What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Posted on: December 9, 2016

Car on top of billboard

The stereotype of the sleazy used car salesman is all too well-known. Luckily, in our age of technology, consumers can arm themselves with information to make sure they come out of the negotiation with a great, reliable vehicle. While most people know how to look for obvious signs of damage, there are some other red flags to be on the lookout for. When you set out to buy a used car, keep a few of these tips in mind to get the perfect vehicle.

Parking lot full of cars

Do Your Research

Your best first step is to set a budget. A good rule of thumb is to ensure your monthly payment does not exceed 20% of your paycheck. Determine the amount you can spend, and research different finance options. The dealership may be running a financing special, but you might get a better deal if you have a good relationship with your bank. You should run your credit report so there won’t be any surprises when you apply for financing. You can also negotiate for a better interest rate if you have a high score.

Your next step before you leave the house is to narrow your search to just a few makes and models of car. Try to choose only 3 or 4 different vehicles. Research each to ensure that the safety standards are up to your expectations. Many forums will also have threads with common issues a model year or a certain vehicle suffers so you can avoid a money pit.

You can also research fair market value. There are a few great websites that can give you a good price range for the vehicle in which you are interested so you know if you are getting a good deal.

Car for sale

Go for a Test Drive

It’s always a good idea to give the seller a call or send them an e-mail before you go out to see the car. If you’re communicating with a private seller, ask some questions to get more information than what was in their initial advertisement. If you’re looking at something at a dealership, make sure the vehicle is still in stock before you go. Get the basic information to ensure you are interested in the car before you make an appointment for a test drive.

It is important to test drive it during daylight hours so it will be easier to spot any damage or defects. Give it a thorough inspection before you get in. Look for tire condition and any other problem that you will need to spend money on soon. Once you’ve started the car, open the hood even if you don’t know much about mechanics. If you see any dripping or steam, or if the battery is corroded, it may be time to move on to another car. Give it a good sniff. Do you smell burning oil or gasoline? These are more warning signs that this car is not in great condition.

Once you’re inside the car, give it another good look. Are you comfortable in the seat? Does it adjust to fit you? Remember to check the back seat for legroom, too. Can you adjust the mirrors to eliminate blind spots? Check to see if the upholstery and finishes are in good condition and test the stereo to see if all the speakers and components work. Test all the lights and signals and make sure the air conditioning blows cold.

If you see any warning lights like a check engine light, request that it is taken to a mechanic before you go any further. Once you are driving, listen for any strange noises. Make sure it accelerates smoothly and the brakes work without squealing.

Give It a Thorough Inspection

Even if everything seems in the clear to you, consider taking it to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. It will likely cost about $100, but this can save you from sinking a lot more money into a worn-out vehicle in need of repairs. A private seller should easily agree to an inspection. Most dealerships will also allow you to take the car to a mechanic before purchasing. This is unnecessary if you are purchasing a certified pre-owned vehicle from a dealership, since a thorough inspection is part of the certification process.

Get the Vehicle History

If you are shopping at a dealership, they are required to print out the vehicle history report for you. If you’re communicating with a private seller, make sure you obtain the report yourself. There are a couple of websites that provide these reports when you input the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

When you’re checking the report, look for signs of trouble. If it indicates a salvage title, that means the vehicle was declared a total loss by the insurance company – stay away! Other indications of trouble include a rolled back odometer or multiple accidents.

With a little extra diligence, you can ensure you walk away with a reliable vehicle that will serve your family for years to come.