Checklist for Purchasing a Used Car: 10 Tips to Live By

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When the time comes to purchase a used car, you might feel overwhelmed and confused. It’s perfectly normal to experience uncertainty as you navigate the used car world. Even as a top-trained professional, I’ve inadvertently bought a lemon because defects weren’t apparent. Thankfully, there’s a checklist for purchasing a used car that will lessen your chance of obtaining a dud.

Before you head to a dealership, or you look on Craigslist, take the guesswork out of car shopping with these used car buying tips.

Tip #1 – Do Some Research Before Shopping

Before you head to a dealer, you want to research various car models in advance. Knowing what models are reliable and dependable helps you find what you are looking for.

Use sites such as KBB and the NHTSA to check reliability and safety ratings. Once you are equipped with the price points, features and model you want, you will have a better chance of finding something that fits your needs.

As part of your research, make sure you pick the right place to buy from. If you want to purchase from a dealership, you will have the largest selection and availability to financing options. You can also do some shopping online, which offers lower prices, but dealing with private sellers isn’t for everyone. Finally, you can shop at public auctions for rock-bottom pricing, but you won’t get a warranty and often can’t test drive the vehicle.

Before buying a used car, make sure to check reliability and safety ratings. Once you are equipped with the price points, features and model you want, you will have a better chance of finding something that fits your needs.

Tip #2 – Evaluate the Right Price

Once you find a vehicle you are interested in, make sure the price is right. The features and mileage of a car greatly affect its value. Search for the same model at Kelly Blue Book’s pricing tool to see what a reasonable cost would be.

This number provides you with great leverage when it comes to negotiating as well. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, most people selling a car expects you to.

Tip #3 – Make Sure You Ask Lots of Questions

When you contact a seller or dealer about the vehicle, you need to ask lots of questions. Here are some to consider:

Listen carefully to the responses. If there is any hesitation or the owner seems like they are hiding something, you probably don’t want the vehicle.

Tip #4 – Perform a Physical Assessment

Your next step is to physically inspect the vehicle. You should do this prior to taking it for a test drive. Start with an exterior inspection.

Exterior checks to perform

Body – Walk around and observe any dents, rust or scratches. Small cosmetic issues aren’t always a concern, but anything large should be a red flag. The body shows how the car was cared for. You must also look at the body panels and ensure they line up evenly. If they don’t, the vehicle might have been involved in a crash. Open and close the trunk, hood and all the doors.

Tires – Ideally, all the tires should be in good shape and have the same wheels. If not, this is a red flag that you will want to investigate further. As you inspect them, you want to pay close attention to any scuffing, bulges or cracks in the sidewall. You can also use a quarter or tread-depth tool to check the wear.

Lights – Have a friend turn on and off all the lights while you inspect them. Don’t neglect the high beams, turn signals and reverse lights as well. Physically inspect the housings for damage or cracks and make sure you don’t see any signs of moisture.

Don’t be afraid to ask the seller or dealer a lot of questions. Listen carefully to the responses. If there is any hesitation or the owner seems like they are hiding something, you probably don’t want the vehicle.

Interior checks to perform

Seats – Try out every seat and evaluate for comfort. Watch for tears or worn out spots in the upholstery. Try to adjust all the seats, either with the manual or electric controls.

Odors – As you first open the door, perform a sniff test. If the car smells like mildew, mold or must, there’s a chance it was flooded or has a water leak. Pull back the floor mats and look for visible wet spots. You can also perform the sniff test on the trunk. Walk away from any vehicle you suspect had water damage.

Instruments – Place the ignition switch to accessory. This should light up everything in the instrument cluster for a few seconds. Then, start the car. If any warning lights remain on, it’s a sign that something is wrong.

Controls – When the car is powered on, play with all the buttons and switches. Everything should operate properly. Test the climate control to ensure that the air conditioning and heat work. Don’t forget to turn on the stereo as well.

Roof – Look at the headliner for any signs of water leakage or staining. Pay close attention near a sunroof and don’t forget to check if it opens and closes.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to judge a car strictly on the interior. I just bought a car for my teenage daughter. It was completely trashed inside with dirt and food everywhere. It was clear that the previous owner was anything but neat. Still, it was in great mechanical condition. After a thorough detailing, I was able to provide my daughter a reliable vehicle for an amazing price.

