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Top 10 Used Car Buying Tips

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L. Cargill, Medical Laboratory Scientist, ASCP. Retired blood banker and laboratorian. Loves to write about a wide range of subjects. Enjoy!

Always check the actual mileage of a used car. The readout may have been altered. Click to enlarge view.

Always check the actual mileage of a used car. The readout may have been altered. Click to enlarge view.

So You Want to Buy a Used Car

Buying a used car makes a great deal of sense, especially if it is your first car. If you're rich and can go out and buy a new Mercedes or BMW as your graduation present from daddy, then you may not need to read further.

The rest of us need to arrange for financing and insurance before choosing any kind of car, and, chances are, you can only afford a used car. That's not a bad thing as we will see in this article on the top 10 used car buying tips.

After arranging for financing and insurance, you will have an idea of what kind of car you can afford to buy. Most importantly, you will have an idea of what kind of car you can afford to maintain and operate.

Pick out three or four used cars that you would like to research. Head on over to and check out the True Market Values® of the cars you are interested in. You may have to revise your criteria until you can find a few cars that would work for you.

Once you have decided on a few cars, head back to and use their True Cost to Own® calculator to help determine which models are the best buy.

Car Value Basis:

All car values are based on:

  • Condition of the car
  • Actual mileage
  • Perceived reliability
  • Actual performance characteristics
  • Personal taste and popularity
  • Cost of maintenance over the life of the car

Ford F-150

Infinity G-35

Subaru Outback

Acura TL

Ford Fusion

Honda CR-V

Lexus ES 350

Lexus RS 350

Lincoln MKZ

Mazda MX 5- Riata

Toyota Highlander

Toyota Prius

Toyota Yaris

Hyundai Electra

Chevrolet Tahoe

Tip 1: Check the Actual Mileage and Compare It to the Condition of the Car

After deciding on the make and model of the car of your dreams, you will want to physically go and look the car over.

The first thing you will notice is the mileage on the odometer. The next thing you should figure out is if this is the true mileage. Using the car's vehicle identification number (VIN), get the car's record via CarFax or AutoCheck. If you are using a dealer, this may already be provided.

With the actual mileage on record, decide whether or not the wear and tear on the car seems to match the actual odometer reading. If it doesn't, go ahead and walk away from the car.

Tip Two: Check the Windows and All Other Glass for Chips and Scratches

Check all of the windows for scratches, cracks, signs of being replaced, chips from road debris, and anything else that looks unusual.

Even minor signs of glass replacement can indicate an accident involving the car. A reasonable explanation is in order if you find evidence of glass replacement. The repair job has to be perfect or the area will be prone to leaks in the future.

Easy tire check: Insert a penny and if you can see the top of Lincoln's head, the car needs new tires. Tread depth needs to be 3 ml. or greater.

Easy tire check: Insert a penny and if you can see the top of Lincoln's head, the car needs new tires. Tread depth needs to be 3 ml. or greater.

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Tip 3: Check the Wear on the Wheels, Tire Tread, Spare Tire, and Jack

Carry a penny in your pocket while shopping for used cars. Take the penny and check all of the tires on the car for tread wear. Stick the penny head first into the tread grooves. If you can still see the top of Lincoln's head, the tire needs to be replaced. Using a small ruler, the depth of the tread should be three milliliters.

Tires are relatively inexpensive, so if you find high tread wear, you can negotiate a deal on the selling price. Plan on getting a discount worth the cost of tire replacement or say, "no deal".

Look at the spare tire in the trunk or boot of the car. If it has been used, it may be a sign of bad driving habits. Tires are one of the most important parts of a vehicle. It is literally where the rubber meets the road. Keep in mind that it may also be a sign that the driver had an unfortunate incident with a nail in the road.

Check to make sure the spare tire is viable and the jack and accompanying tools are all present and accounted for.

Don't kick the tires, check the mirror and seams!

Don't kick the tires, check the mirror and seams!

Tip 4: Check the Vehicle

Be sure to look at:

  • outside mirrors
  • headlights
  • tail lights
  • turn signals
  • body scratches
  • body dents
  • body dings
  • alignment

The outside mirrors are the first place damage occurs with a careless driver. Check all of them carefully. Make sure the adjusting cables work and there are no scratches, dents and dings on the protruding parts of the car.

Look over the body of the car as a whole and check for scratches, dents, dings and alignment. Body work after an accident tends to show in the seams of the various panels. Seams do not meet 'perfectly'. The color may be off between one panel and another panel. Stand in front of the car and check for ripples in the paint.

Look for scratches, dents and dings.

Look for scratches, dents and dings.

Tip 5: Check for Signs of Wear or Scratches Around Latches and Door Handles

Scratches and dings around the key entries and door handles may indicate either a forgetful owner who always loses his keys, or it may indicate problems with the locks, electrical wiring or perhaps a burglary or two.

Tip 6: Check the Carpet for Dampness or Unusual Smells

After a hurricane strikes the coast, a glut of used cars hit the market. The cars are badly damaged and a dealer will buy a load of them at wholesale prices thinking they can unload them in another state to an unwary buyer.

Always check the carpet and upholstery for wetness or stains. If the smell is off, you too should consider the deal to be off.

