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Friday, September 7, 2018

Used Car Buying Tips

By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy of flickr
No matter how much you baby your car, sooner or later it comes time to move on.  Unless you intend to buy a new car, there are several things you need to consider before you sign on the dotted line.  This is true whether you buy your car with a private owner or from a used car lot.  There are too many ways to hide damage, roll back an odometer, or make a car seem more road worthy than it really is.  If you want to avoid winding up with a lemon, here are some tips you need to heed.

Before you schedule a test drive – This is what I like to call the look before you leap part of the strategy for finding a trustworthy used car.  Since the owner or dealer is hardly going to divulge that they are trying to unload a lemon, you need to ask some questions before you even get in the driver’s seat. 

      1.      Do you have a clear title on the vehicle? - The only correct answer is, “Yes.”  If you hear anything else, hang up the phone.

      2.      Can you provide me with a CarFax on the vehicle? – This will let you know if the car has ever been in a wreck or a flood, as well as pertinent information regarding the title, mileage, and maintenance.  It will even tell you how many owners the car has had. (Note: The fewer owners, the better.)

      3.      If you’re speaking to an owner, ask why they decided to sell the car. You'd be surprised what you can learn about a car's history and flaws by going straight to the horse's mouth.

Image courtesy of wikimedia
      4.      Ask if there are any cosmetic or mechanical defects.  The last thing you want to do is drive halfway across town to find a big dent in a quarter panel or a puddle of oil or transmission fluid under the vehicle.  Was the car garaged or parked on the street?

      5.      Find out how long ago the tires were replaced.  Particularly if the car has 35,000-50,000 miles on it, you could wind up buying a car that will need four new tires in no time. 

      6.      Also, find out how frequently the car has been maintained and if you can see the maintenance records.  Some people baby their cars by changing the oil and rotating the tires on a regular basis, while others do not.  If a car has 50,000 miles on it, there’s usually a major overhaul required.  Has this been accomplished, or is the owner leaving that for you to do?

      7.      Find out if the present owner or car dealer will let you take the car to your mechanic before you buy it?  This could save you a lot of grief, since a mechanic will be able to detect damage you’d never think of looking for.

      8.      If you’re talking to a used car dealer, make sure they have the car on the lot you want to see.  Some dealers will post ads for cars with low prices and low mileage to get you onto the lot, only to tell you the car was sold.

The Walkaround - Once you’re satisfied the car is worth a look and the owner or dealer is worth dealing with, it’s time to schedule a test drive.  The only time to do this is in the daytime.  If you agree to check a car out after dark, you’re looking for trouble.  Scuffs or scratches on paint or chrome that stick out like a sore thumb during the day, all but disappear after dark.

      1.      Before you climb behind the wheel, perform a visual inspection of the vehicle.  Scrutinize the car’s finish.  Check out the tread wear.  Open and close all the doors, the windows, and the trunk.  Lift up the carpeting in the trunk to see if you can detect any mildew or rust, which is a dead giveaway the car has been in a flood.  Turn on all the lights and the windshield wipers.  Get down on your knees to see if anything is leaking from beneath the car.

Image courtesy of wikimedia
      2.      Before you climb into the driver’s seat, jump in the backseat.  How much space is in the backseat and how many people have been back there? There’s a big difference between a car that was driven by an individual, as opposed to a family of four.  Is the backseat like new, or does it show a lot of wear?  Are there any food or beverage stains on the backseats or carpet?  Do the backseat seat-belts work properly?  Do you detect any odors? 

      3.      Once you move to the front of the vehicle, note the wear on both the driver and passenger seat, as well as the condition of the carpet and mats.  If the carpet appears brand new, it probably is, which should make you wonder why someone went to the trouble of changing it.  If there are mats, make sure you pull them up to see what’s beneath.  Check to make sure the seats adjust smoothly, whether they’re power or manual. 

      4.      Dashboard Check – Today’s cars are more computer than  automobile.  If you see any warning or caution lights illuminated, you could have a major problem.  Even if there are no warning lights on, you need to make sure all the electronics function properly. 

      5.      Engine Compartment Check – Before you start the car, I suggest opening the hood.  Take a look at the condition of the engine, the belt, and the battery.  Pull off the air filter and see if it’s clean or dirty.  Pull out the oil dipstick to check the level and color of the oil.  Pull out the transmission dipstick and sniff it to see if you can smell anything burning.

      6.      Start the Engine - With the hood open, start the car. Do you smell anything burning or hear any whining or knocking?

The Test Drive – Now that the car has passed your inspection, it’s time for a road test.

Image courtesy wikipedia
1.      Before you pull into traffic, make sure all the mirrors are properly set. (This also gives you a chance to make sure all the mirrors work.) 

2.      Test the brakes, including the anti-lock feature and the parking brake.

3.      Make sure all the gears work by driving in reverse, then shift through all the forward gears. 

4.      Put the gearshift in D and take the car out for a road test, preferably on the highway.  This will give you a chance to test the acceleration, as well as making sure the wheels aren’t misaligned and that the cruise control works properly.  You'll also be able to find out how noisy car is when cruising down the highway.  

The Post-Test Drive Chat – Once the test drive has been successfully completed, you still have a few tasks to complete.  The first is to pop the hood again to give the engine compartment one more look and sniff.  A hot engine can reveal defects a cold one won’t. Find out what, if any, warranty comes with the vehicle.  Now’s the time to peruse the CarFax, if you haven’t yet done so.  Last but not least, you need to take the car to your mechanic to get his nod of approval.

Since cars are so expensive these days, you need to make sure you choose a vehicle that isn’t going to spend more time with your mechanic than it does with you.  If you discover any issues with the vehicle, you can either pass on the purchase, or haggle with the owner over price.  Whatever you decide, make sure you're confident that the vehicle is likely to stand the test of time, or you could wind up regretting your decision to purchase a used car.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more ways to save on car insurance, check out her website at

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