How to buy a used car: what to look for

Buying a used car can be an intimidating process, especially for folks who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about the industry and automotive mechanics.

However, it can also be as exciting as it is intimidating, as we’re all anxious to drive home in our new cars. Unfortunately, this pairing of excitement and limited knowledge can be disastrous; sometimes people become too excited to care that they don’t know what they’re doing! 

Buyers fall into this situation all too frequently, and it most often takes the form of too hastily checking over the car before we drive away with it. Thoroughly looking over the car that we’re interested in before we buy is an extremely important thing to do, and one that all buyers should be comfortable doing themselves, and know how to do correctly. In this article we’ll be discussing your buying a used car checklist—the things you need to know to avoid making a mistake on your next car purchase.

Run a CARFAX

The rest of this list will focus on stuff to do with the car while at the dealership, but I simply couldn’t write this article with a clean conscious if I failed to mentioned this incredibly important piece of advice: for the love of all things automotive, do not purchase a car without running a CARFAX.

Always get a CARFAX when buying a used car

Failing to get a CARFAX report is the quickest and easiest ways to waste multiple thousands of dollars. The risk is that you can end up buying a car with a ‘salvage’ or ‘rebuilt’ title (one with serious damage that might not be evident), at the price of a clean title car. Running a CARFAX comes with the added benefit of seeing service history, but the most important reason to run a CARFAX is to make sure that the car has a clean title. 

Things to do before the test drive

Alright, so you’ve run the CARFAX, and it came back looking good! So now we’re at the dealership checking out the car. There are a few basic things that you’ll want to do prior to the test drive that will give you a good idea of the type of condition the car is in, as well as if it’s even worth taking on a test drive at all.

Do a quick walkaround

The first thing that you should do when you’re approaching the car is to quickly walk around the exterior, at about ten feet away. You’re looking for any body damage that has not been repaired and is visible to the naked eye; things like scratches, dings, dents, or markings of a previous encounter with a rogue shopping cart. Additionally, this is the best and quickest way to get an indication of the condition of the car. Look for scratched wheels, worn clearcoat, or any other obvious blemishes. Anything like this can be used as a bargaining chip if you end up buying.

Check the tires

After your walkaround, take a look at all four tires—make sure that they’re not dry rotted, and have a decent amount of tread life left in them. You can use a tread depth meter to get an exact measurement of how much life they have left, but in most cases, a quick look will be enough to let you know whether or not they’ll need to be replaced soon. If not, look for a wear bar in the grooves and make sure it is not in line with the surface of the tread. Alternatively, the old penny trick never fails. 

Check the Brakes

While you’re in the vicinity of the tires, you should also give the brakes a check as well. Assuming that the car has disk brakes, you can do this by feeling the outer edge of the rotor surface. If there is a lip by the edge of the rotor, the brakes will need to be replaced soon. You can check the pads by simply looking at them, which is imprecise, but will give you a good idea of how much life is left if you know what a fresh pad looks like. If not, Google images is your friend! 

Check for signs of an accident

There are quite a few different ways to look for signs of a previous accident that may not have been reported on the CARFAX. 

  • Look for condensation in the lights: Looking for condensation or signs of moisture in the lights is a simple and easy way to check for signs of a previous accident that may not have been reported to the CARFAX. If the car was hit in such a way that a headlight or taillight needed to be replaced or readjusted, this replacement or readjustment often leaves room for moisture to enter the light’s housing. On older cars, condensation or moisture in the lights can be a normal sign of old age as the seals dry out, but if a newer car is having this issue, you should be suspicious. 
  • Check the paint for signs of an accident: Another way to check for evidence of the car having been in an accident is to look at the paint. Make sure that all the panels are the exact same color, and that the paint is smooth when looked at from all angles. If the paint has any sort of visual texture, like orange peel dimples, or ripples, it’s unlikely to be factory paint—which means that panel was likely resprayed as a result of an accident.  
  • Make sure the panel gaps are matching: The space between body panels will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from car to car, but not from panel to panel. On the same car, all panel gaps should be close to the same, and if they’re not, that should be a red flag. 
  • Check for factory panel hardware: Another great way to check if the car was in an accident is to check the fenders for factory rivets or panel hardware. You can do this by opening the hood and truck, and looking alongside the tops of the fenders and quarter panels. What you’re looking for are rivets that were installed by an automated machine in a factory, not a person at an auto body shop. The difference will be clear once you see it, but the factory rivets—which are the ones that you want to be there—will be more flush with the panel. Not all cars have panel hardware, but you don’t want to forget to check for it on the ones that do. 

