10 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

You should know what you're getting yourself into when shopping used cars.

You should know what you're getting yourself into when shopping used cars.

Buying a used car can be a challenge even for the most knowledgeable consumer. There are many questions to be answered, from the condition of the vehicle to its cost, accident history and suitability to your needs. Breaking the task down into 10 categories to look for, can help ease the pressure and get you the reliable car you want.


Look for signs of leaks or water damage on the inside of the car. If it smells musty or shows stains on the floor or walls, the car may have been exposed to high water at some time in the past. Test every button, feature, knob and electrical component in the car to ensure all is in working order and to avoid any surprises later on. Look for cigarette burns or other small damage that may not impact the condition of the car dramatically but can be used as a bargaining chip once it comes time to talk price.

Warning Lights

Turn the key and check the dashboard warning lights for signs of possible problems. If any lights are lit, look them up in the manual to find out what they indicate. Some like the tire pressure indicator, faulty brake light bulb or empty washer fluid lights are easy enough to deal with and generally won't impact the condition of the car. On the other hand, if you see that the oil pressure, transmission or dreaded "check engine" lights are on, you may want to pass on the deal.

Fluid Check

Open the hood and check the five main fluids to see that the car has been properly maintained and that none of the fluids have been left in the car too long. Check the engine oil, transmission, coolant, power steering and brake fluid levels and while you're at it, note the condition of the fluids. If they are gummy and gritty, the odds are they are old and should have been changed long ago. This may mean the car has not been kept in prime condition.

Inspect the Seams

Take a walk around the car and inspect the seams between body panels, doors, the hood and trunk and around the lights. If a car has never been involved in an accident, these panels should be relatively straight and the gaps between them evenly spaced. If some of the spaces are wider or more narrow than others, it can indicate residual damage from a past impact.

Tire Wear

Check the tread on all four tires for signs of wear. Not only can tread wear tell you if the car will need new rubber soon, it can indicate suspension or alignment problems with the car. For example, if the tire tread on the inside edge of both front tires are worn, it may be a sign that the alignment of the front wheels is off and that they are angled away from each other slightly. If the center tread is overly worn on all the tires, it can mean that the owner has been driving the car with overinflated tires for some time and that an adjustment is necessary.

Exhaust Signs

Start the car and examine the exhaust. If smoke comes out of the tailpipe, there is probably an oil leak in the engine caused by faulty rings or seals. This can be a costly repair and the car should immediately be taken off your list. If you see some white smoke that eventually clears up the issue is probably condensation which is not a problem at all. If the white smoke doesn't clear, the cause can be a water leak and not just condensation. This should be a non-starter for the purchase.

Vehicle History Report

Ask the dealer or the owner of the car for a vehicle history report. If he is serious about the sale, he will have no problem producing a current report. A vehicle history report will outline any accidents that the car has been involved in, as well as all repairs made over its lifetime, be they major work or just maintenance. The report will also indicate the car's estimated value based on condition, where and when it was originally purchased and how many people have owned it. Vehicle history reports are the only way to be sure about what a used vehicle has been through.

Market Value

Look up the car's current market value with an independent third party reference like Kelley Blue Book. You need to know the year, model, options and mileage of the car in question to find out what it is worth on the open market. Compare what you are getting for the price with other similar cars. Check the reliability record of the car you are considering so that you can go into the purchase confident that the car you want is the right one for you.


Look for a good mechanic whose opinion you trust. Ask the owner's permission to have the car inspected and bring it in for a quick once over by your mechanic. If problems do exist, the mechanic should find them and you should be able to negotiate with the confidence that you know the exact condition of the car. If you'd like to go a step further, ask your mechanic to perform an oil analysis on the car. This simple test may take a few days and the help of a lab, but it can reveal problems ranging from leaks to wear that would otherwise be left a mystery.


If you're in the market for a used hybrid, your evaluation methods should be slightly different than they would be for a traditional vehicle. Ask for the vehicle maintenance records and review them carefully to ensure that a licensed mechanic performed all the work and that a strict schedule was kept. Hybrids can be demanding and require more TLC than standard cars. Check the latest state inspection report as well. Here you will find the efficiency numbers for the car. If there have been any drops over the past year, or if anything is running at less than optimum levels, it can be a sign that the car is starting to have issues.


About the Author

Robert Morello has an extensive travel, marketing and business background. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 2002 and has worked in travel as a guide, corporate senior marketing and product manager and travel consultant/expert. Morello is a professional writer and adjunct professor of travel and tourism.

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