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How to Pick a Good Used Car

Updated on September 5, 2016

Looking for used cars

Searching the planet for a good used car can be tough. You know the car has been driven, yet you have no idea how it has been driven or what kind of car owner you may be buying from. There are a few Sherlock Holmsian tricks that can help you to find out enough to make an informed decision, though. These are some of the things my father taught me, as he was what I like to call a Car Head (people who actually enjoy working on cars ) along with a few tricks I have learned along the way as well. Unlike my dad I am not a Car Head, although because of slim finances and a dad who taught me well, I know a lot about the inner workings of them. The difference between me and a Car Head is I hate working on cars. I don't even like to change my own oil, I hate it. Since I hate it so much, I have become very good at finding cars I won't have to work on. Now I will help you to do the same.

First off, know the car's value. start here: Second, buy from an individual if at all possible. I know it limits your choices, but keep in mind, used car salesmen are known for being well trained liars. ( I am surprised more of them don't go into politics) Car lots have massive overhead, as well as the salesman's commission and the owner's commission, so you will pay double what you would from an individual. The guy at the car lot also doesn't really know much about the car's history, or past owner, when you buy from the past owner, you have that history from someone who is much less likely to be so adept at telling untruths, shall we say. You also get to see firsthand how well they keep themselves up as well as their home and yard, these are telling signs of how well they likely kept the car. Anybody can detail a car to make it look clean, and dealers are pro's at it.

Check fluids and underneath

You've found one you like, let's check it out. Look at the odometer, see the mileage. Don't start the car yet, we need to check out a few things first. Open the hood and smell. do you smell smoke? Not a good sign, but not a deal breaker. Look at the engine, is it clean, or covered in oil and grease? If it is oily, it may have or recently had a leak, could be a bad sign, probably not, but something you might ask about later right before talking price. Pull the dipstick out; check it's full, but more important, what color is it? Black like tar? Hasn't been changed recently, might be a sign of improper maintenance. If it's milky looking, it could be a major problem, like a head gasket leaking. Same thing with oil cap, only sometimes a little moisture condenses on the inside of the cap, so a little milky is ok there, but a good foam like on a cappucino is a bad sign, and I would not buy. The radiator is next, take off the cap and check if there is oil floating on the water, if so, very bad sign, head gasket again. How full is it? If it is very low, there may be some kind of leak, but could have simply evaporated in the overflow, which hints again to poor maintenance. As always, check the brake fluid level, tire tread, make sure all doors work properly, etc..

One more thing before you start it up, get down and look underneath of the engine, is it greasy and messy, or is it dry? Some people will wash the engine before selling, and this can let you know of a leak they might have washed off, as most will never think to clean the underside before they sell a car.

Now you are ready to start it up. With older cars, the same as always with newer cars, do not touch the gas pedal, as it should start up in just a few turns without it. Now, listen carefully to it run from both sides as well as right in front. Do you hear any pinging, hissing, or clicking? Depending on what they are it may be something going out and if you don't know much about cars, ask the owner and watch his facial expression carefully. Now sit in it, and look at the gauges (hopefully it has gauges, at least for temp and oil pressure and, of course, gas) make sure they are all reading ok. Gently rev it up a few times and listen for odd sounds. Put it in gear, there should be a smooth slip into gear with little or no sound. A clunk or jerk into gear isn't good, but may not be a deal breaker, we will find out more on the test drive.

The test drive, and beyond!

Now you are ready to roll. Let the owner know you are going to be a few minutes so they don't call the cops, as a test drive needs to be more than a block or two. You need to head to a highway and try it out, make sure it will go at the speed you keep in traffic, paying attention to wobbles and other oddities. Check the brakes several times to be sure they work without noises or pulling to one side. To check the CV joint, while driving, let off the gas all at once, then after a few seconds, push it down some, and see if there's any hesitation or clunking sounds when you do. Swerve a little from side to side to check steering, if it is a little loose, that's not usually a problem, but if it sways on its own or is very loose, it may be a sign of a serious issue. If the the car is slipping, bucking or jerking, especially on hills, that is a sign of serious transmission problems, and is a definite deal breaker. Now is also a good time to check power door locks & windows as well as the heat, a/c, seat adjusters, and the stereo.

Once you return, leave it running and pop the hood, listen again and look for leaks. Now shut it off, and re check everything I wrote earlier to be sure nothing has changed. (except the radiator may be too hot to check) Look for leaks with steam or smoke coming out. If fluid levels have dropped much on a few miles of test driving, how often will you be refilling them, or is something going out? Now is also time to check the belts as wear is more apparent on freshly used belts. In case you aren't too good with cars, I strongly recommend you take the car to a mechanic you trust, but do all the pre test drive checks first, and let him know where the levels were. (this option may cost you a few bucks)

Finally, talk to the previous owner, ask them if there are any known issues. Who knows, they might even tell you. I usually begin by saying it has x number of miles on it and you are selling it, what is wrong with it? There is some reason why they are selling it, and any car with over 100 thousand miles on it has some kind of problem, I guarantee that. I hope this is a helpful guide to finding a car that will last you a few trouble free years. Happy shopping!

If you enjoyed this article, check out some of my others below! Thanks for reading and be sure to vote, comment and share!

Tell me what you think!

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    • profile image


      8 years ago


    • taw2012 profile image


      8 years ago from India

      wow !! this is the hub i am looking for. i am planning to purchase a used car. your advice will help me for sure.

    • Kent Clarke profile image

      Kent Clarke 

      8 years ago from Aventura FL

      Great article man should consider doing a video on it and load up on youtube.

    • putnut profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Central Illinois or wherever else I am at the moment.

      Thank you all for reading. I was taught by my dad, and have successfully picked several used cars from individuals which lasted years. One was an astro with almost 200k miles which I drove for 8 years, including a trip to Corpus from Illinois which I still have.

    • feenix profile image


      8 years ago

      Hello, putnut,

      This is a useful, awesome, interesting and very informative hub. A for me, it is quite educational.

      In fact, by writing and publishing this piece, you have performed an important public service.

      And I am bookmarking it for future reference.

    • brandasaur profile image


      8 years ago from Planet X

      Voted up and rated! :)

    • htodd profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      Well,It depends on many factors have covered great points

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      8 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Nice job! Short, sweet and to the point. I like it!

    • sebusharma profile image


      8 years ago from India


    • Trsmd profile image


      8 years ago from India

      Yes putnut - you have provided great insight about searching a good used car, hope this will really help the visitors. Thanks for sharing:)

    • putnut profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Central Illinois or wherever else I am at the moment.

      thank you for reading. please vote and comment then share with your friends!


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