How to Buy a Used Car

Before the Test Drive

Check underneath where the car has been parked to see if any fluids have been leaking. 

Make sure all four tires are the same size and brand. Check the tread for uneven wear. Uneven tire wear could indicate that the front end is out of alignment or there may be past accident damage. 

Check the engine oil with the car shut off. It should be a honey color and on the full mark of the dipstick.

Check the power steering fluid with the car shut off. There are different marks on the dipstick depending on whether the engine is hot or cold.

Check the brake master cylinder. The fluid should be clean and should be between the “min” and “max” marks on the reservoir. 

Check the radiator coolant level.  The level should be between the “min” or “cold” mark and the “max” or “hot” mark on the coolant tank.

Ask if there is a service history. If there is a service history with the car, this is a good indication that the car has been maintained.

Check Carfax (or similar service) history. This will let you know if the car has been stolen, wrecked, etc. If you are buying from a dealer, sometimes they will provide this service.

Check the paint and bodywork. Small dings and scratches are normal for a car a few years old. There should be no rust spots, bubbling paint, mismatched paint, etc. Sight down the side of the car. There should be no ripples in the bodywork. Check for cracks in the head or taillights. 

Undercarriage: Check beneath for rust and any parts hanging down. Slight surface rust on a 5 year old car is normal.  

Check the horn, windshield wipers, and make sure all of the lights work. Make sure all of the windows roll up and down. If equipped with  power locks make sure they work.

Check the interior for any rips or tears. If the car has a musty smell inside the interior has been wet, either from a leak, or the car has been in a flood. If the car has high miles but the carpet and seats look like new, the owner may have replaced these items just to sell the car.

Check the trunk to make sure there is a spare tire and jack present. 

During the Test Drive

Brakes: If the brake pedal has a lot of travel before the brakes actually take hold, the brake fluid may be low, or there could be a problem with the master cylinder. A squeaking noise that goes away when the brakes are applied are the wear indicators. This is a warning that the brake pads need replacing. A squealing noise when the brakes are applied means the pads are already worn out and the pads and rotors will need replacing. A pulsating in the steering wheel when the brakes are applied could mean the rotors need replacing.

Steering: Make sure when on a straight level road the steering wheel is not crooked. This could indicate a tire or alignment problem. The steering should feel tight with no wandering. You should not have to constantly see-saw the wheel back and forth just to go straight. If  this happens the front suspension may be worn. If there is a squealing noise while turning the steering wheel there may be a problem with the power steering pump, or maybe the power steering belt needs tensioned. If you hear a loud clicking noise while making a turn the CV joints may be worn out. This is a very expensive repair.  

Check the heater and air conditioning. Check the radio and power antenna. Check the cruise control.

After the Test Drive

Check the Transmission fluid after the car has been driven a few miles and with the engine still running and in park. The fluid should be bright red and on the full mark on the dipstick.

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