Things You Must Check when Buying a Used Car

There are only a few cases where car ownership is considered an asset (for example, ride sharing). A car will depreciate quickly, especially when new. Therefore, buying a used car is a smart choice, but many car buyers avoid this because it does require more work to choose a problem-free used car.

Here is a guide put together by experts that have completed hundreds of car deals.

Ask about the car

Why is he selling? Who regularly drove the car? What bothers him about it? “You’d be surprised how much people will say, both good and bad, about their cars,” says Brian Moody, site editor at

Test Drive the Car

Never buy a car without a test drive. Drive at slow speed and higher speeds for at least a 20 minutes. For example, a car could have issues at high speed such as not shifting properly or feeling unstable. Drive around a neighborhood, with lots of stops. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge and the oil light during the test drive. The oil light should only come on for a few seconds when you turn on the ignition. The temperature gauge should never go over the half mark. Check out the electronics and the operation of the air conditioner. If it is winter, you should still turn on the AC and see if it is working properly, and if the compressor is engaging. During your test drive, do not drive with the radio on, but listen carefully for engine and suspension noises.

Research Common Problems

Every car make and model has problems that may be specific to that model. Do some search online for the car you are interested in. See if there are any major problems that other owners have experienced. Check forums as well and feel free to ask the community what they think of a particular model. You want to avoid models that have major problems, especially related to the engine and transmission. Check the specific engine that you are looking to buy. One car model can come with two or more engine sizes. For example, a VW Jetta could have a 1.8T or a 2.5 litter engine. The 1.8T may have some major issues while the 2.5 litter may be the bulletproof engine that you want to buy.

Vehicle History Report

A VIN History Report may not show all the problems but it is always a good idea to run a report. A Vehicle history report will show if there are any title problems or if there have been any reported accidents. It will show if the car has been flooded and reported to the insurance company. It will show if the car has been reported with frame damage. In some cases you may even see maintenance records reported on the vehicle history report, but not always. If you are spending thousands of dollars on a used car, you should always spend a few dollars on a history report. There are services like Carfax and Autocheck, but now there are other companies that offer vehicle history reports which not many people know about. For example, VINAudit provides vehicle history reports at much lower cost than the two big names mentioned above.

Check if vehicle has been recalled

In some places, you can check a database of recalls, and if the vehicle is on the list, don’t buy until the seller can prove the recall issue has been addressed. According to Carfax, more than 3.5 million used cars were listed for sale in 2013 with safety-related recalls that weren’t fixed.

Pre-sale Inspection at Certified Mechanic

Most sellers will allow you to take the vehicle to a mechanic of your choice near their residence. Find a couple of auto repair shops near the seller and call them up. Tell them that you are interested in buying a used car and would like to do a pre-sale inspection. Ask how much it cost as you will be the one responsible for paying the bill. The cost to have a car inspected by a professional is worth the cost. No matter how carefully you look, a mechanic who works on cars all day long can discover hidden problems quickly. You want to avoid getting a car that will have major problems with the engine or the transmission. Ask the mechanic for their opinion if you should buy the car or not.

Body / Frame / Interior

The physical condition of the car is a key factor in the price of the car. You should note any damage and negotiate the price accordingly. If a car has been in a minor accident, it’s not a major concern as long as the seller is honest and tells you what happened. If you find damage and the seller is trying to hide it, you should be concerned with the purchase. Check the frame under the hood and also in the rear by the spare tire. You will often notice repairs done here if the car was involved in a serious accident. Look under the car for rust and avoid cars that show an excessive amount of rust.

Check fluids

Open the hood and check the fluid levels. Note where the car was parked. Park the car in a clean area and let it run for at least a couple of minutes. Now, move the car forward or backward one full car length. Look where the car was parked. Do you see any wet spots underneath? If you see any black pots, this could be engine oil. If you notice any green fluid on the floor, this means that the anti-freeze is leaking, which is typically accompanied with a strong smell. In rare cases, you may also notice pink fluid which is usually the transmission.

Scan for trouble codes

One of the things that everyone should do when buying a used car is to scan for fault codes. The sellers could disconnect the car battery to reset the check engine light. You can easily get a hold of an OBD II code reader which within minutes will read the engine fault codes. If you don’t have an OBD-II code reader we recommend the #1 scanner listed on Amazon Best Selling Code Reader List. You will also be able to tell if the check engine light was recently reset. Look at the scanner and it will tell you that several systems on the car are Ready or Not Ready. If you have more than one Not Ready reported system be careful as the light was recently reset to hide possible problems. The car will take several driving cycles to test all the systems and set them to Ready status. Now, if you wanted to do even further testing, you can get a diagnostic scanner that will scan the transmission, ABS, airbag and all the systems in the car. The procedure is the same to read the car. An excellent scanner to have that will do a complete diagnostic test on the car is the Launch Credit.

Check price

When you shop for a used car, check the price of the car that you are interested in. NADA and KBB are good starting points but do not base your purchase on the numbers you get from these two guides. You should search similar listings in your area and compare the price. Don’t go for the cheapest car that you can find; they can be the cars with the most problems and future expenses.


If you are buying from a dealer, often they will give you a 30-day warranty. In some places, this is even required. If not, they may sell third party warranty. Did you know that you can also ask a private seller for a guarantee? You can ask even for a one week warranty on the major systems. This is a good way to ensure that you will not have any major problems soon after you purchase the car. A seller that knows their car and is being honest will not have a problem with this. You should ask for warranty on the engine, transmission and in case, the check engine light comes on. Get this in writing on a bill of sale. This may sound crazy, but it is the best way to protect yourself when you buy a used car.

Sleep on It

Don’t rush to buy a car because someone else is looking at the car at the same time you are. You don’t want to make a decision based on emotions when buying a car. It is best to talk to the seller and make arrangements for inspection and the negotiation on a price. Then sleep on it for a night. This will give you time to make a clear decision on your next purchase.

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