This ultimate guide to buying a used car will help you weed out the “lemons” the next time you decide to look for a used car. It covers most of the crucial things you should check. This includes everything from the preparation you should do at home, how to check the seller of the used car, how to check the outside of the car, how to check the wheels and suspension and more. Some sellers might not agree with you doing everything that is listed below. That alone will tell you that the seller is trying to hide something. Try to cover as many points as possible in order to prevent yourself a huge headache when buying a used car. This is a long article so let’s dive in.
How to prepare yourself before buying a used car
- Clothes, you do not mind getting dirty in case you lay on the floor and check underneath the car.
- Gloves so you do not get your hands dirty.
- Small battery lights or a phone with a strong LED light.
- A small magnet.
- Tyre pressure meter.
Recommended products to bring along when buying a used car
We recommend that you buy some sort of a Coating Thickness Gauge, we covered how to use them and which one should you buy in this article: Coating Thickness Gauge guide and The Best Coating Thickness Gauge on Amazon (With Reviews). Bringing this tool is much better than bringing a simple magnet.
Bring a good fleshlight, one of these should do: LED Fleshlights on Amazon.com
A simple tire pressure meter will also help greatly when inspecting the tires. A super cheap one like this one will do just good (7$): Koto Tire Pressure Gauge
Do not forget to bring a set of gloves so you keep your hand clean. Any of these will do you just fine: Gloves on Amazon.com
How to check the seller when buying a used car
- If its a private listing and the first thing a seller says is “which car?” Its most likely a reseller that does not care much about the car.
- Check if he is really the owner.
- Observe if he is pressuring you into a decision. There is a reason he is pushing you.
- Take notice if he is changing the topic of the conversation, this might indicate a hidden fault he does not want you to know about.
- If he is bragging about how much he invested into the car just so he can now sell it, it is most likely a lie or the car needs further fixing that he is not ready to take on.
- If the car is not old, but he is the third or fourth owner it is most likely that the car has a certain problem.
- Make sure he has all the documents for the car, make no exceptions.
- Call him out on excuses. For instance: “yeah, the car is just running bad because it is not being driven daily”.
- If the car has been wrecked, make sure to see some receipts or documentation as to where was it fixed. Badly repair wrecked car can cause major problems down the road.
- Make sure there is documentation about past service history. If there is non, do not believe anything the seller says. Run.
- If he does not allow you to take the car for a checkup at a nearby shop, just turn around and leave. There is a reason he does not want the car checked by a mechanic.
What to check on the outside of the used car
- Is the car dirty? If it is, you will have a much harder time identifying any paint damage and scratches.
- Is the car rusting? Check the wheel arches, the bottom of the doors, the hood and so on. Use the flashlight to help you.
- Check if the car has a valid rust guarantee. Depends on the age of the car.
- Was the car repaired and has plenty of fiberglass applied? Use the magnet or the coating thickness gauge to identify parts that should be made out of metal but are not.
- Check the exhaust and and the exhaust connecting points. Look for rust and damage.
- Was the car damaged? Check for color damage, check for changes in color tones and color residues on door seals.
- If the spaces between doors and the front bumper and the hood are too big or uneven this indicates that the car was once damaged and poorly put together.
- Check all the door seals, window seals. If they are damaged expect rust and other problems down the road.
- It is suspicious if the car has high mileage and no hood or front bumper damage from daily use.
- Check the front lights for any kind of damage or leakage. Moisture inside the lights indicates bad seals which can cause headlight failures. This can be very expensive if you have xenon or LED headlights.
- Pick up the floor mats and look for moisture and mold. If its wet there is also a high chance of rust underneath. Huge problem you do not want to deal with.
Check the tires of the used car
- Check the tires. Check the model, size and make, check the profile. If the size is not right, this might cause problems to your suspension and you might get into trouble with the law or insurance.
- Check if all the tyres are the same.
- Check the tyre pressures to indicate any tyre punctures.
- Does the car come with a spare tyre? Is it there?
- Are the tyres evenly used up, if not, this indicates suspension or setup problems. The car might have bigger problems that you might think. CHECK THIS.
Inspect the wheels, suspension and steering
- Turn the wheel all the way to the right and check the dampers. If they are wet and oily this indicates leakage. They need replacing.
- Grab the wheel and try to move it back and forth. If you feel loose moving space this indicates loose parts.
