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Important Tips For Buying a Used Car

Updated on May 6, 2015

Buying a used car can be a nerve-wracking experience. There is nothing as crucial to survival as transportation. When you purchase a car or truck you are not just buying metal and plastic and wheels, you are buying self-sufficiency; you are gaining ownership of independence; you are acquiring a level of efficiency that you can’t get from public transit (and that’s only if public transit is even available to you.). More than any other single item, a vehicle gives us the ability to progress. You can live in a car, but you can’t drive your house to a job, or to the store, or anywhere you might be inclined to go. Because a vehicle is so crucial to our well-being, buying one is an important act and that makes it stressful, especially to the average jo who isn’t very mechanically inclined. It’s really not feasible to take every possible car you look at to a mechanic to look it over, so you should know some important tips and theory that will equip you to make the best choice possible.

What are you looking for?

Before you even start looking for a vehicle, think about what you will predominately be using it for. This will provide you with parameters as to what exactly you’re looking for.

-How often will you be driving it?

-How far?

-Will you be driving others around?

-Will you be hauling anything?

The parameters set by the first two questions will decide the age range of your car. If you do extensive traveling then you want a three to five year old vehicle. If it’s for mostly weekend and summer travel then you want a five to seven year old car. If it’s just to get to work and the grocery store, a vehicle that is seven to ten years old will do fine. (Also, the age of a car is not only dictated by its year, but on the amount of miles it has on it. 15,000 miles per year is normal. So if a car is three years old it should have about 45,000 miles on it.)

The first two questions will also tell you what sort of gas mileage your car should have. If you are driving a lot then its efficiency becomes more crucial. If you’re not driving very much or it is to be used as a second car then do not worry about the gas mileage as much. A reliable car ends up costing less than a more fuel efficient one.

The third question (“Will you be driving others around?”) will decide how much seating you require and so it will dictate what make of vehicle you need.

The fourth question (“Will you be hauling anything?”) will dictate if you need a truck/van/station wagon or just a regular car.

Once you decide what precisely you are looking for, search websites and papers with those parameters.

Try to choose a popular make in its most effective and enduring model. To find out what this is you can do online research, but it is better to ask a mechanic who you know somewhat. Mechanics can give good (and free) advice based on their experience fixing cars as to which vehicles are durable and need the least work. Also, getting a popular model makes parts cheaper and more accessible as well as finding more worthy advice.

As a preference, lean towards the deluxe model of the vehicle you want. One reason to do this is that since it was more expensive when new it was most likely better cared for. Although the original price of the deluxe and the standard was much different, its resale value is not. The same goes for the resale value of different brands like BMW and Subaru. The original cost may have been very different, but they depreciate to more comparable prices.

-Always take reliability over efficiency if you have to.

-Take popular brands over rare brands.

Whether you look in the blue book or online, find the going price for a certain car and select the ones that actually cost that price or above. Sometimes you can find an amazing deal, but it is either because the seller is in a terrible position and needs money fast (which means you exploit their misfortune) or the car is selling for under what it’s worth because something is wrong with it (so what seemed like a great deal turns out to be a nightmare.)

Try to buy from private owners rather than dealerships. Private owners can sell for less and you have a much better chance of getting the truth about a cars history than you do from salesmen who only makes money if you buy (which gives him/her great motivation to not be completely honest.)

Try to car shop in the wintertime if you can. Car buying picks up in the spring and summer because people travel more, have gotten tax returns, and are generally happy that winter is over. (That’s one of the reasons there are always big car sales on presidents day weekend in February right in the heart of winter, sales are terrible but even a salesman has to eat.) So during the winter you can usually find great deals on vehicles.

Inspect Vehicles yourself On-site

While it is not realistic to bring every car you are interested in to a mechanic, it is possible to perform certain tests yourself that can exclude some. It is always wise to have a trusted mechanic check out an automobile before buying, it is not always possible. Also, if you do use a mechanic it helps to have specific things looked into based on these initial checks.

-Many times vehicles that have been in some sort of accident are patched up and gotten rid of quickly as wrecks can have all sorts of damages that make them a real headache. To check to see if a potential car was in a wreck, work each door and window to make sure they work and fit properly. Doors or windows that need to be forced or make unusual sounds are often signs that the body of the car has been warped by impact.

-Crouch down by each side of the front fender and look down the length of the vehicle. Distortions in the metal or mismatched paint (or the plastic shell) can indicate body work. Also check the bumpers. If they are plastic they should have nicks, scratches and abrasions as this is normal wear and tear, but it should not have cracks or missing pieces. If the bumper is pristine it could mean that it has been replaced. If a mismatched area is larger than a square foot you would want a mechanic to give close attention to the condition of the frame. Also, make sure to ask the owner or former owner about these inconsistencies.

-Examine the tires. Are they all the same type or are they mismatched? If they are mismatched ask why. Is there a spare tire and does it match or is there a donut (a smaller temporary tire)? Is there more wear on a specific edge of the tires than the rest of it. This could mean it’s out of alignment. If a car is out of balance it will put extra stress of various parts of the car and reduce its life span. It could be out of alignment from an accident or simply because it hasn’t been cared for properly.

-Check the brakes by stepping down on it for half a minute and then releasing it. It should rise back up. If it doesn’t there may be a problem with the brakes.

-Check for rust. Check under bumper, around doors and trunk, in the trunk, under floor mats, and around windows. Rust under vinyl causes lumps or ripples. There is no reason for undercoating on an old car. If there is undercoating it is there to hide problems, usually rust.

-Run your finger around the inside of the tailpipe. If it is oily this is a sign the vehicle is burning oil which it should not be doing.

When you test drive the car make sure you start it up, no one else. Pay attention to the sound of the engine. Are there any knocks, or grinding, or humming and from where does it seem to be coming from.

Turn on the heating and air conditioning, do they work and what does the air coming from the vents smell like? Strange smells are usually the signs of problems.

Check if the steering is stiff or wobbles, these are problems.

Does the car accelerate evenly and with good even power? In an automatic transmission, the car should shift gears before it gets to the 5 on the rpm gauge, best before the 4. If it doesn’t, make note of how high it goes and on what gears.

Check power mirrors, windshield wipers, all lights (don’t forget hazard lights) and signals inside and out.

Make sure horn works.

Electric Throttle Control Light
Electric Throttle Control Light

When the car is first turned on the entire display of warning lights should come on for a moment. This is to indicate that all the warning indicators are functioning. Take note of any gaps in the warning light display or ones that aren’t coming on. It’s a good idea to become a bit familiar with the symbols used for indicator lights. They can be found in the owner’s manual if you need a quick reference. Most of them are self-evident. The most important ones are: Temperature Warning Light, Engine Management Light, Warning Light, Oil Lights, and Electronic Throttle Control. After the engine is started, pay attention to what lights are still lit.

Warning Light
Warning Light
Oil Lights
Oil Lights

It is always worth finding out the previous owner of a car (his name should still be on the title). If they won’t give you the previous owner or say they don’t know, that’s a huge red flag. It could mean the vehicle is stolen or that something is horribly wrong. Just move on. When you talk to previous owner, do not ask if the car had any problems. Instead ask, “What were the biggest problems with the car?” This information has saved me more than once from getting a lemon.

Applying these tips and tricks when buying a new used car will definitely improve your odds of getting the best ride for your money.


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