Knowing what things to check when buying a used car can be the difference between purchasing a clunker in disguise and purchasing a car that will serve you for years to come. While it may be tempting to purchase a car on its looks and the word of the seller alone, we wouldn’t recommend it.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an auto mechanic to set yourself up for success in this regard. Armed with a good checklist, you are more likely to find potential issues, make informed choices, and be able to negotiate a price with the seller.
So, without further ado, let’s get into Colony One’s list of things to check when buying a used car. Part 1 (this page) covers all the things to do before you show up on the lot and what to check on a used car before turning it on. Part two covers what the check once you turn on the car, what questions you should ask the seller, and what to look for when taking the car for a test drive.
0. Do your research on car reliability and safety
Asking the question, “What should I check when buying a used car” puts the car(t) before the horse if you don’t already know what kind of vehicle you’re looking for. It’s best to already have an idea of the makes, models, years, and going prices for the types of cars you’re interested in.
Of course, it’s better to choose the kinds of cars you’re looking for using guidelines other than aesthetics. Consumer Reports is an excellent resource for highlighting reliable, driver-vetted car types, and Kelly Blue Book and the Texas DMV site can help you find a good estimate for what kind of prices you should expect to see when you’re out on the lot.
You can also check with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) site for crash testing results as well as safercar.gov for information regarding recalls. For the eco-conscious, many of these sites can also help you find cars with good mileage and cars that tend to pass Texas emission testing with flying colors.
1. Ask for the vehicle history. If buying from a dealer, check the Buyer’s Guide sticker on the windshield for warranty information.
Whether you’re purchasing your used car from a dealer or a private seller, it’s important that you receive an overview of the car’s history. You should be shown a report stating whether your car has been in any accidents, how many owners it has had before you, whether it has water damage, whether it was leased at any point or used as a taxi or police car, etc.
Unless you know the previous owners extremely well, it’s best to make sure that this information can be verified by an outside source. For a fee, services such as CARFAX or the Texas DMV Title Check can run your car’s VIN number through their systems and give you a report on the history of the car.
If you are purchasing a car from a dealer, note that they are also required by the Federal Trade Commission to display a “Buyer’s Guide” in or on the car. This guide will tell you whether or not the car is still covered by a warranty (and what parts and for how long) OR if the car is for sale “as-is,” i.e. the seller is under no obligation to cover repairs. Make sure that any changes made to the Buyer’s Guide are made in writing.
If a used car dealer doesn’t display Buyers’ Guides in their cars, and are not willing to provide you with one, you may want to look elsewhere.
2. Inspection: Before you turn on the car
How do you inspect a secondhand car? While most people break down how to inspect a secondhand car by interior and exterior inspection, we find it more helpful to split inspections first by what you should look at before and after you turn on the car. Otherwise, you might get stuck turning the car on and off again or even having to wait for the engine to cool down.
To set up your car for inspection, make sure that it is parked on level ground in a safe area. A level surface makes it easier to check for tire issues and problems with a sagging undercarriage.
- Cleanliness: If a car is dirty, it’s hard to see a bad paint job or other small issues. Being shown a dirty car tells you that the seller hasn’t put thought into your experience of inspecting, driving, and purchasing a car.
- Scratches and dents: While this type of damage to the car’s paint may not affect how the car drives, it can help you when negotiating price. Don’t forget to check the roof of the car!
- Pro tip: Think a dent has been filled in and painted over? Hold a small magnet of the area and see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, filler is likely present.
- Rust: Very minimal rust to the exterior of your car may not be a dealbreaker, but keep in mind that rust affects the integrity of the car’s structure. Over time, areas weakened by rust may fall off on the road. A rusty car will not protect you as well in the event of a crash.
- Cracks in the glass: Small chips in the glass aren’t a problem, but larger cracks (especially in the windshield) are a safety issue.
- Doors: You can tell a lot about a car’s health and age by its doors. For each door, open it and then try lifting and letting go. If you notice looseness, the car has most likely seen much better days.
- Trunk: Not many people think of trunks as being on a list of things to check when buying a used car, but trunks receive a lot of wear and tear. Check the trunk’s door for looseness like you did with the other car doors, look for rust or holes, and keep an eye out for water damage. Do a sniff check for signs of mold.
- Spare tire: Check to see if there is a spare tire and, if there is, whether or not it is in good condition.
- Tires: All four tires should be the same. They should be worn evenly and have 1/16 inch of tread. Tires with uneven wear can indicate over inflation, underinflation, or an issue with the alignment/steering. Don’t forget to check the rims for rust and cracks, or the sidewall for bulges.
- Undercarriage and frame: When possible, check the undercarriage for structural damage or structural repairs. This will require a lift as it is difficult to inspect it on the ground. Look for any leaks or loose components. Double-check that the frame—especially the bumpers—are securely attached to the car. At the very least check the tailpipe. There should be minimal rust and any residue should be dry and gray. Black and oily residue indicates engine wear.
- Suspension: Push down on each corner of the car. If the car’s shock absorbers are in good shape, the car should be firm and not continue to oscillate.
- Upholstery and seats: Check all the seats in the front and back for the car for cracks in the upholstery or for stains. Make sure that all seats are adjustable in the ways that they should be. Do another smell check to see if you can detect the scent of mold, mildew, or smoke.
- Roof: In this area, we have to be extra diligent about water damage. Check for water stains along the roof and windows, especially if there is a sunroof. Check to see that the sunroof opens and closes properly.
- Seatbelts: Make sure that all seatbelts are present, show no signs of fraying, and function properly.
- Pedal wear: Are the pedals worn down? If so, does that track with the car’s current mileage and appearance? Worn pedals can often be a helpful sign of whether or not the odometer is accurate. Look at the wear on the brake pedal. If there is significant wear on the left side of the pad and the car has an automatic transmission, the driver probably rides the brake while driving. Look closely at the brake system; riding the brakes is never a good thing.
Under the hood
- Belts and hoses: Check the drive belts for cracks and other signs of wear. Hoses should be firm but flexible, not hard or soft or feel crispy when you squeeze them.
- Fluids: Check that all fluids (transmission, brake, radiator, coolant, etc.) are at their appropriate levels. New oil will be golden-brown, and slightly “used” (but still good) oil will be brown-black. Check the level of the oil on the dipstick after wiping it clean first. Keep an eye out for foam, water, bubbles, or debris, as these could indicate issues. If any fluid tanks are empty, the car may have a leak. Look for recently filled tanks, as they may indicate that the owner topped them up to hide a leak.
- Battery: You may be able to check the charge of the battery on-site, but if not, have a mechanic test it when you bring in the car. Keep an eye out for corroded battery cables as well.
- Engine Block: Oil stains and worn parts on your engine are typically signs that something is awry. Check the car’s engine block for signs of leaks or corrosive wear to avoid potentially costly repairs.
Finished with these steps? Check out part 2 of this post for more things to check on a used car.
Not sure what things to check before buying a used car? Colony One can help.
Other than your house, your car is one of the largest investments you’ll likely ever make. Don’t leave whether or not you purchase a reliable used car to chance. You should always bring a car to a reputable repair facility for a “Pre-Buy Inspection” before purchasing it—even if the dealer insists that the car has been inspected in-house.
Colony One Auto Center provides the kind of thorough inspection, using predetermined criteria from a checkable list to make sure that you are purchasing a safe and worthwhile vehicle. We are proud to be able to give drivers of Stafford, Sugar Land and the Greater Houston Area as well as the National and International market through Texas Direct / Varoom with peace of mind as they look for their next car
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