- Check the rotation on the steering wheel. Does it feel loose? Do you hear any weird cracking and popping sounds? If so, there can be all kinds of problems. Have the engine turned off while doing this.
- Turn on the engine and rotate the steering wheel, make small moves and observe the vibrations from the steering pump. If the vibrations are constant and strong, this might indicate oil leaks. Not a big problem, it might just be a bad seal.
Here is how to check the brakes of a used car
- Check the brake discs, are they evenly used? Look for weird patterns and engravings.
- Ask when they were replaced, when going on a test drive brake hard and check for vibrations on the steering wheel and weird sounds.
- Check or ask about the brake pads.
- Press the brake pedal as hard as you can. Even with full force it should not go the full way down. If it drops down with no problems there is a problem with the brake system (usually bad brake pistons).
- Check the breaking fluid!
How to make sure that the engine is ok when buying a used car
- Check the engine bay. Look at the bottom of the engine bay, it should be dry and relatively clean.
- Check for extremes, if its extremely dirty or extremely clean it is usually with a reason. They are either hiding some leaks or the engine bay protection might be missing or cracked.
- Check the cooling system for any obvious leaking. Check and squeeze the main hoses.
- Check the cooler fluid level.
- The cooling fluid should be clean.
- Check the oil level. The oil you see on the control stick should not be “glittery”. If it is, this in indicates engine bearing issues.
- Turn the engine on. Was there any problems with the start up? Is it running smoothly? Check the engine temperature when you start it up. If it is already at the working temperature, the seller warmed it up before you came there. You want a cold start.
- Listen to the engine. Any hard knocking and weird sounds are not welcome.
- After the engine has been running, open the oil cap and look for smoke. There should never be any smoke. This indicated bad piston rings and you may need to rebuild the engine. CHECK THIS.
- Check the exhaust while the car is running. Place a dirty cloth over the exhaust. The engine should stop in a few seconds. If not, this means there is an exhaust leak.
- Check the battery. A simple test is to turn on as many electric things as you can in a car (climate control, seat heating, interior lights). A healthy battery should not have any problems.
- Check the battery itself. The casing should not be damaged, the contacts should be properly lubricated.
How to check if the Transmission, clutch, differential, drive shaft are in working order
- Clutch test 1.: While the engine is running, try switching between all the gears. It should be smooth and without any noise.
- Clutch test 2.: Pull the handbrake and put the car in the second gear. Try to drive away. If the engine does not die, this indicates clutch slipping.
- Clutch test 3.: Without applying gas, start letting go from the clutch. The car should start slowly moving.
- The clutch pedal should have no more that 2 inches of dead travel.
- Look at the drive shaft boots, look for tears and damage. If they are clearly damaged this means that further damage could already be made on the drive shafts.
- When inspecting the automatic or manual transmission of the car, be on the lookout for the most common signs of transmission problems. We covered them in this article.
- Make sure you checkout if the differential is causing any problems that we described before on Lifeonfour. Check out our Differential problems article.
Inspecting the interior of a used car
- Check all the lights and switches. Do they function?
- Is the car manual still present?
- Move the seats around, check for any problems.
- Check the seatbelts. Are they clean and undamaged? Do they retract as they should? If they are torn or used up this usually indicates that the car has many miles.
- Check the seats, what is their condition? If the car has low mileage, the seats should be in perfect condition.
- Check the pedals, are they used up and without any grip? Again, low mileage cars should have intact rubber on the pedals.
- If you are looking at a cabrio, check the roof from the inside and out. Look for damage, leaks etc. Move the roof, listen and observe for anything abnormal.
- Did the previous owner smoke in the car? Get used to the smell if they did, it takes years for the smokey scent to disappear.
- If the cars has an aftermarket stereo system ask the owner how was it installed. Bad aftermarket installations can cause fires.
- Check if the car has all the common necessities (first aid kit, a jack, spare bulbs etc.).
Take a look at the car’s paperwork
- Check the engine number and chassis number. Make sure they match with those on the documentation. Buying a used car can turn into a big mess if you buy a vehicle with false paperwork.
- Make sure the seller is actually the owner. If he is not, he should have a written consent from the owner. This happens a lot when buying a used car.
- Make sure you get at least one or two spare keys.
- Use common sense and make sure to identify any suspicious behaviour from the seller.
