By Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

December 28, 2022
What You Should Check when Buying a Used Car

Whether is new or a used car, there are specific things that I recommend you check. You might be feeling anxious and excited on the prospect of your new vehicle but we'll cover the top things you need to check to ensure a good purchase overall.

If you are looking at a used car, there are common issues that are bound to happen. Items like wear and tear, engine leaks and interior smells are often part of the landscape with used cars.

Just follow the checklist below on the things you should check when you see the car in person to avoid expensive repair costs.

Pricing

Figuring out how much to pay for a pre-owned car isn't as clear cut as it is with new ones since there a lot of factors. Things like condition, mileage and ownership vary from car to car. I like to educate visitors that every car is unique.

You might have the same year, same model and make but the vehicle will have its own distinctive character. This is true for every used car that I have purchased.

TMV

Market Price

The first step in your journey is the determine the market price. Vehicle prices will vary depending on where you are looking. If you are buying from a dealership it would be considered Retail. However, if you are purchasing from a private seller, then you would be looking at Private Party prices.

Three of the most popular tools used for this purpose are the NADA Guide, Kelley Blue Book (KBB) and Edmunds.com True Market Value (TMV). I personally like KBB.com as they are the most accurate over the years I have used them.

All of the tools are free, so you should compare and use the number as a guide and not absolute. Look to aim for a fair price based on the latest information. 

As mentioned there is a Marketplace Price and Retail Value. The Market Price displays what you could acquire if you were buying from an individual seller. Retail purchase prices are typically $2,000-4,000 more based on the make and model.

As a result, the Retail Price for a vehicle will usually be higher than other pricing sources, as it incorporates the additional cost associated with having an experienced shop inspect and certify your purchase before sale. In addition, there may be additional documentation and dealer prep fees that are not advertised, so be sure to ask about them during your search.

Once you are happy and comfortable with the price, then it's time to look at the vehicle history report.

In addition, depending on the age of the vehicle, if its a 3-year old vehicle that just came out in the last few years, then you might have some of the balance available from the factory warranty. You will need to check the warranty period and see if the factory warranty is transferable.

Vehicle History Report

When you are buying a used car, it is important to do your research to make sure you are making a sound investment. Run a vehicle history report to help assess the condition of a used car. This type of report allows you to view the car's full service and repair history, including any potential issues with the vehicle.

This is my number #1 rule that you MUST always review the Vehicle History Report (VHR). You can obtain the report by inputing the vehicle identification number.

If you want to get an accurate view of a vehicle's history, services like Carfax or AutoCheck can provide you all available information that was reported.

If everything is good there, then you can run a free report to National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). NMVTIS offers consumers access to essential state-by-state title information on all motor vehicles so that they can assess potential odometer rollback, flood damage, frame damage, theft or fire damage etc.

Both Carfax and AutoCheck will have data from the vehicle's service records, number of previous owners, ownership history, and annual vehicle registrations. If you are lucky, you might determine that the seller is the original owners of the vehicle.

Private-party sellers will be able to share some history behind the ownership. This can include recent repairs and previous stories of past accidents.

Ideally, you will want to look for a low-mileage car that has on average 10,000 miles per year that has passed. If it's less, that is good. 

Carfax

Carfax has been providing consumers with reliable automotive history information on used cars for almost three decades. Their objective is still the same: to give customers an effortless way to uncover previous ownership histories, from collision reports and maintenance records all the way down to service advisories that may need attention before making a purchase of a pre-owned car.

AutoCheck

When shopping for that ideal car, AutoCheck takes it one step further by carefully examining each item and providing a unique score. This is especially helpful when comparing multiple vehicles as opposed to just relying on dealerships' reports. AutoCheck's details may differ from Carfax but it sometimes use AutoCheck based on what is available at that time.

AutoCheck is also a good option if it is available with the car listing.

Check All Electrical Systems

When purchasing a second-hand car, taking the time to closely inspect every aspect of its electrical system is important.

Today's vehicles are computerized and all the major components are powered.

Many components can be expensive to replace or swap out, so it's worth investing some extra effort into inspecting them properly. Make sure you give all lights (interior and exterior), heating & air conditioning systems, radios , license plate lights and other infotainment devices due consideration before making your purchase decision. Have someone with you and check the lights, all windows and sunroof.

Begin the diagnostic process by ensuring that all of your car's lights are in working order – headlights, taillights, signals and brake lights as well as dome or map light inside. To avoid any potential wiring damages over time, make sure any exterior bulbs have been replaced with stock bulbs that match both size and color. Sometimes aftermarket lighting systems can create a parasitic draw that will drain your battery.

Regarding the windows, if any of the windows jam halfway through, gently test if it rolls back up without difficulty before continuing further; listen out for peculiar motor noise or indication of bearing wear. Replacement of window regulators can cost from $200-$500 parts and labor.

