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Things to Look for in a Used Car

Written by: Editorial Staff

April 9, 2013
Filed Under Autos 


used carContributed by Info Guru Angela Hail

Looking for a used car can be a nerve wracking experience, especially if you have a limited budget and aren’t a mechanic.

The perfect solution would be to take a mechanic with you to inspect each new prospective vehicle, but most of us don’t have that luxury. Whether shopping the preowned inventory at a dealership or considering making your purchase from an individual owner, there are some simple things even a lay person can look for to avoid buying a lemon.

10. Mileage


A lot of stock is put into how much mileage a car has on it, but this is not always the most important indicator. It would behoove you to go to the Kelly Blue Book websites to look up the year, make, and model of any car you’re considering to see how much mileage that vehicle typically goes before it gives up the ghost. Some makes, like Honda, Toyota, and Subaru are known for their longevity if well taken care of.

9. Alignment


Bad alignment will cause uneven wear on your tires, which can get costly if you’re having to get new tires every few months. A quick and easy way to check this is to take your hands off the wheel briefly and see if the car drifts to one side or another. If it does, the car will need an alignment.

8. “Shimmy” at High Speeds

“Shimmy” at High Speeds

A sure indicator that this car needs new tires, and needs them now, is if the car starts to shimmy and shake when you hit 60 – 65 mph. New tires aren’t always a deal breaker, if you think you’ll be able to cover the immediate cost, but it is something to consider in negotiating the cost of the car.

7. That Clacking Sound When You Hit a Bump

That Clacking Sound When You Hit a Bump

If you hear this sound when you’re taking this car out for a test drive and the tires hit a bump, it’s a fairly clear indicator the car needs tie rod ends. Again, not necessarily a deal breaker if you can negotiate on the price, but know that it’s an expense you’ll have to pay sooner rather than later.

6. Shifting Issues

Shifting Issues

Difficulty in shifting, either in a standard or an automatic, means big trouble. Transmission trouble, to be exact, and anyone who’s ever had their tranny rebuilt will tell you it isn’t cheap. If you’re test driving an automatic, listen to the engine as you accelerate and see if it sounds like it’s shifting easily through the gears. It should never sound like it’s got to work hard (usually indicated by a high revving sound) before dropping into the next gear.

5. Overheating


Ask the seller if the car has any history of overheating, and watch the temperature gauge on your test drive. It could be a thermostat (usually an easy fix), or it could be a coolant leak, which may or may not be a much bigger deal. Either way, overheating is hard on an engine, and one that’s been through this a few times isn’t likely to last long.

4. Strange Smells

Strange Smells

If you smell anything off—smoke, metallic fluid smells, something burning—it’s worth investigating. If you don’t know what it is, it might be better to simply walk away.

3. Oil Leaks

Oil Leaks

It’s fairly common for older cars to leak some oil, but you need to make sure the leak isn’t too extensive. Pop the hood and look at the engine. If it’s covered in grimy oil, something may be wrong. Don’t be fooled by an impeccably clean engine, however. Often times sellers will have a mechanic clean the engine just prior to selling to hide any obvious problems.

2. Fluids, Belts, and Hoses

Fluids, Belts, and Hoses

Make sure the car is on level ground for this—especially important for checking fluids. Check the levels on the oil, coolant, and transmission fluid. Pay special attention to the oil to see if it’s particularly dirty (hasn’t had an oil change in awhile) or if it looks foamy or off colored. The latter could indicate coolant leaking into the oil, and this is a sure sign of a leaking or blown head gasket. Look at the belts and see if they look worn or cracked. Look for the same in any hoses, and note that the radiator hose should be firm, not soft.

1. Maintenance Records

Maintenance Records

For the used car buyer, maintenance records are pure gold. A dealership should have some record on the maintenance they’ve done to the vehicle, but sometimes you can even find an individual seller who has kept track of regular maintenance. It’s always worth asking for maintenance records or receipts before buying a vehicle. An owner who has kept track of these things is more likely to have kept the car in good repair.

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