- Check the cars history based on the VIN number, use: www.carfax.com
Take the used car for a test drive
- The main thing: you should be the one driving the car. When buying a used car, do not ever settle for purchase before a test drive. Make sure to drive over some speed bumps and sharp corners.
- Turn off the stereo and loud ventilation. Listen to the sounds the car is making.
- Did the cold engine start with any problems?
- Once the car is warmed up it should run smoothly. When applying gas it should be responsive. If the revs are not consistent or the car dies, this indicates bad fuel injectors, bad fuel pump etc. Expensive things to fix.
- Floor the gas pedal, no metal knocking sound should be heard. The should be and feel responsive.
- Drop the gas pedal. If you hear any noise from the drive shaft it usually indicates loose parts and seals needing replacement.
- Try to observe any exhaust crackling. If it is not a sports car there should be no crackling.
- Look in the rearview mirror. When you put your foot of the gas there should not be any smoke. If there is, this indicated bad piston rings. Expensive.
- Observe how the car is shifting, is there any hiccups or hard metal sounds? If it is a manual car, the shifting should be smooth. Observe the downshifts especially.
- In a manual car, when using the engine to break, there should not be any “howling” sounds coming from the transmission.
- Try to shift fast, make sure the transmission has no problems with you doing that.
- Drive shaft test: when driving in the second gear drop the gas pedal and listen. There should not be any knocking sounds. Do the same but with hard and sudden acceleration. It should all be smooth.
- Try hitting some light potholes or speed bumps. Listen for any weird and uncommon sounds. Things might be loose or worn out.
- Try turning rapidly, the car should follow swiftly. If the car is floating, the dampers are worn out.
- The steering wheel should not vibrate in any situation. If it does, the wheels might be damaged or a whole array of other things that can be hard to diagnose. No vibrations.
- Brake test: when driving down an empty road, break hard and observe. The car should break in a straight line. Make sure to stay safe and not wreck the car.
- Listen to the sounds while breaking.
- Test the climate control and heating. There should not be any weird smells coming out of the ventilation.
- If the car has a sunroof, test it out, look for any proof of leaking on the ceiling.
Frequently asked questions
Is buying a used car a good idea?
It is, but only when you buy a car with clear service history at the right price. Buying a used car before testing it out and checking out all the necessary paperwork can turn into a bad situation. It is also a good idea from a financial standpoint.
Is buying a used car worth it?
Yes, buying a well serviced and maintained used car is worth it for multiple reasons, including from a financial viewpoint. Used cars have already depreciated in price so you can expect to lose less money on servicing than in losing the value of a new car.
Is buying a used car better?
The correct answer here is, it depends. A used car is less reliable but financially it does make more sense if you buy the right car with a good service history. If you are looking for reliability and dont care about the cost of depreciation, choose a new car.
Is buying a used car with 100k miles bad?
No, it is not. A 100k miles should be no problem for any modern car if it was maintained and serviced properly. Make sure you check the car’s service history and that you take it on a test drive. Visiting a service center for an inspection is also recommended.
Is buying a used car from a dealership safe?
Yes, most of the time it is considered safer than buying from a private seller. You can get additional warranties on used cars and a receipt that can serve you as proof of purchase.
Is buying a used car better for the environment than a Tesla?
Yes, Tesla is only a few percent better at preserving the environment than regular petrol or diesel car. Consider buying a used car as recycling, it is always better for the environment to use what already exists than to buy new and create additional demand.
Is there any protection when buying a used car?
If you do not buy a third-party warranty then no, there is almost no protection. Most of the time, you buy a used car on the “as-is” principle which gives you almost no rights in court.
When buying a used car what to look for?
You need to start by doing a quick background check on the seller. Proceed to check the car’s paperwork, the exterior of the car, the interior of the car, the suspension, and the tires. Take the car out for a test drive to determine any other faults. Read our ultimate checklist for buying a used car.
When buying a used car does mileage matter?
Yes, it does to a certain extent. Even if the car has perfect service history, mileage and age do contribute to mechanical wear and material degradation. This can mostly be noticed on rubber seals and plastic parts. The internals of an engine also suffers a certain degree of wear as cars reach higher mileage.
Should you buy a used car without service history?
No, never! We cannot stress this enough. Clear service and maintenance history is one of the most important factors when buying a used car.