Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.
Updated on Friday, December 14, 2018
You probably already know the biggest advantage of a used car over new: lower cost. The average used car price was $16,000 below the average new car price in the third quarter of 2018, according to Edmunds. But is the potential savings worth the risk of buying a vehicle with a mysterious past?
Perhaps — if you’re armed with the right know-how. We’ll tell you where to find reliable information about the car you’re considering and what to look for in your own vehicle inspection.
What to look for when buying a used car: 6 steps
Step 1: Research the specific used car
Before you leave home to go test drive the car, do some internet sleuthing. It may save you a trip to see it if you find that type of vehicle usually has issues.
Expert reviews and user reviews
Look for expert and user reviews for the specific model you’re interested in, which could tell you whether that type of car is reliable or has major issues. Almost every used car has some type of common issue, from simple things that may not affect you, like the AM radio not working, to large things that can result in the engine melting.
Steer clear. If that car tends to have major or expensive problems, you may want to find another used car.
Where to find it. In Google or another search engine, type in the car’s year, make, model and the words “review” or “problems” to see what pops up. You could also use a free industry standard site like Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds to see their reliability scores and auto expert reviews. And you can look up safety reviews at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Vehicle history report
If the car passes your preliminary internet research, you could look up a vehicle history report on the car, which can tell you whether the car is marked as stolen, was in an accident, got flooded, is considered salvage and how many owners it’s had and more.
Steer clear. If it is stolen — report it to the police. Otherwise, ask the owner about any red flags you see on the vehicle history report. If it’s a small thing, like fender bender, you could use that to negotiate a lower price. If it’s a large thing, such as a major accident, you may want to pass.
Where to find it. Many car dealerships provide free vehicle history reports. If they are not willing to give you one, that could be a red flag in and of itself. If you are buying a car directly from another person, you could ask them to provide one or buy one yourself from National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, AutoCheck or CARFAX.
Before you go look at the car, an easy and useful thing is to look up its value. You should not pay more than that to buy the car and if you can negotiate a price less than that, you got a good deal.
Steer clear. Before you go look at it, if the car’s advertised price is exceedingly low compared with its value, it might be a scam. After you look at it, if the car’s seller refuses to sell it for around that value, you can probably get a better deal elsewhere.
Where to find it. You could use NADAguides or Kelley Blue Book. Both are free internet resources. You can put in the car’s information and it will tell you the fair price for it depending on the car type, condition, location and seller (a dealership or a person).
Step 2: Perform a visual inspection of the car
The best time to inspect a used car is in daylight on a dry day. If you’re meeting a private seller rather than buying from a business, a public parking lot near an interstate is usually ideal. Have the car parked on even, flat pavement that doesn’t have any oil marks or puddles on it already.
Turn the car on and have it idling for at least 30 seconds, or leave it on while you check the cosmetics. Then pull the car forward enough so that you can check the ground where it used to be parked for any puddles or fluids that the vehicle may have leaked.
Steer clear. Any leaks is not good news, especially oil. If the AC was running, some water is normal.
Where to look. Any fluids that leaked from the engine will of course be on the ground from where the front part of the car was. A gas leak may have come from the gas tank, which is usually at the back of the car.
Look for any sagging, dents, scratches, uneven gaps between the car doors and the body of the car, rust and duct tape. While some of these things may be just cosmetics, lots of rust isn’t good and dents in certain places can seriously affect the car.
Steer clear. A ton of rust could mean there are or there may soon be holes in the car, and people generally like their vehicles to be watertight so you don’t get rained on while driving or have to deal with mold inside. Dents in the car’s frame could affect its driving and safety.
Where to look. Don’t forget to look at the roof of the car for rust. To check the frame, either look or feel under the front and back bumpers for the metal bar. The bar shouldn’t have dents, kinks or lots of rust. You could also look in the trunk in the spare tire compartment, if the car has one. This compartment is usually made of curved metal, to fit the tire. If the shape of the metal isn’t smooth, the car may have been in an accident.
Looking at the tread on the tires can tell you more than just whether they are old or new. They can tell you whether the suspension of the car is good.
Steer clear. The tire tread should be “penny deep.” An old tip is to use a penny to check the depth of the tire tread. If the penny shows, then the tread is low and the car will likely soon need new tires. And if the tread is worn unevenly, the car probably has a suspension problem.
Where to find it. To fully check the tires, turn the car’s steering wheel sharply in one direction so you’ll be able to see the whole flat of the tire. Do look at all of the tires and check for uneven tread on both the right and left sides of the car.
Step 3: A closer look inside the car
This is where you will hopefully spend most of your time with the vehicle, so make sure it doesn’t smell like mold, have a lot of wear and tear, and that it’s generally up to snuff.
This is the first thing many mechanics will do when testing a vehicle. There’s little point in popping the hood and getting dirty when you can get a full overview by only plugging in a scanner. The scan reports problems so you can quickly know what, if anything, is wrong with the car.
Steer clear. If the scanner reports a lot of “fails,” states only one result that means “all codes were cleared,” or says “not ready” or “pending” on many items, be wary. The seller could have cleared warning codes to hide major problems. In any of these cases, the car may have many costly problems. Each item should ideally say “OK.”
