Your previous car was reliable for a while, but it’s time to replace it. You’ve decided to buy a used car and have a few options in mind. Taking the vehicle for a test drive will give you a sense of how it handles on the road.
That said, you shouldn’t base your buying decision on the test drive alone. Give the car a thorough inspection, inside and out, before you finalize the deal.
Check the Exterior
The car’s exterior can give you an idea of its overall condition. For example, a vehicle that’s been in several accidents is likely to have visible evidence of those accidents. A car that hasn’t been well cared for will have signs of more than usual wear and tear.
Take a close look at the following when checking out a used car.
- Body: Do you see scratches or dents on the body of the car? Are there rusty spots or areas with blistered paint? Dents and scratches can mean the vehicle was in an accident, while rust and bubbly paint can be signs of significant damage. Assess the condition of the doors and seals, as well. If the door joints feel loose, you may want to consider a different vehicle.
- Tires: While you don’t have to kick the tires, they’re important to check. Tires are expensive to replace, so make sure they aren’t worn down. They should have a tread of at least 1/16″. Take a close look at the wear pattern on the tires, too. You want to see signs of even wear. Uneven wear can mean the previous owner drove aggressively or that there’s a problem with the brakes.
- Suspension: The car should be level with the ground. Its shock absorbers should be in good shape to ensure a comfortable ride. You can test the shock absorbers by pushing down on the car on the corners. It should go up and down just once, not multiple times.
- Windows: You want car windows that open and close easily with no air leakage. You should be able to open and close the windows fully and easily. If there’s a sunroof or moonroof, it should open without issue. Check the seal on it, too, as you don’t want to get rained on when driving in inclement weather. Look for chips or cracks in the glass also, which can potentially lead to a costly repair.
Check the Interior
Don’t make the mistake of not inspecting the inside of the car before you buy it. Here’s what to look for.
- Upholstery: What’s the condition of the fabric or leather covering the car seats? Does it smell like mildew, mold, or cigarette smoke? Look out for rips or signs of wear as well. Check the carpet for similar signs of damage, such as a musty smell or a damp feel.
- Ignition: Turn the key in the ignition and see what happens. Does the engine start? Do any warning lights turn on?
- Controls: Try out the different controls on the panel. Does the heater warm the interior quickly? How about the air conditioner? Does it take longer than it should to cool down? Give the sound system a try, too, and check to see if you can connect your smartphone if you’re planning to use that for music or directions.
Look Under the Hood
When the engine is cool, take a look under the hood. A car that’s well maintained will last longer and have better gas mileage than a car in poor shape. If you’re not familiar with the features below, consider taking a car savvy friend or family member with you to help get a full understanding of the car’s condition.
- Fluids: Look at the levels of transmission fluid, oil, coolant, and brake fluid. Also, check out the condition of the fluids. The oil, for example, shouldn’t be viscous or black. If you notice a burnt smell, that can be a sign of serious car trouble.
- Belts and hoses: Check out the drive belts to ensure they haven’t started to fray or wear out. Make sure the rubber hoses feel supple, too. A stiff hose is likely to crack or break down.
- Battery: Give the battery a once-over, looking for signs of corrosion by the terminal. If there’s a charge indicator, it should be green – not black or yellow.
How Is the Car Being Sold?
You have rights as a car buyer, whether you purchase from a dealer or through a private sale. However, your exact rights depend on how the car is sold.
If you buy a car “as-is,” you have few rights if the vehicle ends up being in bad shape. The seller made no claims or guarantees about its condition, and you decided to accept anything when you agreed to the sale.
Buying a car with a warranty gives you a little more protection as a consumer. The seller agrees to pay for repairs if needed. How much coverage the warranty provides should be put in writing.
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