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How to check out a used car

How to check out a used car before buying Part III

Knowing how to check out a used car before buying is critical to avoid a huge mistake. Whether you’re buying from a private party or a dealer, you’ll need to print out this great used car checklist of items you should check before buying. They’ll help you avoid making a big mistake.


1) If the seller says It just needs _ _ _ _, RUN!

I see this all the time when volunteering on car forums. Someone is shopping for a car from a private party and the seller says, “It just needs a new Frazit.” The buyer thinks, “Oh, well that doesn’t sound serious.” So they buy the car and discover that the vehicle needs several thousand dollars worth of repairs. They’re furious that the seller said is was something simple and now they want their money back. Even if the seller committed fraud (which YOU have to prove on your own dime), chances are you’ll never get a penny back. So always follow


As soon as the seller says, “It just needs _ _ _.” RUN! Because if that’s all it needed, the seller would have fixed it. What’s really going on is that the seller THOUGHT it was something small and then found out it was going to be very expensive. So they tell you what they thought it was, and people buy it.

Here’s a screen grab from reddit.com/r/Justrolledintotheshop/. It’s a shop of a repair order from a shop. Proof that you should NEVER believe what the sell says.

how to buy used car









2) Drive the vehicle

I can’t believe how many people buy a used car without driving it. Are you nuts? Do you really want to find out AFTER the sale that it has a bad transmission, needs brakes, vibrates, stalls, etc? And, I can’t believe how many people go for a ride in the vehicle while the owner drives it. YOU drive it.

Here’s what to check:

Before you drive it:

a) When you turn the key to start the engine, the CHECK ENGINE light should come on, as well as the ABS, Traction control, SRS (airbags) and Brake lights. This is called “bulb check” and it’s designed to let you know that the bulbs are good and that all the systems have passed their initial test. They should all go off after starting. If any light does NOT come on, especially the CHECK ENGINE light, you should be suspicious. Don’t wait until you own the car to find out that the previous owner disconnected the warning lights.

b) Check the condition of the antifreeze by checking the reservoir. There are many different types of antifreeze and each make and model has a specific color. So you can’t judge by color alone. Look for crud. If there are any particles floating, the vehicle has been neglected. That’s a bad sign

c) Check the condition of the oil by pulling the dipstick. If the oil is dark, ask the seller when it was changed last. To check, look for an oil sticker on the windshield to see when it’s due.

d) Listen to the engine while idling. You should not hear squeaks, chirps, or any grinding sounds.

e) Measure the tread depth with a tread depth gauge. They cost less than $5 at any auto parts store. Insert the gauge in three places on the tire tread on all four tires. Check at the outer edge, inner edge and the center. The readings should not very by more than 1/32-in. If it does, that indicates improper inflation or the vehicle is out of alignment. New tread depth is around 11/32-in. (varies by make and model). Minimum tread depth is 2/32-in. KNOW how much tread is left because tires are expensive.

f) Examine the tires and wheels. All four tires should be the same size, make, and model. Different tires can cause handling problems and loss of traction. Check the wheels to make sure none are bent.

g) Look for leaks. All older engines accumulate grease. But a leaking engine is pretty easy to spot because it’ll have drips on the driveway and the engine will have wet looking spots.

3) Check the body

  • Open and close the doors, hood, trunk, and rear hatch. They should open, close, and latch easily without slamming.
  • Operate all windows to make sure they open and close without binding.
  • Check the trunk for signs of water leakage
  • Operate the spare tire lift mechanism (if equipped) to make sure it’s in working order
  • Inspect the body panels for signs of rust or evidence of shoddy repair.

 4) Start it and drive it

  1. a) It should start up right away. If you have to depress the pedal or crank longer than a few seconds, there’s something wrong.
  2. b) It should idle smoothly when cold. Idle speed should drop as it warms up.
  3. c) It should idle smoothly when it’s warm.
  4. d) It should accelerate smoothly
  5. e) All transmissions are different, but with gently acceleration you should feel the 1-2 shift at about 15-mph, the 2-3 shift at around 25-mph, and it should go into overdrive at around 40-mph. The shift should be smooth with no clunking. If should go into Drive and Reverse smoothly, again with no clunking and no delay.
  6. f) The steering should be solid. If there’s play in the wheel, there are worn parts that cost a lot of dough.
  7. g) The front end should not dip when stopping. If it does, that’s a sign of worn shocks/struts
  8. h) The vehicle should not pull right or left. Let go of the wheel on flat pavement to see if it continue to drive straight. It’ll eventually move, but it shouldn’t go to one side immediately.
  9. i) It should stay in it’s own lane on bumpy roads. Wander is a sign of worn steering and or struts/shocks.
  10. j) The brakes should stop the vehicle without any pulsation or noise.
  11. k) With the engine running, operate the heater and air conditioning system. Check the fan operation on each speed. Move the passenger and driver temperature knobs (if equipped) to make sure both sides operate properly. Then change the mode from defrost to vent, recirculate, and then to the floor. The airflow should change with each operation.
  12. m) Set the cruise control and see if it maintains the proper speed.
  13. Operate the accessories to make sure they work:
  • radio • GPS • power seats • heated seats • power side mirrors • backup camera

Then, get a pre-purchase inspection

No matter how good you think you are at checking out used cars, if you don’t get it up on a lift to check for body and suspension rust, or scan the computer for signs or erased trouble codes, you’re gonna get screwed.

Pay a shop to fully inspect the vehicle before buying it. Then use the results of the inspection report to negotiate the price.

Negotiate the price contingent on an inspection

NEVER buy a car without having it inspected by a professional mechanic. Trust me on this. It’s the best $100 you’ll ever spend, especially if you don’t know much about cars. Here’s how to negotiate that.

Come to an agreement on the price but make the offer contingent on getting a good review by your mechanic. The seller will be suspicious that your mechanic will always find something wrong, so you should both agree on a threshold price. For example, “I’ll pay you $5,000 for this car as long as my mechanic says it’s in good shape and doesn’t need more than $300 in repairs.” Put it in writing so the seller never claims that you’re breaching the contract.

If you have emissions and safety testing in your state, ask your mechanic to check out those items as well.

Other helpful tidbits:

Get a carfax report BEFORE making an offer

Never buy a salvaged vehicle

Make sure the lien (bank loan) is paid off before giving money to the seller.

Have the seller write out a Bill of Sale

Remember, when you buy from a private seller, you are buying the vehicle AS-IS. That mans the second you pay for it, it’s yours. There is NO warranty. You have NO recourse against the seller.

©, 2013 Rick Muscoplat


Posted on by Rick Muscoplat

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