How to buy a used car

With the high price tag of new cars, and the quick depreciation rate of new vehicles, many consumers look for used cars for sale instead. And while investing in a used car may seem like a sensible option, buyers still need to be smart in their choices.

Used cars that are sold with hidden damage may become costly problems for the unsuspecting buyer. To avoid purchasing a proverbial lemon, here’s a checklist from CARFAX of 10 ways to help check the condition and value before buying a used car.

Mechanical Checklist

Here are some steps to take when inspecting a used car for mechanical issues:

  • Look carefully at the car’s exterior and interior.
  • Go for a test drive.
  • Perform a leak test.
  • Have a mechanic inspect the vehicle.

Look Carefully at the Car’s Exterior and Interior

Both the inside and outside condition of the car may play a large role in the value. Make sure to check the interior upholstery carefully, along with any repairs to the exterior of the car. That’s not to say you shouldn’t purchase a car that has been in a minor fender-bender, but you’ll want to make sure the exterior was repaired professionally and that the results are barely visible to the eye. Always open the hood and take a good look at the engine and parts. Dirty and rusted parts can be a strong indication that there may be trouble down the road.

Go for a Test Drive

It’s always best to take the car on a test drive on both local roads and highways. In different environments, you can get a good feel for how the car responds and performs. On local roads, you can feel how the car shifts and responds to sharp turns. You’ll also get an idea on the condition of the brakes with stop-and-go driving conditions. With a trip on the highway, you can see if the engine runs smoothly or not. While on a test drive, keep your eyes and ears open. Make sure to note any unusual engine or brake noises, and whether or not all of the electronics in the car are working properly.

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Perform a Leak Test

Any car that is leaking fluids is generally a red flag for a needed repair. While you’re on a test drive, take a moment to park in a clean area on the road, and let the car run for at least 30 seconds. Then, move the car and do a visible inspection for any leaking substances. Black fluid might be an indicator of leaking oil, green fluid may indicate a leak in anti-freeze and pink fluid may indicate a leak in the transmission.

Have a Mechanic Inspect It

Some people don’t take the time to have a mechanic inspect their used car before purchase. This may lead to an expensive repair down the road. The cost to have a car inspected by a professional can be well worth the price. A mechanic is the professional who can help you discover hidden problems and also assist with determining the car’s value. If there are going to be any major problems with the engine or transmission in the future, this is the professional who can let you know.

Research Checklist

Once you feel the car is in good condition, consider these steps to further research the vehicle:

  • Read reviews on the make and model.
  • Figure out a fair purchase price.
  • Make sure to decode the VIN.
  • Review the vehicle history report.
  • Consider looking at certified pre-owned vehicles.
  • Take your time to help avoid buyer’s remorse.

Read Reviews on the Make and Model

Do a bit of detective work on industry and consumer reviews on the make and model to help uncover possible defects or even common problems. You can easily do this by researching online.

Figure Out a Fair Purchase Price

To help ensure that you are being charged a fair price, make sure to compare prices for the same make, model and year with several sources. Checking Kelley Blue Book and dealer prices can simply be done online. Even though condition and mileage will play a role in price, you can still get a ballpark figure of the current price.

Make Sure to Decode the VIN

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Checking a VIN decoder chart is a quick way to see if a used car’s VIN information matches up with what’s in the vehicle title and records. VIN cloning is a scam where sellers replace the VIN of a stolen car with one that is legally registered. Help prevent this type of fraud by decoding the VIN of the vehicle in question.

Review the Vehicle History Report

A vehicle history report can help you see title problems, ownership history, service points and previous accidents, large or small. These reports may be available from dealers or ordered online. CARFAX offers a report you can purchase; it’s one of the most comprehensive, because it’s pulled from a database of more than six billion car records.

Consider Looking at Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles

Purchasing a certified pre-owned car can be a wise choice because it usually offers the buyer an extra level of quality assurance. Many local car dealers offer these vehicles with warranties that extend beyond the initial new coverage.

Take Your Time to Help Avoid Buyer’s Remorse

To avoid buyer’s remorse, never rush into buying a used car. Taking the time to do thorough research and negotiating for the right price is one of the ways you can help ensure you’re getting a good deal on a vehicle.

Following these 10 tips may help ensure that you don’t get stuck with a lemon. You’ll have all the information needed to help you make an informed decision, whether you decide to buy or not.

Mike Orsini is the head of blog marketing at CARFAX.

Originally published April 9, 2013.

Buying a used car might save you money — but it may also come with surprises. Keep these 10 things in mind to help you avoid ending up with a lemon.

Get a feel for how the car runs. Any weird engine noises? How are the brakes?

Park the car and let it idle for 30 seconds. Then pull forward and see if anything leaked.

Take a good look inside and out. If the car’s been in an accident, ask for a receipt of the repair work and make sure the repairs were done professionally.

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Use your internet sleuthing skills to find consumer reviews of the make and model.

While you’re online, compare prices from several sources.

Getting an inspection from a mechanic before you buy can be well worth the price.

Certified pre-owned cars may offer an extra level of quality assurance.

Check a VIN decoder chart to make sure the car’s VIN information matches what’s in its title and records.

If the car has any skeletons in its closet, a vehicle history report may help you find them.

Overall, don’t be too quick to pull the trigger.

Steer to for more car-buying tips.

Access, aim, pull the trigger

So, you’ve researched which car to buy–but if you were to look under the hood you’d have no idea what you were seeing. Before you go to buy a car, cozy up to a friend who knows his or her way around a vehicle and bring them along.

While a CarFax report will tell you a lot about the car’s history, a wise friend or family member can tell you about the car’s future. When you look–when will the tires need replacing? How does the transmission look? Was the car cared for and maintained? A car enthusiast will know how to spot red flags or areas of neglect under the hood and their careful eye is well worth the price of lunch or a six pack of beer!

When your savvy friend has given you the thumbs up, you can see if you want to negotiate off of the listed price. Being armed with facts of upcoming replacements or identified issues will help you get money off of the asking price–but be prepared to walk if you’ve identified big issues that even a few dollars off the top won’t solve.

If you’ve ever bought a used car, we’d love to hear from you to share more tips with the ChooseFI community to shop smarter and save money along the way!

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How To Buy A Used Car

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