Used Car Buyer's Survival Guide
How to Look, Listen and Smell for a Lemon
The Ultimate Used Car Evaluation Guide! Know how to spot a lemon!
Special thanks to Chris Morgan for his automotive expertise (see footnotes).
In the market for a used car? Used vehicles, especially private sales, carry a high risk for buyers. You are required to evaluate the condition of a vehicle you have never seen before and assess the honesty of a person you have probably never met. Unless you are a telepathic automotive professional, buying a used car can be a roll of the dice.
You can’t afford to take chances. Even if it looks good and seems to run well, you could end up with an expensive lemon on your hands. Fortunately, most used cars are willing to share their secret shame if a potential buyer is willing to listen.
The following is a checklist of the essentials to consider while looking at a used vehicle. It is intended to heighten your awareness of the used car’s true condition. It will not ensure a safe purchase, but will help you rule out potentially unsafe purchases. In addition to this guide, you may wish to have a mechanic look at a vehicle you are seriously considering purchasing. Use this guide to reduce risk when buying a used car.
RESEARCH BEFORE VIEWING
Conduct research online before looking at the vehicle. Some used cars that seem like a great deal can cause big headaches once you own them. Even cars in the best condition can have drawbacks.
1. Edmunds ~ Edmunds.com is a free website that provides useful information about new and used cars, trucks, and other vehicles. You can check everything fuel economy to owner ratings. Owner comments can indicate consistent troubles with particular years and models. Edmunds also provides an independent price evaluation for used cars.
2. Kelly Blue Book & N.A.D.A. ~ KBB and N.A.D.A are also sites providing used car values. If you will be financing your purchase, you will need to know which value (Edmunds, KBB, or N.A.D.A) the lender requires.
3. Napa ~ Napaonline.com is the online home of Napa Auto Parts. It is a great resource for determining how expensive replacement parts for your vehicle will be. Provide information to their site to check the cost of common replacement parts. Exhaust. Starters. Transmission. Etc.
4. Local Parts Dealers ~ Call local parts dealers and ask if they have a particular part in stock for the car you will be looking at. Parts for older or foreign vehicles are often kept in a warehouse rather than at the store. If the store needs to order the part from the warehouse, it may be as much as a week before your car can be fixed. That can be a major inconvenience.
5. Manufacturer’s Website ~ Inspecting a used car will require you to know where certain parts of the engine are housed. For example, you will need to know where to check the oil, the transmission fluid, etc. If you are unsure where to find or how to recognize engine components mentioned in the checklist, you can generally find that information on the manufacturer’s website or a fan site.
VIEWING A USED CAR
1. Check the Coolant. Because the coolant must be checked when the used car is not hot, it should be the first thing you do. Before starting the vehicle, look under the hood for the coolant reservoir. Check that color is orange or green, depending on the year and make of the vehicle. Coolant should not be brown. Coolant should be translucent and free of particles and debris. Milky coolant indicates burning or leaking.
2. Start the Car. Turn on all the accessories: headlights, heater, radio, dome lights, etc. You should do this before you interview the seller or look under the hood. Many mechanical problems are not evident when a used car is running cold. Give the car some time to idle and your test drive will be more revealing.
INTERVIEWING THE SELLER
You should have a lengthy discussion with the seller about the current condition and history of the used vehicle. If the seller is hesitant to answer your questions, or is unable to give you the information you request, you should consider abandoning the purchase. Be sure to include the following questions:
1. What, if any, major engine components, have been rebuilt or replaced? When? (Some major rebuilds or replacements are common to particular models at a particular age. If the head gasket typically should have been replaced 20,000 miles ago, you will likely have to incur that expense as the new owner.)
2. What is the primary use of the vehicle? (This will tell you the extent and nature of wear on the used car or vehicle.)
3. How many owners has the car had? (Used cars that change hands frequently may have mystery malfunctions that others have given up trying to repair.)
