4 years ago from New Hampshire

        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 Stratford profile image


        4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

        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

      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        5 years ago from New Hampshire

        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 profile image


        5 years ago from Northwest Indiana

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

      • profile image

        D Team 

        6 years ago from Taxachusetts

        good stuff eddie!


      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        6 years ago from New Hampshire

        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 profile image

        angela p 

        6 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

        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.

      • eddiecarrara profile imageAUTHOR

        Eddie Carrara 

        6 years ago from New Hampshire

        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 profile image

        angela p 

        6 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

        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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