10 Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and purchase a new – well, used, but new to you – car. Whether you are in an emergency situation where you need a new vehicle as quickly as possible, or if you have been considering changing your car up for a while, there are many factors you must consider before making a purchase.

We will not be discussing price in this article, as that is entirely up to you and your budget. It is not important if you are buying an old Civic, a new Aventador, or a mid-2000s Dodge pickup. Regardless of the type, style, and age of the car you are considering, there are a few answers you will need to obtain before making a final purchase decision. Read on to find out the Ten Questions You Should Ask Before Buying a Used Car.

Are There Any Signs of Smoking or Pets?

Two of the biggest contributors to foul smells that cannot be removed from a car are tobacco smoke and pet odors. Unless you are a smoker yourself, you will probably want to closely examine the car for a stale tobacco odor. It is also worthwhile to check for burn holes in the ceilings and seats, as these are quite common in smokers’ cars. Pets will also leave behind significant traces. They may chew up parts of the interior furnishing, or they could have had an accident at one point on the carpet or seats. The smell of cat urine, in particular, is nearly impossible to remove once it gets into something. So, be sure to check for traces of pets as well.

Do the Doors, Locks, and Windows Work Properly?

One often-overlooked part of the pre-purchase inspection is fully testing the doors, locks, and windows. Many people are inclined to assume that all of these work – don’t make that mistake. Especially in older cars, locks may have become gummed up due to age and time. Door latches might also stick. Another common problem with manual windows is that they require an immense amount of effort to roll up or down, due to needing refreshed interior grease. Automatic windows might not work at all. Be sure to test every single latch, lock, and window on the car before purchasing it – or you might end up with an unwanted surprise.

Is the Check Engine Light On?

The most hated light in any car is the dreaded Check Engine light. This could mean as little as a faulty oxygen sensor or a loose gas cap, or it could be indicative of major engine problems. If you see that this light is on, it would be in your best interest to have it read so you know what the problem is. Many auto parts stores offer free readings for OBD-II or OBD-III diagnostics systems. So, it is definitely worth your time to swing by and have it checked out. It could save you some serious time and money in the future.

Is the title clear, clean, and in-hand?

A big problem that plagues the modern car market is title jumping. This occurs when a person purchases a car, and then ‘flips’ it quickly without ever paying licensing fees to have it put into their name. While you may not have trouble getting a jumped title registered to you, it is a better practice to only purchase a vehicle from somebody who legally owns it. Some other titles may be demarcated ‘salvage’ or ‘junk’. This usually means the car has been in an accident or natural disaster that caused the insurance company to rule it ‘totaled’. While some great cars can be had that hold salvage titles, be sure to take it in for a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection if the car has this type of documentation.

Are There Any Signs of Accident Damage?

It is usually easy to tell whether a car has been in an accident. There may be obviously bent parts, or scratches, or dents where the collision took place. However, some unscrupulous dealers and private parties may cover up the history of the vehicle with cosmetic repairs – even while dangerous mechanical damage lurks underneath. To check for hidden damage, it may be in your interest to bring a magnet with you. This can be run across the body to make sure it sticks everywhere. A ‘dead zone’ could be a spot in which a repair was made and then covered up. You should also look at the alignment of the doors and body panels. If anything doesn’t seem quite straight, the car could have been in an accident in the past.

How Are the Tires?

This isn’t a huge point, as tires can be had readily. However, if you are on a budget, you may require that the tires last you a little while longer. Balding tires are incredibly dangerous to drive on, as they could cause you to skid or may even blow-out. It is especially important to check the tread of the tires in the winter. Bald tires combined with snow, moisture, and ice is a deadly combination. It would be a shame to crash your new-used car right after you drive it off the lot or out of the previous owner’s driveway.

What Sort of Drivetrain Does It Have?

Modern vehicles can have many different types of drivetrains. It may be front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, or four-wheel drive. For the latter two, you should ensure that it works. In older vehicles, put the transmission into neutral and use the transfer case to test out the four-wheel drive. If it works, you will have noticeable resistance at full-lock (but don’t do this often). For other types of drivetrains, you should be prepared to make a transition if you are moving from one type to another. Each will handle very differently, particularly in snow, ice, or rain. Therefore, it is important that you are prepared to learn the new handling characteristics of your purchase.

Are Any Fluids Leaking?

This is one of the best possible things you can check for. Fluids that a car may leak include transmission fluid, engine oil, brake fluid, and coolant. If you notice any of these fluids leaking, you are guaranteed problems in the future. If you are not experienced in identifying fluids by their color and smell, you may want to bring along a gearhead to help you out. Leaking coolant, oil, or transmission fluid can be indicative of some of the most-costly repairs on any vehicle. In the worst-case scenario, the vehicle could have a head gasket or transmission issue that could cost thousands of dollars. Therefore, if you notice any fluids leaking be prepared to have it fixed, or pass up on the car.

How Common Is the Model? How Expensive Are Spare Parts?

These two questions are combined into one because they go hand-in-hand. When you are searching for a used car, you may come across some rarer or less popular models. These are great for car collectors, as they offer a look at the more obscure past. However, the rarer a car is, the more expensive spare parts tend to be. Therefore, if you are on a budget you should look for a car that has easily-available parts and is a more-common model. It is also less likely that a shop would make a mistake if you needed to take it in, as they will have worked on the same model of vehicle before.

Will it Pass Safety and Emissions Inspections?

If you are living in a state that requires safety and/or emissions inspections, this should be a main priority when looking to buy a used car. A car that fails either of these will end up requiring costly mechanical work to bring it up to scratch. Therefore, it is usually better to purchase one that will pass them right off the bat. Another advantage to this is that you can be sure that the car is in safe driving condition. It will also be environmentally-friendly (for a fossil fuel vehicle). It will also save you time and money in making your car inspection-ready.

If you ask the ten questions we have enumerated above, you are sure to have a better used car buying experience. However, there is no substitute for experience and thoroughness when evaluating a used car. Therefore, be sure to always bring your potential purchase in for a comprehensive preliminary inspection. The worst thing that can happen is you are out about $100 – which would be well worth not buying a lemon that would cost you ten to twenty times that much in repairs.


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