4. What was its primary use for previous owners? (This is nice to know, but the seller may not have the information.)
5. Do you know of any major or minor accidents? (Accidents, even small ones, can result in comprehensive vehicle dysfunction.)
6. What repairs did that accident require? (If major body work was done, this could lead to rust vulnerability or indicate a warp in the frame).
7. Has the car ever been owned in a different state? (Extreme climates can take an extreme toll on a vehicle. For instance, a used car with exposure to cold and snow will have more body wear than one that has been used in a warm, dry climate.)
8. Where is the car kept at night? (A car kept in a garage will have significantly less damage from the elements. One housed in a heated garage will have even less damage.)
9. Why are you selling the car? (If they can’t afford a major repair to the vehicle, can you?)
10. What is the status of the title? (A title with a lien, even if the car has been paid in full, will require a “Release of Lien” document from the all lien-holders. You cannot legally assume ownership without this document.)
11. Do you have the title on hand? (If the seller does not have the title, do not purchase the car. Do not put a deposit on the car. Do not further inspect the car. Walk away, no matter what the reason.)
12. When was the last tune-up and oil change? (If they don’t know or if the vehicle is overdue, this indicates vehicle neglect.)
Evidence of serious mechanical difficulty is often easy to spot even if you aren’t a mechanic. Check the engine thoroughly PRIOR to test driving.
1. Oil Check ~ Check the consistency of the oil with the dipstick. Remove the dipstick, wipe it clean with a rag, insert and remove again for a fresh sample. The oil should be translucent and golden. Dark oil indicates burning oil or unchanged oil. Milky or foggy oil indicates foreign fluid leaking in. Low oil indicated burning or neglect. There should be no foreign matter, debris or particles in the oil. These cause significant engine damage quickly.
2. Oil Cap ~ Look at the area surrounding the oil cap. Is it stained or is there oil build up? If so, the owner has likely been adding oil regularly. This indicates burning or leaking oil. Remove the cap and check for smoking or a burning smell.
3. Transmission ~ Check the transmission fluid. It should be red, not brown. It should be translucent, not milky. There should be no particles or debris.
4. Belts ~ Are the belts cracked, glazed, or sagging? If so, they will need to be replaced. The cost of replacing a belt ranges from inexpensive to monumental.
5. Hoses ~ Are hoses cracked? Are they significantly faded? Grip each hose to check for firmness. A soft or spongy hose will likely require replacing. Are the hoses fraying?
6. Air Conditioning ~ You should check online before viewing the car to see were the Air Conditioning information is. It is vitally important to know the type of air conditioner in the vehicle. Some types are no longer legal to service or refill. Type D-12 will require professional modification or replacement in order to be serviced.
7. Spark Plugs ~ Look for black residue on spark plugs. This is an indication that they are fouled and will need replacing.
8. General Engine Condition ~ All engines gather debris and show signs of wear. However, an engine with an excessive coat of grime or grease has likely not been maintained optimally. Quality service technicians will take care to keep the engine relatively clean while servicing the vehicle.
When checking the body condition, pay close attention to the surface edges, seams, and the lower panels of the car. These areas are typically where problems first show.
1. Rust ~ Are there any obvious rusted spots or holes in the body?
2. Discoloration ~ Is the paint uniformly worn? Is the paint color and top coat consistent on the entire vehicle? Any sections that appear new or have no top coat indicate a repair of some kind. The vehicle may have been in an accident or may have rust repair (indicating it will likely require more repair in the future).
3. Bubbling, Flaking, Cracking Paint ~ This indicates rust beneath the paint surface or a vulnerability to rust.
4. Body Alignment ~ Do the doors, the hood, the trunk and the seams line up evenly? Do parts seem not to fit together? If these parts do not align correctly, the vehicle has likely been in an accident or been over strained.
5. Lenses ~ Check the light lenses for cracks, condensation (moisture inside) and clarity. Any of these will cause a vehicle to fail inspection. Lenses are surprisingly expensive to replace.