Under the hood checks to perform

Check the radiator, hoses, belts, and fluids and ensure all are in good condition before deciding to buy a used car.

Hoses and belts – look around the air conditioner, radiator and other components to ensure nothing has holes or cracks. Make sure you also check the drive belts for signs of wear.

Radiator – Make sure the antifreeze is either orange or green. If it is rusty or milky, this can be a telltale symptom that indicates a problem with the radiator. Then, inspect the radiator for evidence of stains that indicate a leak. Don’t forget to examine the hoses for signs of cracks as well.

Fluids – Check the oil, power steering, brake and transmission fluid. Oil should be black or dark brown. Amber-colored oil indicates it was just changed. If the oil is foamy or grey, it might have a blown head gasket or cracked engine block; neither of which you want to deal with. Both the power steering and brake fluids should be filled up. The transmission fluid should be pink with a smell like oil. If it smells burnt or looks brown, you might have a bad transmission. Also, be sure to look for metal particles in the fluids which indicate failure.

Under the car checks to perform

Rust – Keep your eyes open for signs of rust. If you only see surface rust, that generally isn’t a problem, but you don’t want to see massive signs of wear.

Exhaust – Watch for any large holes or missing parts. Leaky exhausts are loud and can fill the cabin with odors.

Leaks – Anything that is leaking could point to a potential nightmare. Even if you don’t see something on the ground, look at the engine and transmission for any signs there was a leak.

Tip #5 – Test Drive the Car

Once you’ve finished looking over the car completely, it’s time to try it out on the road. Make sure you drive it in a large lot and on the highway. You want to get a feel for it in various circumstances. While you are driving, pay close attention to:

If you are close to the area where you regularly commute, it might be wise to take that route. It’s also smart to bring along a passenger that can ride in the back and give their opinion.

Tip #6 – Get a Vehicle History Report

It’s not uncommon for a seller to hide the history of a vehicle. Before you make a purchase, you want to see the CARFAX report which will indicate how many owners there were and reveal any signs of damage you wouldn’t have known about.

Tip #7 – Check the Title

If you purchase from a private seller, you want to take a good look at the title and registration. It should match their driver’s license information. If it doesn’t, you might have walked right into a person that acts as a private seller but is actually a dealership.

The top tip to buying a used car? Trust your instincts. If anything doesn’t seem right to you, walk away. Don’t make an impulse purchase just because you like the color of the car.

Tip #8 – Get Help from a Mechanic

If everything else checks out so far, then it’s time to get a mechanic involved. Pay the small fee for a professional inspection to ensure there are no hidden issues. The mechanic should provide you with a written report of everything that’s wrong and how much it will be to fix.

If you choose to buy it anyway, this report might provide some negotiating leverage.

Tip #9 – Negotiate

This brings us to the next part of our checklist; don’t walk away from any sale without negotiating. Set a realistic low offer and see what happens. Most cars are priced at top dollar with the expectation that negotiations will occur. Don’t turn over money you don’t have to.

Tip #10 – Trust Your Instincts

The top tip to buying a used car is to trust your instincts. If anything doesn’t seem right to you, walk away. Don’t make an impulse purchase just because you like the color of the car.

In addition, don’t fall victim to high-pressure sales tactics. If the deal seems too good to be true, then you know it probably is.

No Guarantees

There’s no promise that you’ll find a car with no troubles, but you can takes steps to prevent it. If you want to find your dream car, you need to do a little work. The more effort you put into it, the better your chances are of driving an impressive ride.

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Brian Jones

ASE Certified Master Tech and Parts Specialist

Brian Jones spent more than 20 years working as an ASE Certified Master Tech and Parts Specialist at multiple dealerships. Currently, he lives with his wife and children in a suburb of Dallas, TX. He spends his time dreaming about pickup trucks, muscle cars, Jeeps and anything related to motorsports. He works with numerous dealerships around the country as a consultant. In his spare time, Brian likes to visit new places and hopes to travel the world.

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