How to Buy a Used Car

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Most people who buy their first car get it used in order to save some money. If you buy a good used car, you’ll save some money. But if you get lemon, you’ll end up spending way more than you ever imagined! Don’t get caught buying a lemon, follow these tips instead.

Start with some basic research

You want a car that you like but that is also dependable and won’t break down. Find out if the make and model you like is a good choice by doing a bit research first. Try to look up reliability reviews. Some cars are just better than others.

Make sure the car fits within your budget

So you’re checking out cars and you find a luxury car that you could never afford new but suddenly you find yourself being able to afford it if you get it used. Don’t do it.

Luxury cars cost way more insure, way more in gas (they usually have bigger engines) and way more to maintain (call up a garage and ask them how much a BMW muffler is compared to a Honda muffler).

Find out what the insurance would be on the cars you are considering buying. You can check rates on car insurance websites.

Before the test drive, check for:

  • Fit and finish (How well does each panel fit together, cars that were in accidents usually have ill fitting panel, for example irregular gaps between door and front fender.)

  • Wear and tear (Check the mileage, then look at the wear and tear of the pedals, seats and paint. If the wear and tear looks worse then the mileage, it might be a sign that the odometer was rolled back.)

  • Tire tread (If the tire tread is more used up on one side, that is the sign that the wheels are not aligned properly. Sometimes cars that were in accidents can never be properly aligned.)

  • Rim rash (Nobody like rims that are scratched up. This is caused when the rim rubs against the curb when parking.)

  • Paint (Check to see if any part of the car has been repainted. It’s usually a sign of a collision.)

  • Heating and A/C (Turn on the heat, then turn on the air conditioning, try the different fan speeds and turn on the rear window defroster.)

  • Stereo (Turn on and test the stereo, then turn it off when you drive the car. You’ll need to listen to the engine when you drive it.)

  • Windows, sunroof, door locks and alarm (Open/close windows, lock/unlock doors and test alarm.)

  • Engine bay (Does it look clean? Ask for a rag, take out the oil dipstick, if it’s dark black like dark chocolate, it’s old. If it’s transparent brown, it’s a much better sign.)

  • Exhaust (Start the car, ask the seller to give it some gas while you look at the exhaust coming from the muffler. If you see any smoke, it’s a very bad sign.)

During the test drive, check for:

  • Noise (You don’t need to know what they mean, just that it’s a bad sign.)

  • Transmission (For automatics, do the shifts occur naturally or do they feel delayed? For manuals, does the clutch feel solid or does it feel used and worn out?)

  • Brakes (If the brake pedal feels soft or goes down to the floor, that is a bad sign. Any grinding noise is also a bad sign.)

  • Warning lights (If you see any warning light on the dashboard during your test drive that is a bad sign.)

  • Steering (You need to drive on the highway for this one. Release your grip on the steering wheel a little and see if the car pulls to one side, if it does it’s a bad sign as is any type of vibration.)

  • Suspension (Drive over some speed bumps if you can find some, try a strip mall. Listen for shock absorber noise or check to see if the car bounces, both are signs that the shock absorbers need replacing.)

  • While you check for these things kindly ask the car salesman to refrain from unnecessary discussion that might distract you.

Check the car history

This sounds like a big deal but it’s really not. Just write down the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of the car you’re going to buy (it’s on the dash under the windshield) and enter it on a site like

You can get 10 CARFAX reports for $34.99. The report checks if the car was in any accident, flooded, a lemon, mileage, number of owners, rental or fleet car and past service records. Avoid all cars with any red flags like accidents, floods, past rental, etc.

Take the car to an professional mechanic

Just because you don’t find anything wrong on the car history doesn’t mean that there’s nothing wrong with the car. You still need to get it checked out by a professional mechanic that isn’t related to the place you are buying your car from. Call ahead of time with an independent mechanic to arrange a time when the seller can drop off the car to be inspected. This will cost you around $85 (you have to do this).

The mechanic will tell you if you’re getting a good deal plus he’ll tell you what will most likely require fixing in the near future or what is required to pass the safety check to license the car. Use this information to drive down the purchase price of the car.

One last thing

Buying a car can be a lot of pressure (a lot of it can come from the car salesman). Bring someone who knows cars with you if you can. If you feel too much pressure and are not comfortable, walk away. There will always be a car available for you when you are ready to buy.
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