Check the Heating and Cooling

Is the vehicle's Heating & A/C fan running properly? Does the blower motor speed adjust accurately? High speed should blow with more power than low-speed but not too loudly! The air should blow hot or cold air based on the settings. Heater core replacement or Air conditioner condensers are costly and can start at $1,000 to replace.

Make sure all the vents are blowing. Sometimes on older vehicles, the HVAC servo might be broken. While the parts might not be expensive, tearing into the dash to replace them will add up. 

Engine and Leaks

When you are in the market for a pre-owned car, it is essential to inspect and analyze its engine thoroughly. Poor maintenance or aging can cause leaks of various fluids - consequently, always be sure to examine the vehicle closely so that any such signs do not slip under your radar.

You can detect the need for maintenance on your vehicle by looking out for oil or coolant that has pooled up underneath it when parked.

You can look on the ground for any signs of stains on the asphalt. Oil will be black in color while transmission fluid will be reddish. If you smell a little sweet smell, then it might be coolant.

A leak could be indicative of a leak from an oil pan, valve cover gasket, radiator, hose or other components in the cooling system - all of which may require immediate repair. Additionally, exhaust leaks caused by broken seals and damaged pipes demand attention as well if you want to keep your car running smoothly.

An exhaust leak will cause the car to sound very loud and you will be able to hear it as you get closer to the leak. 

To ensure you acquire a competent vehicle, take the time to inspect its engine area thoroughly. Look for any signs of damage on seals and gaskets; all connectors and clamps should be strongly fastened in place.

Moreover, look under the hood during daylight hours so you can clearly identify oil- stained components or tears in hoses that may signal an issue with your chosen pre-owned car.

NOTE: Be weary on engine bays that are shiny and new. While it might be nice to look at, it could be signs that the seller is trying to hide previous leaks. Its best to find an engine bay that is reasonably clean but not recently shiny.


Interior Smells

When shopping for a used car, you may spend time assessing the condition of its interior.

But don't forget to factor in potential odors as well! Water can cause smells in the car as mold and bacteria can grow with humidity. You can also look under the carpet and trunk area for an sign of water damage such as rust or corrosion. 

Unpleasant smells resulting from mold or mildew growth due to leaks can be missed if there is a strong air freshener . Water will have a tendency to leak from areas like under floor mats or inside panels that are hard to spot. Similarly, watch out for telltale signs of cigarette smoke, pet hair, or food that could already be present within your vehicle.

Smoke is very hard to remove but we have an article that helps detail exactly how to get rid of smoke smell from car.  

The problem isn't as easy to solve as spraying an air freshener, if you'd like something more than a mask of artificial scent. Depending on the potency and source of bad odors in your car, eliminating them may be difficult, time-consuming work that could take many hours over multiple days. So be aware that smells in the car might be difficult to remove.

Musty odors could be a sign of water or flood damage. Be sure to check the floor mats and trunk for any water intrusion. 

Here is a quick tip: For those on a budget but wanting optimal results, place natural charcoal in key spots around the cabin - under seats, inside corners behind side panels - wherever there is potential to absorb malodorous agents. Furniture polishes with lemon or orange oil will temporarily break up unpleasant odors while leaving a pleasant aroma of their own; for even better outcomes try using organic solutions such as coffee grounds placed within open jars and bowls!

Bad Paint Work

As take a look at a used car, it's important to carefully examine the exterior and paint work. If any repairs have been made, make sure it's in good condition.

Rust can also be a potential issue in the future so be weary of rust bubbles or runs underneath the floorboards. Alongside checking for rust or corrosion that may be peeling through paintwork on door jambs and inside trunk trunks, be sure to take a good look over any car you’re considering buying.

The paint should be relatively smooth and if there is heavy oxidation, a good 3-step detail will help bring out the shine again. A professional car detailer will be able to restore 90% off the paint to showroom condition. Expect to pay between $200-$600 for a professional car detail. 

The body condition should have the same gaps between each body panel. Areas that have uneven or extreme gaps will indicate poor workmanship. 

Or worse off, the work might suggest that the painter was attempting to conceal bodywork damage.

However, if the paint is good enough and you are ok with the condition, then I would place greater importance on the mechanical condition on the vehicle. 

Final Thoughts

Buying a used vehicle is a great way to get a reliable car at an affordable price. But before you make your purchase, take the time to research the vehicle's history and have it inspected so that you know exactly what kind of condition it's in.

If you do your due diligence and are armed with the proper information, you can be sure to drive away with an excellent car for a fraction of what it would cost new. So get out there, start looking, and find yourself the perfect used car today!

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Anthony Santiago - Editor-in-Chief

About the author

I am a passionate car enthusiast who likes to help people save money and avoid headaches when it comes to cars. I believe that everyone can find the right car at the right price. I share my tips and experience so you can learn quickly and maximize your next SUV, truck or car purchase.

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