Where to find it. At an auto parts shop, such as AutoZone or O’Reilly Auto Parts, an employee could run the test for you for free. Or you could buy a scanner from them or online for less than $20, which could be especially useful if you’re going to look at a few cars.
As you may take the car on a test drive soon, make sure you can comfortably see via the mirrors and sit well. Adjust the mirrors and the driver’s seat. Blast the AC, heat and radio to test that they work. Push buttons to see that the power windows, navigation, touchscreen backup camera and any technology the car may have works.
Steer clear. You shouldn’t smell anything burnt when you turn up the heat. You shouldn’t hear any crackling from the audio speakers. Everything should work as it’s supposed to. If it doesn’t, you could look up the cost to fix it and ask the owner to deduct that cost from the price of the car. Or you may decide buying a car without a working heater in the dead of winter isn’t worth the trouble.
Where to find it. If the car is supposed to have something that you can’t find or figure out how to work, ask the owner or the salesperson. If they don’t know, you could consult the owner’s manual or look it up on the internet.
Step 4: Pop the hood
Checking the part of the car that makes it go – the engine – is a good idea. You don’t have to be a mechanic to look at a few basic things.
The oil lubricates the moving parts of the engine. It should be dark brown or black and very smooth when you rub a dab of it between your fingers. With the engine off, take the dipstick out, wipe it off, put it back in and take out it again to check the level of oil. It should come up to the appropriate mark on the dipstick showing it has enough oil; not too much, not too little.
Steer clear. If it is very gritty, has metallic flakes or is light colored. These signs mean the engine is damaged and could fail soon. An odd level of oil is not the best either, especially a low level.
Where to find it. The dipstick to check the oil may be yellow and should be marked as “oil.” If you have trouble finding it, ask the seller, check the owner’s manual or look online where the oil dipstick is located for that type of car.
The transmission is the part of the engine that allows you to go different speeds, instead of forever putting along at five miles an hour. It needs a different type of lubricant that is much thinner than oil and should be a light red color.
Steer clear. If it is brown or black or smells burnt. This means the transmission is in bad shape, might stop working soon, and a new one is usually at least a couple thousand dollars.
Where to find it. There should be a cap maybe four inches wide that is labeled, but usually not clearly, so a flashlight may help. Again, check online, check the manual or ask the seller if you have trouble.
Belts and hoses
Touch the belts and hoses you see to feel whether they’re firm, not frayed, not cracked and don’t have leaks.
Steer clear. The belts and hoses should be taut and flexible but should not be loose. If you can wiggle them or pull them free, that’s not good. If they are leaking, coming apart by fraying or cracking, that’s also not good. Most of these things are easy enough and relatively cheap to replace, but leaking hoses could mean the engine hasn’t been getting enough fluids and could be damaged.
Where to find it. These should be easily visible. Lean down and peer around the engine in the front and on the sides to see more.
The color of the engine exhaust can tell you a lot about the engine’s health. Ask the owner or a friend to turn the car on and rev the engine while you stand behind the vehicle and watch for the exhaust.
You should check this twice; once when the engine is cold and once when it is hot. An engine is “cold” when it hasn’t been running for a while and “hot” when it’s been running and warmed up.
Steer clear. A small amount of water vapor is normal, but blue, white, black and gray smoke are all signs of a problem that could mean anything from a small, easily repaired crack in the coolant container to a split engine block. If there is smoke but the car has passed your other tests thus far, consider taking it to an independent mechanic to determine the problem.
Where to find it. The exhaust pipe should be at the back of the car near the rear bumper. There may be two pipes and the pipe itself may be under the bumper, not easily visible.
Step 5: Take a test drive
If the car has passed all of your tests so far and you think you’d like to buy it, take it for a test drive. Drive it over potholes and speed bumps. Listen for any squeaks and rattling.
When appropriate, such as on an on ramp to a highway or interstate, punch the gas and accelerate quickly. Go from a low speed up to the speed limit.
Steer clear. If the car jerks or makes funny noises there may be a transmission or engine issue.
Give the owner or salesperson in the car with you a warning that you’re going to stop quickly to test the brakes. Make sure there is no one else around that could hit you or whom you could hit if the brakes don’t work.
Steer clear. The car should come to a smooth stop without a lot of noise. A jerky or particularly loud stop means the brakes need work.
When appropriate, turn the steering wheel sharply to one side and then the other to test that the car will indeed go where you want it to go.
Steer clear. If the steering squeaks a lot, it may be a case of needing more steering wheel fluid (a simple fix). If it is awfully loose or tight, there may be a bigger problem.
Looking for auto financing? Check out our top picks for auto loans.
Step 6: Check the paperwork
Check the VIN
Finally, if everything seems good and you want to buy the car, make sure the VIN on the paperwork matches the VIN on the car. And if you’re buying from a private seller, make sure the name on the title matches the name on their driver’s license so you’re sure the person has the right to sell the car. If the title lists two names as the current owners with the word “or” between them, you don’t need the other owner to sign as well. However, if the word between the name is “and,” you will need both owners to sign the title over.