6. Doors, Windows and Trunk ~ Do they open and shut properly? Do the windows roll up and down? If windows are automatic, listen to the motor for each window. Does it sound strained? Do the locks show signs of tampering or damage? Does the key fit and turn easily?
7. Bumpers ~ Are the bumpers in tact? Do they align properly to the vehicle? If not, the vehicle may have been in a major accident. Bumpers are very expensive to replace so don’t overlook a damaged bumper.
Test driving the vehicle is an essential part of determining its value. Never purchase a used vehicle without the benefit of taking it on the road for a few miles. If a car is not roadworthy due to lack of proper documentation, you are taking a substantial risk by investing in it.
1. Battery Capacity Indicator ~ Is the indicator reading in the normal range. One of the reasons you allowed the vehicle to idle with all the accessories powered was to test the battery and alternator. If the indicator is too low, this indicates that either the battery or the alternator is not adequately equipped to power the vehicle. This means either the battery or alternator (or both) will need to be replaced.
2. Listen ~ Engine noise reveals much about the car’s condition. Turn the radio off. Listen with the windows up and then down. Do you hear knocking? Is the car over-revving? Is anything rattling? Is there squealing when you turn in any direction? Is there squealing when you apply the brakes? Does the vehicle sound as if it is revving too high before the transmission switches gears? Is the transmission shifting too frequently? Is there any loud humming? Can you hear anything rubbing? All these sounds will likely result in costly repairs to the transmission, engine or brakes.
3. Dash Lights ~ Turn the headlights on. Do all the dash lights glow? Functioning dash lights are a requirement for inspection in most states.
4. Indicators ~ Does the temperature gauge work? Is it reading within normal range? Does the oil pressure indicator also read within normal range?
5. Odometer and Speedometer ~ Make sure the odometer is advancing as you drive. If not, the vehicle likely has more mileage than it’s reporting. Also, does the Speedometer seem accurate? Replacing either will be expensive.
6. Brake Pedal ~ Does the brake pedal feel low? Does it depress with unusual ease? Does it depress all the way down to the floor? These are all indications that the vehicle will need an overhaul of the braking system.
7. Standard Shifting ~ While shifting in a standard transmission, notice the vehicle’s reaction. Does the clutch hesitate before disengaging once your foot has released it? Is it difficult to shift the stick into particular gears? Does the car stall or threaten to stall? Do the gears grind? Don’t attribute any of these actions to driver error. If you are experienced in driving a standard, the cause is far more likely mechanical failure.
8. Emergency Brake ~ Find an incline that offers a safe place to pull to the shoulder. Stop the vehicle, engage the foot brake, and shift into neutral. Engage the emergency brake and slowly release the foot brake. Does the car remain in position? Engage the foot brake and release the emergency brake. Begin forward motion. Has the emergency brake disengaged entirely or is the car struggling to move forward?
Even if you are satisfied with the car’s performance, do not rush to make an offer. Instead, tell the seller you would like to think about it. Many sellers will try to pressure you into a sale by telling you someone else has made an offer or someone else will be coming by. Don’t cave to a high pressure seller. Go home and conduct further research.
FOLLOW UP RESEARCH
Carfax ~ Obtain a Carfax report of the vehicle’s history. Viewing a car’s history will provide you information the seller may not have furnished. For instance, a seller may insist the car has been adequately maintained, however, the vehicle’s history may indicate no record of maintenance for two years. This doesn’t mean the car has not been serviced. It means the car has not been serviced by a reporting dealer or specialist. Also, if the seller is not the first owner of the car, they may not be aware of accidents the car has been in. Obtaining a Carfax report is essential to minimizing risk when purchasing a used vehicle. It is the last step in the process because there is expense involved. First establish genuine interest in purchasing the vehicle. Then invest in a Carfax report.
Special thanks to Chris Morgan, whose automotive expertise was essential to the development of this guide. Morgan is a college educated automotive professional, specializing in parts and service technology.