Auto shopping guide: What to check for when buying a used car

November 16, 2020

Learn what you should check for when buying a used car

A couple test driving a used car before buying it

If you've ever been in the market for a used car before, you may have experienced some amount of anxiety regarding your selection. For many people, investing in a car is a big deal, even if it's a used one, and you want to make sure you know what you're paying for.

Fortunately, when it comes evaluating a used car, there are a number of tried and true methods that can help you determine when you've found a good deal - or tell you when it's time to look elsewhere. Whether you're going to a used car lot or looking to buy from an individual, we'll show you what to check for when buying a used car.

Before you shop

Have a price range in mind. Before you begin looking at vehicles, whether it's in a used car lot or the classified ads, it's important to have a price limit in mind. Not only will this help you narrow down the selection, it may help you during any potential negotiations, too. Depending on the seller, they may be willing to work with you if you express that you have a fixed amount you're able to spend. 

Research vehicles beforehand. If you have an idea of what kind of car you're looking for, do a little research beforehand. Look into what kinds of common problems certain vehicles have, how long they last, and what sorts of problems you might expect to see after a certain period of time or after a certain number of miles. It's worth noting that some vehicles age better than others. This will also help you determine on average how much you should expect to spend. 

Set your own expectations. Understand what compromises you're willing to make for a good deal. Are you okay with a few dents and dings? Are you okay with a vehicle that needs a little maintenance, like new tires?

Inspect the exterior

The exterior of a vehicle is the first thing you're likely going to see when shopping for a used car. While some aspects of the exterior are simply cosmetic, it's important to give it a thorough check - even if you don't mind a dent or two. 

Body. While a few scratches may not be a deal breaker for you, there are a number of other things to look for that may be. Look for patches of rust, or areas where the paint clear coat is coming off or where the paint is blistering. Unlike dents, dings, and scratches, sections that are rusted can be much more costly to fix. 

Systematically test all of the doors and the trunk in order to see if they open and close properly. Don't forget to look at the rubber seals between the doors and the body of the vehicle; after time, the rubber seals can become brittle and crack, making the interior of the car vulnerable to moisture. 

Lights. Checking the lights properly will require some assistance. Have someone outside watch as you test the headlights, brights, brakelights, and blinkers. Look for fog or moisture inside the lights - the presence of water inside could impact the effectiveness of the light and may indicate that a replacement is needed. 

Mirrors. This one is fairly straightforward. Make sure the mirrors are in one piece, but also make sure that they can be properly adjusted. 

Tires and suspension. Check the wear on the tires and note whether or not the pattern is similar on either side. If one side is worn more than the other, it could indicate a balance or alignment issue. Of course, you won't see wear if the tires have been recently replaced, so you'll have to test drive it to be certain. Furthermore, tires with enough wear on them could need to be replaced shortly after you purchase it. 

You can also perform a basic test to evaluate the quality of the suspension and the shock absorbers. Press down on each corner of the car enough to cause it to bounce. It should only do so once - if it continues to bounce, the shocks may need to be replaced. 

Windows and glass. For starters, make sure all the windows go all the way down and up. If they get stuck in either direction, this can indicate motor failure within the door. 

Then carefully inspect all of the glass top to bottom and look for chips or cracks. Small chips at the bottom or top of the windshield can be difficult to spot immediately, but can lead to a windshield replacement in the future. 

Inspect the interior

After you've looked over the outside, it's time to take a look at the inside! 

Seats, upholstery, and dash.  Check all the seats for signs of wear and damage, not just the driver seat. Make sure the adjustment controls for the seats work, as well as the seatbelts. 

Check the floorboards as well as the roof for stains, wear, and other signs of damage, like loose, hanging fabric. 

Depending on the type of material the dash is made out of, it may have different signs of use and aging. For example, UV exposure over time can crack and fade certain plastics. Make sure to inspect and note any signs of damage here, too. 

Instruments, controls, and gauges. While you'll need to test drive the vehicle to test all of the gauges, many can be tested by simply turning it on. Check the fuel gauge, odometer, engine temperature, oil pressure, and any other essential meters that may be present. 

Check the controls for the air conditioner as well as the blinkers, hazard lights, and any other controls present. Again, you may have to actually test drive the vehicle to test things such as cruise control, but it's always a good idea to be thorough. 

Sound system. If you enjoy listening to music while you drive, then be sure to check the sound system. You can simply flip on the radio, but make sure to test any auxiliary inputs for functionality, too. 

While the seller may not appreciate you blasting tunes out of the speakers, it can be important to adjust the volume to listen for damaged speakers, which will often buzz, rattle, or pop if they are wearing out. 