Tip 7: Check Under the Hood (Bonnet) and Check the Level and Condition of the Oil and Fluids

Now it's time to check under the hood. Do this while the engine is cold, before you take the car for a test drive.

The most important fluid to check is the oil. If the oil line is below the minimum line, the car may not have had regular oil changes or regular maintenance. It also means that the car has been driven without sufficient lubricant to properly coat the friction producing parts of the car and therefore these parts may have excessive damage.

If the oil is over the maximum line, the car probably uses too much oil (not a good thing), and it has been 'topped off' by a devious seller trying to pass off a bad car. Or it could mean the oil was improperly filled.

Should you be knowledgeable about such things as checking the brake fluid, transmission fluid and other fluids, go ahead and check those too. If you do not know how to do these things, during your test drive head to a trustworthy mechanic and have him inspect the car.

Tip 8: Check the Seats and Seat Belts and Check the Interior for Smells

On the inside of the car, remember to check every seat. Make sure all of the seat belts are in good condition and fastening normally.

Look up, look down, look all around the interior of the car. Don't be distracted by the shiny things. Take a good, long look at everything. Do the interior lights all work? Is there any obvious or subtle damage to the interior? How does everything smell?

Did the car belong to a smoker? Check the ashtray, if there is one. Check for upholstery burns.

Look underneath the seats and see if you spot frayed wiring or odd residues. Seriously, the interior of the car is possibly the most important part. This will be where you spend the most time with the vehicle.

Check the rear seats too. A little dog hair here.

Check the rear seats too. A little dog hair here.

Tip 9: Check the Glove Compartment for the Car's Manual and Other Papers

Open the glove compartment. Hopefully there will be a nearly unused manual telling all about the car. Perhaps there will be maintenance records. A bonus find would be the original window sticker from when the car was new.

Glove compartments do not get much use by a driver, it's just too hard to reach from the driver's side of the car. Check the console between the seats. That's where the action is.

Also important is to check the inspection sticker usually found on the inside left lower corner of the windshield. The registration sticker may be there as well or it may be on the license plate. Needless to say, the inspection sticker should be current.

Tip 10: Test Drive the Car and Check the Following

Never buy a new or used car without doing a test drive! Driving is the purpose of owning a car. If you are not comfortable driving the car, you may become an unsafe driver. Familiarize yourself with all of the driver's controls and options.

Test drive the car in a familiar neighborhood, and take it out on the highway to check power and speed. Leave emotion out of the equation and judge the car as fairly as possible.

It is customary for a salesperson to accompany you on a test drive. This is a good thing. You can evaluate the salesperson at the same time as the test drive. Never buy a car from a salesperson you are not comfortable with. Your brain is picking up subtle clues if a hustle is in the making.

Test for the following:

  • How smooth does the car accelerate from a full stop at a red light or stop sign?
  • How well are you able to see all around you from the driver's seat? Are there any blind spots?
  • Turn the radio off and listen for unusual rattles, pops and squeaks. Test the radio and CD player when you return to the point of origin.
  • Listen to the shifting of the gears. Does the car shift smoothly?
  • Take the car up a steep hill, if possible, and challenge the engine power.
  • Be sure to check the brakes. If you are test driving a non-certified car, have a mechanic do this.
  • Does the car corner well? Are you comfortable with sharp turns and the steering response?
  • How does the ride feel? Does it feel like the shocks and springs are in good working order?
  • If the car has been repaired, are the repairs professional and done to the manufactures specifications?
  • Does the car suit your needs regarding cargo space, passenger space, style and options? Are you and the car a good fit?

A Final Word About Buying a Car New or Used

Contracts! Get everything in written, reviewed and double reviewed form before signing anything! Car dealers are not only in the business of selling you a car, they also want to sell you all manner of 'extras'. Most of these are not worth the money.

Do you really need an extended warranty? If the car is covered by a manufacturer's warranty, you do not! Weigh the total price price of the extended warranty against the actual annual operating expenses and the true cost of owning a car. You will usually find that it's cheaper to just pay for any needed repairs.

Most cars made during the last decade or so come with one or more anti-theft devices. You can also buy these from independent outlets. Do not buy a monthly premium policy. You car is already protected by insurance and current anti-theft devices. If you add stuff to the car, you will be paying for it with added interest on the note.

Must you have satellite radio? This is ridiculous. The satellite signal is blocked by tall buildings and overhead highways. Listen to free FM/AM or bring your own music along.

A pre-paid service plan is another way to separate you from your money. Be responsible and plan your car's maintenance yourself.

Rust proofing, fabric protection and fancy air fresheners are not worth the extra money these days. Don't buy them.

Cute first aid kits and emergency roadside protection plans are extra costs that don't pay for themselves either. Your car insurance will generally take care of these details.

Question every fee and add-on that appears on your buyer's contract. These fees seemingly come out of nowhere - dealer prep fees, minor repair fees, odd financing fees. Most are a way to get you to spend more and get less.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why do BMWs lose half their value after the first two years?

Answer: You can only sell a car for a price the market will bear. If most of the BMWs on the market after two years are selling for an average price, then that is what supply and demand have determined the price will be. You can ask for more, but you need to be aware of the average resell value.

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