When you buy a new car, its value drops tremendously the moment you drive it off
the lot . This is perhaps the main reason why people buy used cars. The other
major reason is simply the cost. But therein lies the rub. Go about it the wrong
way, and that used car costs you more than a new one would have cost.
ten tips will help you understand some key points about the process. But to
ensure you don't get ripped off, buy our
Getting a Great Deal on a Used Car course.
- Do your homework. Look at Consumer Reports and other reviews of older
cars. Hint: Check for recalls. If there was a recall of this model, was this
- Automatic reaction. Don't be taken in by the color, looks, or how clean
it seems to be under the hood. Hint: If the upholstery has burns, if the car
smells musty/mildewy, if the sticker on the windshield indicates the oil
hasn't been changed in over 5,000 miles, you are looking at a car that has
not been well maintained.
- Manual or automatic? A manual transmission will get better gas mileage,
be less apt to have transmission problems, and be less expensive to repair.
Hint: Anyone can and should be able to drive a stickshift, just in case they
have no other choice. Travel outside the USA, and you often don't have a
choice (because in other countries, they don't want to waste gasoline the
way Americans do with gas-guzzling automatic transmissions).
- Drink plenty of fluids. And check the all the car's fluids: oil,
transmission, brake, steering fluid, and coolant. Look for spots under the
car, and identify what fluid is leaking. Hint: oil is a light (nearly clear)
blackish/brown, transmission fluid is red, brake fluid is a light (nearly
clear) brown, steering fluid is clear or red, coolant is usually green (but
may be pink).
- Under the hood. Check for bulges in hoses, white junk on the battery
terminals, and rough edges or cracks in belts. Hint: If a car is good
otherwise, worn hoses and belts can be replaced. This isn't necessarily a
- What a body! Check to make sure that the body is aligned. Look at
the doors to see if the spaces around them are even. Same for the hood and
trunk. Make sure there are no cracks, mismatched paint, ripples, and other
"special effects." Hint: If the car is a unit body and you see it has been
welded anywhere, walk away.
- Have a seat. Make sure all the seats are comfortable and that they move
correctly. Make sure all the doors, windows and glove box open and close
easily. And latch properly. Check for moisture on floor boards and seats
(lift up the carpet mats and feel with your hands). Make sure all the locks
work. Hint: Push and pull on locks, buttons, door handles, sun visors, etc.
- Turn it on. Start the engine, test air conditioner, heater, radio,
vents, defrost, blinkers, lights, wipers, and horn. Hint: Listen for unusual
sounds in the engine and be aware of unusual smells such as anti-freeze or
exhaust and don't listen to the salesman when he insists that the Check
Engine light being doesn't mean anything. In fact, any sales person who says
this is not to be trusted. A good sales person will say that light could
indicate a problem. A good sales person will either promise to have that
looked at, or will show you a different car. A good sales person doesn't
want you coming back as an unhappy customer.
- Go for a ride. Gun it to see how much power the car has. Test the brakes
to see how firm or soft they are. Check out the turning radius of the car.
Hint: The car shouldn't pull to one side or the other. Does the car shake
and shimmy? Rattle and roll? Expect some noise and some vibration from a
used car. But draw the line pretty low.
- Last but not least. Make sure the key unlocks the trunk and check it
out. Make sure it is dry and has no rust; pull up the mat and look. Hint:
Check to see if there is a spare tire and jack.
Biggest hint. Before purchasing a used car, take it to a reputable mechanic
for a professional analysis. Yeah, you can bring your buddy who "knows cars" to
look at the car you're considering. But your buddy isn't going to hook the car
up to an analyzer that checks a huge number of metrics. A pro can. Talk to the
seller about the mechanic's inspection as part of the final closing of the deal.
Typically, this will be at your expense. But it's worth the investment.