If you’re in the market and you’ve decided to buy a used car, there are a lot of considerations to take into account. Though more expensive, shopping for a new car is easier. It’s a given that no new car has a secret past, and the warranty will take care of any defects. When buying a used car, the savings can be significant, but if you overlook some important factors, you could be in for more trouble than it’s worth.
Unless you have a friend who’s an expert at this, you should do the following checks yourself to see if the car is worth bringing to a mechanic for professional verification. There may be obvious issues that will quickly disqualify a vehicle from consideration or give you leverage for negotiating a lower price. Hiring your own mechanic to perform an inspection will cost between 50 and 150 dollars, so these preliminary steps can save you time and money on a potential lemon.
What follows are the steps you should take when evaluating a used car before getting a professional inspection. Be sure to take detailed notes as you follow the steps below. The list you make will help your mechanic guide your decision and will serve as discussion points when negotiating the price with the owner.
CHECK THE FOR SALE SIGN
How old is the car? What’s the asking price? What’s the mileage?
If the asking price is just slightly out of your price range, it’s still worth considering. There are likely overlooked flaws or issues the owner would rather you don’t notice that you can use as fodder for negotiation.
For any car you think of buying, check the blue book price. Kelley Blue Book assumes an estimated mileage based on the age of the vehicle. When you check the specific car for the blue book price, you can enter the exact mileage, and the price will shift to match it. Another valuable resource for bargaining is eBay Motors. You can look up completed auctions for the same car you’re looking into and see what they tend to go for.
To give you a sense of averages, the average car owner will drive 15,000 miles per year. If you stumble upon a roadside dream car, you can do the math in your head to see if it’s an average used car. In other words, if the car is two years old with 60,000 miles on it, you can anticipate higher maintenance and repair costs.
CHECK THE BODY
If the car isn’t clean, it will be difficult to assess the paint job. It’s a judgment call whether this oversight of the owner’s can be extrapolated to doubts about the rest of the car. If someone doesn’t clean a car to sell, it might be reasonable to doubt their dedication to maintenance and upkeep. Also, don’t bother inspecting a wet car. Water will cover scratches and dents.
Check for dings, dents, rust, and scratches. Even the smallest blemishes could cost $100 to repair. If you’re not terribly concerned with small-time cosmetic issues, you should still take detailed notes of the body because it’s great for negotiating the price down. If you are concerned with owning a blemish-free car, be aware that the older a car is, the harder it will be to get a perfect color match for repairs.
To check for where dings and scratches may have been repaired, imagine yourself staring down a pencil to see if it curves. Now take that approach and look at the sides of the car head-on. You should be able to spot any places where patchwork paint was applied over blemishes.
Check the windows. Small cracks become big cracks over time, and replacing car windows isn’t cheap. Windshield replacements cost over $500. Just as you looked at the body at different angles, do the same for the windows because chips and cracks can be hard to see.
While you’re already looking at the windshield, check the inspection sticker to see how soon you’ll have to get it inspected again. An expired inspection sticker could indicate a problem. Tell the owner you will want an updated government inspection before you buy. If they refuse, it’s probably wise to walk away.
CHECK THE WHEELS AND TIRES
Now, check the tires. This should be done on level ground. Otherwise it will be difficult to judge if the tires are uniformly worn and if the suspension is level.
First, check if all four tires are the same. They should at least all be the same size. Ideally they would be the same brand too. Make sure that all of the rims are the same and that they are not excessively worn, rusted, or cosmetically damaged. Differences and disparities will wear out a car much faster than if the wheels and tires are uniform.
The wear on each tire should be identical to the other three. If wear and tear is uneven, this could point to bad tire alignment, which itself may indicate damage of the steering components, the suspension, or even the frame.
Now, you’re going to want to check how much life the tires have left because tires are not cheap. To do this with a little more accuracy than eyeballing it, grab a penny. Insert Abe Lincoln head first into the tread of the tire. If the top of his head is visible, that means the tread is worn down significantly and you’ll have to replace the tires soon. Do this on all four tires to double check that wear and tear is uniform.
CHECK THE UNDERCARRIAGE
While your mechanic will do a more detailed inspection, it’s worth checking the undercarriage for obvious disqualifying problems.
Look for rust and bends in the undercarriage. Run your hands under the edge of the car, just under the door, which is a common problem area for rust.
When you check the back, pay special attention to the shell under the trunk that holds the spare tire. If the car had any serious rear-end collisions that the owner’s not telling you about, you can likely find evidence of it on the spare tire shell, which is impossible to straighten out completely but is usually replaced only in cases of extreme damage.
Check the axles, suspension, and exhaust system for rust or black spots that might indicate leaks.
This part is pretty self-explanatory with regard to checking cosmetic issues. If the carpet looks suspiciously new, the owner might not be telling you about flood damage. If your suspicions are piqued, check the bolts under the seat; the under-seat hardware is never coated and will be rusty if it ever flooded.
Turn the engine on to see if any dashboard alerts appear. Check the radio, windshield wipers, headlights, turn signals, and air conditioning. Check the mileage to verify that it matches the advertised mileage.
Also, don’t forget to open the trunk and check the edges for rust or residue that could indicate leakage.
CHECK THE OWNER
You’re almost ready to get a more detailed inspection, but before you do, there are important things to know from the owner.
Ask for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and run a vehicle history report. You can also just get it yourself. The VIN is usually printed in the lower left-hand corner of the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel, when you’re looking through the windshield. If it’s not there, it will be in the front of the engine block. Punch the VIN in at AutoCheck or CarFax. There’s a lot you can tell from the previous steps, but a full report will give you the accident history, if an insurance company has ever declared it a total loss, and if the odometer has been tampered, which happens more than you think.
Ask to see the title. The owner or dealership should have the title. If they don’t there’s likely a loan or lien on the car. For electronic titles, the local DMV can verify ownership and transfer the title.
THE NEXT STEP
The next step is to move forward by roping in your own mechanic – not one recommended by the owner – to go over the vehicle with a fine-tooth comb to find dealbreakers, upcoming maintenance issues, and any possible points to negotiate over.
It might sound like a lot, but approaching the purchase of a used car carefully can save you time, money, and the frustration of needing to buy another car sooner than you’d like.
And remember that no car is invincible. That’s why the Alliance for Affordable Services offers the Association Motor Plan, which offers 24 hour free access from anywhere in the U.S. and Canada with coverage up to $125 per event should your vehicle become disabled or damaged. Alliance Direct Benefits is committed to helping you save money while traveling and arrive at your destination safely.
For more information, and to become an Alliance member, visit the Alliance Direct Benefits website today or call us at 1-800-733-2242 (M-F, 7am-5:30pm Central Time).