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11 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Avoid Getting Stuck With a Bad Used Car

Buying a used car, whether it’s from a private party or a dealership, needn’t be a hassle. It usually takes more work than buying a new car, but you can save a lot of money over buying off the showroom floor.

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Instead of having to remember everything you have to look at, bring a checklist with you as some guidance when you do a pre-purchase check. That way, you’ll be able to methodically go through the process and make sure you don’t miss anything.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that you’ve found the perfect model and have already set up an appointment to see a car in the very near future. Here are 11 things to look for when you examine a used car.

Man fixing his car engine

Photo Credit: Morsa Images / Getty


11 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

  1. Research Model-Specific Potential Problems
  2. Understand the Car’s Individual History
  3. Check for Open Recalls
  4. Check Out Similar Cars
  5. Inspect the Tires
  6. Bumps, Scratches, Dents and Rust
  7. What’s Under the Hood?
  8. The Smell Test
  9. Check for Electrical Gremlins
  10. Take a Test Drive
  11. Get an Expert Inspection

1. Research Model-Specific Potential Problems

Before you go to see the car, research the model. Forums specifically focused on the make-model are a great place to look, as real-world users with real-world issues will post the issues they’ve had with their own cars. Look for information on known problem areas, the maintenance schedule and reliability.

Knowing what to look for and what specific questions to ask the owner (or dealer) will help you decide whether that used car you’re considering is worth buying.

2. Understand the Car’s Individual History

Get a Carfax Vehicle History Report using the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). A Vehicle History Report will provide you with a lot of details on the vehicle, including ownership history, service records, odometer readings and accident information. This is crucial stuff, because it could greatly sway whether a vehicle meets your requirements or not. It can also provide you with plenty of ammunition for negotiating with the seller.

3. Check for Open Recalls

Go to the Carfax Recall Check Tool, enter the car’s VIN or license plate number, and we’ll let you know what open recalls there are on the car you’re considering, if there are any.

All recall repairs are done by automakers for free, so feel free to ask the seller to get the work done before you agree to buy. If there’s still an open recall on a used car, it may be an indicator of how the vehicle has been maintained.

You can also use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s site to check for recall information.

4. Check Out Similar Cars

Researching other similar models that are on sale will also help you gauge whether the price being asked is competitive. If not, you can use that knowledge to negotiate with the seller. Doing some extra work before you go look at a car can save you a lot of time and give you an edge in price discussions.

See Carfax Used Car Listings

5. Inspect the Tires

Tires are often neglected, but they’re the only things that touch the road. They’re expensive to replace and their condition can reveal how an owner has treated the car over time.

Check first to see if the tires are all from the same brand. If they aren’t, ask the owner about it, as mismatched tires could be a sign that an owner tried to cut corners, which doesn’t bode too well for the vehicle’s overall maintenance.

Beyond the brands, are the tires in good condition? Cracks, scuffing or bulges indicate a tire that needs to be replaced. When it comes to measuring how much tread life is left, using a quarter can be helpful if you don’t have a tread-depth tool. If you’re using a quarter, put Washington’s head facing down into the tread. Can you see the top of the president’s head? If so, it’s time to shop for a replacement tire. If you find that some tires have plenty of tread left and some don’t, it could be a sign that the tires haven’t been rotated regularly, as they should be.

6. Bumps, Scratches, Dents and Rust

Schedule your appointment with the seller so you can see the car in daylight hours. That should make it easier to spot imperfections. Be on the lookout for scratches, dents and dings. Pay particular interest to rust spots, as they can be signs of more troubling corrosion.

Open and close all of the doors, the hood and the trunk, paying attention to whether some are more difficult to use than others. That could be an indication that the car’s been in an accident, something that you can also find out from the Carfax Vehicle History Report.

Check for poorly fitting body panels, replaced body parts or newer headlights and taillights. Body panels that may not fit well together and newer parts could indicate a prior accident whose damage has already been repaired.

7. What’s Under the Hood?

When looking under the hood, check the hoses, belts, battery, coolant, engine oil, transmission fluid, air filter and anything else you can get your hands on. Old, dirty fluids will need to be replaced; belts and hoses that are cracked will need to be replaced soon.

Batteries with corroded connectors and batteries that are bulging out of shape are both signs of a needed replacement.

With your hands out of the engine bay, ask the seller to start the car. Watch the engine and look for possible leaks or smoke. Listen for rattles, a rough idle or anything else that sounds out of the ordinary based on your research.

8. The Smell Test

Once inside the car, check the seats for rips, tears and stains, and make sure they adjust freely and properly. A sagging headliner – the cloth along the ceiling – can be a difficult problem to fix, so make sure it’s nice and snug.

Beyond using your eyes and hands to look over the vehicle, be sure to use your nose. Odd smells could point toward possible flood damage or a water leak from outside of the car, which is often accompanied by mildew.

9. Check for Electrical Gremlins

While outside of the vehicle, ask the seller to turn on and off all of the lights to ensure they’re working properly. Once you’re inside, make sure that all buttons and switches work as they’re supposed to; that’ll help you rule out any potential electrical issues.

If the vehicle has performance settings, adaptive suspension or unique modes, go through them all to make sure they work properly. Oh, don’t forget to open and close the sunroof, even in winter!

With the engine off and the key in the cylinder, turn the ignition to “ACC” and see if all of the necessary warning lights on the dashboard illuminate. More specifically, keep an eye out for the check engine light. If it goes on, but then immediately turns off when you start the engine, all is well. If the check engine light doesn’t illuminate with the key in the “ACC” position, something’s not right.

10. Take a Test Drive

Before setting off, turn the steering wheel until you can’t turn it anymore, then turn it all the way in the opposite direction (lock to lock). Listen for squeals from the engine bay, which could mean a faulty belt or a failing power steering pump.

Spend time behind the wheel on your test drive. Listen for strange noises or clunky shifts, and note if you feel strange vibrations through the steering wheel. Try to find a test driving route that matches your daily commute.

Try to drive the vehicle a little more aggressively than you normally would, braking and accelerating harder than you normally would. You’ll be able to see if the powertrain operates smoothly and how much life the brakes have left. Be mindful of squeaks or loud, piercing noises and vibrations felt through the steering wheel when braking.

Watch how the vehicle handles bumps. One rebound up and down is a sign of a healthy suspension system, while a boat-like up and down sensation indicates components that need to be replaced soon.

If you’re testing a vehicle with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, try to find an area where it’s safe to engage the system to ensure it works. A lot of 4WD systems will have a light that illuminates in the instrument cluster when engaged. Many modern AWD systems don’t have such a light and simply work on the fly.

Make sure the audio system is turned off for most of the drive, so you can hear what the engine is doing. Also listen for excessive wind noise, which might indicate if the window seals are not doing their jobs effectively.

Don’t let the seller distract you with conversation during this drive.

11. Get an Expert Inspection

Combing over every inch of a used vehicle is difficult, but if you miss something, that could result in quite a few repair bills – no pressure or anything.

Because the stakes are high, it’s a good idea to have a mechanic look over the car to check for issues. Paying $100 for a private inspection could save you thousands in repairs. If the mechanic finds issues, use the cost of repairs as a negotiating point with the seller.

Patel, J. (2020) "11 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car" Carfax.com. Retrieved from https://www.carfax.com/blog/things-to-look-for-when-buying-a-used-car

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