What to Check When Buying a Used Car

Posted by Pekin Insurance on Feb 15, 2016

You don't have to be a mechanic to spot a lemon if you know what to check when buying a used car. 


Ahhh ... that new car smell isn't what it's cracked up to be sometimes, especially if you're buying a used car. Your sense of smell, along with sight, sound, and touch (we're leaving taste out for obvious reasons) are all the tools you need when figuring out what to check when buying a used car.

When you buy a used car from a dealer, you have some assurances that the car has been checked by a mechanic, and there is also usually a limited warranty. You should still use your best judgment, but you especially need to know what to check when buying a used car from a private seller.

You can usually buy a car from an individual for less than the same car would cost at a dealership. The downside to this is that you have no guarantee of the condition of the car. Even the most honest, straightforward seller won't always know the true condition of their vehicle.

This plays to your advantage, however. If you know what to check when buying a used car, you have room to negotiate a better price. You'll also know when to walk away, quickly, from a "great" deal.

What to check: before you go

Before you leave your house to look at a used car, you need some information. Ask the seller if they have the title, the mileage on the car, if there are any mechanical problems, and how regularly the car was maintained. If they don't have the title to the car, there is no point in going forward. Without the title, you can't register the car in your name, which means you can't legally have the car on the road.

As for the mileage, mechanical problems, and maintenance, the answers aren't positive or negative by themselves. A Honda Civic with high mileage may still have more life in it than a low mileage Yugo, and if you're handy, not all mechanical problems are red flags. Still, it's helpful to know what you might be getting into.

Take a few minutes to do your research, as well. There are good reasons why some cars are no longer manufactured. Those might be the same reasons you don't want to buy one of those cars. While any individual car can be the exception to the rule, you'll want to find out the average sale price for the car you are looking at, as well as the general reputation. For instance, the Yugo mentioned above may not be such a great deal, even if it is only $100.

Wear old clothes that you don't mind getting dirty, bring a flashlight, and go during the day. You'll need to get on the ground to fully examine the vehicle, and even in daylight, a flashlight can help illuminate problem areas.

It is also a good idea to bring a trusted friend when you are checking out a used car. A second set of eyes of an unbiased observer can help you in what is undeniably an emotional moment.

What to check when buying a used car: the exterior

Cars have dents and dings. They have scratches. Some have ugly bumper stickers. None of those alter the quality or condition of the car, although you should check carefully for rust. 

Rust - Speaking of which, rust is not something you want to see on a car. Besides being unsightly, rust can compromise the structural integrity of a vehicle. While a small spot of surface rust isn't a dealbreaker, rust around the axles, engine mounts, or the floorboard is especially dangerous. Rust in those areas makes it more likely that the vehicle will literally fall apart on you.

Leaks - While you're looking for rust in the wheel wells and undercarriage, take a look at the ground and on the underside of the car. Are there any oil or fluid stains? A leak of any kind is a warning sign. While it could be something as simple as spilled windshield washer fluid, it could also be oil leaking from a failing head gasket. Not all leaks are indicative of engine failure, but at the very least, leaking fluids will cost you in repairs or buying extra fluids on a regular basis.

Tires - Check for proper tire inflation. Underinflated tires could just be a sign of neglect, or it could mean there is a slow leak. If you buy this car, you'll need to get that taken care of. To check the tread on the tires, insert a penny head down into the grooves of the tire. If you can see the top of Lincoln's head, then the tires will need to be replaced.

Glass - Check the windows and mirrors for any cracks. A crack in the windshield or broken mirrors may prevent the car from passing inspection.

What else to check: the engine

Even if you don't have any mechanic experience, the engine compartment should be on your list of what to check when buying a used car. 

Leaks - Just like underneath the car, when you open the hood, look closely for fluid stains anywhere in the engine compartment. There could be obvious stains, or there might be a slick film over the engine. A good, intact engine should be dry, for the most part, although you can expect it to be dusty and dirty.

Rust - Again, just like underneath the car, take a look around the engine compartment for areas of rust.

Fluids and corrosion - Check the fluid levels. A well-maintained car—even an older one—should have sufficient oil, brake fluid, coolant, and washer fluid. It may seem like a simple thing for an owner to overlook these, but this can give you insight into how well the vehicle was maintained. Also, look at the battery; the battery and its connections should be free from corrosion.

Belts and hoses - Manually check all the hoses and belts. Belts should be snug and free of cracks and tears. Radiator hoses (the large ones near the front of the engine) should be secure and solid. Any other hoses might be pliable, but should still be free of dry rot, cracks, and tears and should be firmly connected.

What to check when buying a used car: the test drive

The big moment if finally here, but don't roll away just yet. Once you start the car, there is a lot to check on.

Lights - This is where your friend will come in helpful. Turn on all the lights and walk around the car to make sure they all work. Once you are back in the car, test the brakes and the turn signals while your friend checks that they are in working order.

Ventilation - Turn on the heat, the air conditioning, the defrost, rear defrost, seat warmers, and any other climate controls. Notice how well they work, but also take note of any odd smells or sounds. There isn't much fun to be had when it's 15 degrees out and your heater smells like a skunk died in it.

Windows - Check the windows to make sure they roll up and down smoothly. You don't want to be stuck in a thunderstorm with windows that don't roll up all the way.

The drive - There's a lot to take in on the test drive. Start by shifting slowly into all gears, including reverse. Listen and feel for any unusual sounds or stickiness.

Drive forward slowly. The vehicle should be easy to handle and should go forward without pulling to one side or another. Make a few turns—again, slowly—while listening for any clunking sounds and making sure the steering wheel is smooth.

Check the brakes by stopping quickly at around 20 or 30 MPH. The brakes should feel firm and secure. Squealing or vibrations could indicate excessive wear to either the brake pads or the rotors.

Take the vehicle onto the highway where you can get a feel for the car at a normal driving speed. It should be free of vibrations, shudders, strange noises, and pulling to either side and should handle well enough that you feel comfortable driving it.

This might seem like a lot to check—especially if you aren't familiar with the mechanics of cars. But, think of this as a process of elimination before the final step, which is to take the car to a mechanic before you buy it. It's impossible to spot every potential problem in a used car, and many of those problems could be very minor. Your mechanic will be able to advise you on the potential cost of repairs; then you can decide if you are ready to buy the vehicle.

Finding the right car is important, but you need to find the right insurance, too. At Pekin Insurance, we take special care to provide families and individuals with affordable car insurance and quality coverage. Play it safe and contact us for more information.  

What else would you add to this? What do you check for when buying a used car? Let us know in the comments.


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