Listen to the Engine

While you’ll also be doing this on the test drive, it is important to listen to the engine with the hood open from the front of the car before you take it out for a spin. Listen to the engine at idle for any odd noises, and also have the salesman or someone else rev the engine slowly while you listen from the front of the car. When they do this, listen for any knocking, ticking or other odd sounds that may indicate a serious engine issue. 

Things to do during the test drive

Now that you’ve gone over the car fairly extensively, and presumably have found no major red flags, it’s time for the fun part: the test drive! Here are the things that you should do on the test drive to make sure that the car is in good working order. 

Press every single button

Before you set off driving, you need to test the functionality of every single feature that the car has. This can be done by pressing every button in the interior. Check that all four windows, the locks, the sunroof, the radio, the A/C and everything else in the car actually works, and works well. If something minor like an overhead light doesn’t work, use it as a bargaining chip when negotiating. If something major doesn’t work, you may want to consider walking away. 

Keep an eye on the gauges

Almost every car will have a temperature gauge in the instrument cluster, and some will even have battery voltage and oil pressure gauges, too. Check to make sure that these gauges not only work, but that they show that the car is running well. Make sure the coolant and/or oil temperature rises and falls as it should, and if there’s a gauge for it, be sure that the engine has proper oil pressure. As a rule of thumb, coolant should reach operating temperature within 3-5 minutes, and oil should reach operating temperature within 5-10 minutes. This will vary from car to car, but these general guidelines should suffice in most applications. 

Floor it!

Many test-drivers are afraid to really put the pedal to the metal, but this is a mistake that you do not want to make. Flooring a car and bringing it to redline (after it’s warmed up) is not only not bad for the engine (as many people wrongly believe), but it will be a great way to make sure that the engine is healthy. If the car pulls smoothly all the way to redline with no stutters or hesitations, the engine is probably free of any major issues. Additionally, let the transmission shift at redline to make sure that it’s working well, too. If the car has any issues cleanly revving to and shifting at redline, it’s best to walk away unless you want a project on your hands. 

Hit the brakes hard

When it’s safe to do so, it is also important that you hit the brakes fairly hard while on the test drive. By doing this, you confirm that they’re strong and that there’s not too much dead travel in the pedal—which can indicate worn pads or rotors—as well as making sure that the rotors aren’t warped. Warped rotors will cause a vibration in the pedal when braking hard. If all is well during a hard braking test, the car’s brakes are probably in fine shape. 

Listen carefully for any odd noises

This one is a bit more difficult for the folks who aren’t as mechanically inclined, but if you’ve driven cars for long enough, you should have an idea of how a healthy one sounds. Throughout the entire test drive, you should be listening for any sounds that are out of the ordinary. Any knocking, clunking, rubbing or scraping noises should be cause for concern.

Make some turns at full lock

To ensure that the suspension is in good working order, make a few turns in a parking lot with the wheel turned all the way to the left or right—otherwise known as “at full lock.” If there are any loose, poorly fitting, or broken parts in the suspension, you’ll probably find out about them during this test. Be sure to do this in both directions.

Final thoughts

If you perform all of the above-mentioned tests, you can rest assured that you’ve done about as much as is possible to assess the mechanical condition of the car without putting it up on a lift with a mechanic. After you’ve done all of this, it’s time to make a decision about the car. If everything works properly and you like it, feel free to start negotiating (though you may want to take a look at our negotiation guide before doing so!). But if you find that there are more than just a couple of minor issues, or even just one major issue, it’s probably best to walk away, no matter how perfect the car may otherwise be. Just remember that it’s always better to get the right car after waiting than the wrong car right away!

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