Picking up a second hand car can be tricky. It’s so tricky, some people avoid the activity altogether. They instead go straight for a new car. Financially, that’s a mistake. You lose much of your value the moment it leaves the new car dealership. I HATE taking a financial hit like that so I can’t advise anyone else do the same.
What this post will tell you is a list of things to look for before you buy your next used car. Some of the things on this list will be obvious if you’re a gearhead. If you’re not, these will all be pretty new. Either way, this post will be handy to you. It’s also smart to bring a checklist along when looking at a new car. You can check off everything on the list. If everything checks out – it’s time to make an offer! Let’s get going!
Where to Go
The cheapest way to buy a used car (and the best, in my opinion) is to go straight to the seller. This cuts out the expensive middle man. It’s just you and the seller. Plus, you can see the person who’s been caring (or not caring) for the car over the years. It gives a complete picture. Most dealers will tell you whatever you want to hear: “Yes, the car was garaged. Yes, the owner was an old lady who only drove it to church and the hairdressers.”
When walking around the car at first inspection, here are some things to look at:
Check that the tread pattern on the tires are even across each tire and on all 4 tires. If the treadwear isn’t, the car isn’t properly aligned. Or the current owner has neglected to rotate the tires. These are bad signs. They obviously don’t care for the car very well.
Check for rust. Common places for rust include under wheel arches, on boot lids, on the strut towers (check under the bonnet) and around the windshield. Rust is ugly and it’s expensive to repair. It’s best to get as close of a rust-free car as possible.
Look for any dings and scratches. Keep a tally. See how badly damaged the car is. True, a 10-year-old car may have many dings. But some don’t. Owners who take good care of their cars, regardless the age, won’t have too many scars. Don’t let the owner tell you ‘normal wear and tear’. You don’t want a dented and scratched car, do you?
Check for any signs of body work. Check for wavvy lines down the side of the car. Check for places where the paint looks matte. That means it’s been poorly resprayed. See if the fenders and doors look original or if they’re brighter than the surrounding paintwork. Check for anything that just doesn’t look quite right.
Check for mold. Mold is the nastiest smell to have in your car. Smell for mold. Mold smells damp and musty. Make sure the carpets aren’t wet from leaks. Take it through a car wash if you’d like to check for leaks. Take the spare tire out of the trunk and check for dampness.
Make sure everything works. Play with all the knobs and switches. Make sure they do their appropriate jobs. You’ll especially want to make sure the A/C works (if equipped). They can be very expensive to repair.
Check for leaking fluids. Look around the engine compartment as well as on the ground. Oil is black, antifreeze is green on most cars but red on some cars, like Toyotas. Feel hoses to make sure they’re not brittle. Look for signs of crash damage on the inside of the engine compartment as well. Looks for bad welding. Look for panels that don’t fit right. Look for bolt heads that look like they’ve been removed before.
Listen to the engine. Most engines don’t sound very good. They sound chirty and clanky when up close to them. The important thing to remember is an engine should sound consistent. If it doesn’t there’s a problem. It could be something as simple as spark plugs or it could be much, much worse.
You’ll want to take the car on a long test drive. Let it heat up completely. This way, you’ll know if it’ll overheat or not. And this will give yourself a chance to get familiar with the car. Whe driving straight, loosen your grip on the steering wheel. The car should continue to move perfectly straight. If it doesn’t that’s another sign it’ll need an alignment and possibly new tires.
Test things you couldn’t test while parked. Test the cruise control. Check gadgets like blind spot monitoring. The thing to remember here is that these things aren’t that costly to fix yourself. But if they are broken and the owner didn’t tell you, they may be hiding something else. It’s best to get an entire feel for the car.
When driving, take a chance to press hard on the brakes. If the pedal pulsates, you probably need new brake disks. If they squeak, you probably need a minimum of new brake pads. Make sure there are no lights on the dash conveying errors you cannot feel.
Always Be Ready to Back Away
Do not get emotionally attached to any car. If it turns out to be less than you imagined, walked away. Another one will come along.
If the car checks out, no thumb sucking. Put together a deal before someone else comes along. Cash is king.
Will Lipovsky is a personal finance freelance writer and internet marketer. His most embarrassing moment has been saying to a Microsoft executive, “I’ll just Google it.” You can get in touch with Will at FirstQuarterFinance.com.