Smell. Hopefully, the person or dealership selling the vehicle took the time to clean the interior and eliminate odors. However, if you detect a musty smell, or cigarette smoke, there may be a larger problem. The seller should tell you whether or not the previous owner smoked inside of it, but you can check the ashtray for further evidence if you feel it's necessary. 

Locks. Locks are clearly an important part of preventing auto theft, so be sure to test them. Make sure you understand how they are activated, whether that's with a manual key, a button inside, or a button on a key fob - check them all. 

Check the engine

As you are likely aware, the engine is one of the most important things to pay attention to when shopping for a used car. Unfortunately, many shoppers aren't aware of exactly what to look for, which may lead to issues down the road. If you're comfortable in your knowledge, check the following items.

Hoses and belts. Your engine relies on a complex series of hoses and tubes in order to function properly. Unfortunately, these things have a limited lifespan and need to be replaced at some point. It's not a question of if they'll fail, simply when. 

Some components can be difficult to check without the aid of a mechanic. However, the belts and hoses you can see and easily access should be firm but supple. They shouldn't be rigid, hard, or cracked. 

We'll discuss service and maintenance records further on, but if at all possible, ask the previous owner when some of these things have been replaced, if ever. For example, your timing belt, which is a crucial component, typically needs to be replaced around 100,000 miles. Even if the previous owner didn't drive the vehicle often, they should have performed some basic maintenance routines

Fluids. Check fluids, such as the oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and power steering fluid levels. Look for clarity in the fluids to see how recently they have been changed. 

Even if all the fluid levels seem appropriate, you should still look around for signs of leakage. If the engine is splattered with oil or some other fluid, it could indicate a broken or failing gasket or hose.  

Battery. Many batteries have the purchase date on a sticker, usually visible on the top of the battery. A battery should last around 3-5 years, so compare the current date to the date you see on the sticker. Either way, if you can check the charge, do so. A mechanic or auto parts store should be able to test this for you, too. Additionally, look for signs of corrosion on the terminals. 

Additional information to help you evaluate a used vehicle

Evaluate mileage. One of the key indicators of use or lack thereof is a vehicle's mileage. Of course, the more miles, the more wear and tear the vehicle has sustained. However, it is worth noting that certain vehicles handle use better than others. In other words, while 100,000 miles on one make and model might mean that you're in for repairs soon, another vehicle may have many more miles to go. This is why it's important to consult a mechanic or do a little research into the particular vehicle you're looking at before making your purchase.

Look at the VIN. The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, is a unique number assigned to each vehicle (kind of like a Social Security Number for your car). It's often used in police reports, but it can also help you get an idea for the history of the vehicle you're looking at. 

The VIN can tell you what state(s) the car has been registered in, how many previous owners it has had, and even accident information. You can use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's VIN tool to look up this information. Of course, the records are not always complete, but it's a good resource to start with.

Look at the estimated value. With the seller's asking price in mind, check the estimated value as listed on something like Kelley Blue Book. This allows you to get an idea for what you should pay based on the make, model, year, and mileage. Of course, this is just a ballpark estimate, and may go up or down depending on the condition of the vehicle in question. If there is a large discrepancy between the value and the price, it's worth asking the seller what they are basing their price on. 

Evaluate the service/maintenance record. While not everyone keeps a detailed service or maintenance log, you should always check to see if they have. This can give you insight into what was done, when it was done, and how often it was done. 

Ask to take the vehicle to an independent, trusted mechanic for inspection

As part of your evaluation, ask the seller if they will allow you to take the vehicle to a mechanic that you trust. Of course, they may feel more comfortable taking it themselves, but as long as the mechanic is impartial, it isn't important who takes it there.

Sometimes, the seller will agree to pay for the inspection or split the cost, but even if it falls on you, it is well worth the small investment if you're seriously considering the purchase. This is a fairly common practice for many auto shops, and most of them have a standard series of basic tests they'll perform during their inspection. 

After the mechanic has performed their inspection, take a moment to speak to them about the vehicle in general. Have them go through the various parts of their inspection and outline any concerns they may have. Finally, tell them what the seller is asking for it, and see if they feel like it is worth the price. 

Test drive

Last but certainly not least, see if the seller will allow you to take it for a spin. While driving, make sure to listen for strange noises that might indicate an issue. Some engine issues may not be easily detectable at higher RPMs, so make sure to listen for irregularities while idling as well as driving.

Carefully test the handling and braking and pay attention to the overall feel of the ride in order to evaluate the suspension. If the steering wheel pulls to one side or another, or if the ride is extraordinarily bumpy, it could indicate suspension issues, tire balancing issues, or wheel alignment issues. 

Hands shaking after buying a used car

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Read more: After you've purchased a used vehicle, the next step is purchasing insurance. Read our blog to learn all about auto insurance in Texas!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.