Buying a used car can be a very stressful time especially in this economy. At a time when every dollar counts, you must ensure that you’re purchasing a vehicle that won’t become a money pit.
A used car should be able to get you from point A to point B without any hassle, it should be able to pass state inspection (check your local DMV/MVC for your state’s requirements), and it should have all working components and mechanisms, unless the flaw has been brought to your attention and the proper price has been set to account for it.
Here are 10 Tips to make your life easier when you go out to buy a car
QUESTIONS FOR THE SELLER
When speaking to the seller of the vehicle you want to determine how well they know the car.
Ask them if they have been driving the car themselves daily. Ask them if the engine and transmission work well? Is the car smoking, leaking, loud? Has the car been sitting idle for long? Was it used mainly for city or highway use? How long have they owned it? Do they have any service records? When was the last oil change? Are the tires in good shape? Will the car start without having the battery jumped? (This will indicate if the car is in daily use) Explain why you need a car and what your needs are for it and ask them if they think it’s a good car for you.
First and foremost, you should not negotiate price without seeing the car first. There is no need to know how low the price is going to be if you are not going to see the car. So go ahead and ask to see the car first.
This question agitates sellers and can get the transaction off on the wrong foot. Once you view the car and are ready to purchase you can proceed to haggle price.
Once the seller sees how serious you are, they might be more willing to lower their asking price. If you had settled a price over the phone or email, the seller is more likely to stick to that price and not the lower price you may able to get in person with cash in hand.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The engine and transmission are usually the most expensive components to fix in a vehicle. The engine is what causes the car to start and run properly and the transmission is what causes the car to shift from gear to gear properly so you can either move forward or backward.
One must work in conjunction with the other to have a working driving vehicle. Malfunctions in either one can spell a big headache for you in the future. A problem with either one can ultimately add a couple of thousand dollars to the price of the vehicle, so buyer beware.
How to Check the Engine
Noises that are out of the ordinary in the engine, is the easiest way to tell if it’s working properly. Be on the lookout for knocks that can indicate a rod problem or that the engine has very little life left. Excessive shaking, jumping or vibrating can indicate a motor mount problem, oil issues, or cylinder problems.
Check the dip stick in the engine, wipe it off with a napkin and replace the stick and remove it again. See how dark the oil is, if it seems almost black that could mean the oil has not been changed for a long time. Make sure it’s not watery to the point that it’s leaking off the stick this could be water mixing in to the engine which is a head gasket problem. Also be sure that there is no green anti-freeze mixed with the oil, this could be a crack in the engine block; and don’t forget to check the cap over the engine (make sure engine is turned off)
See if there is any white film under the car or clumps of fluid stuck together, once again this is a sign of a head gasket problem. See if there is any fluids leaking at any portion of the engine, If there is oil leaking from the top this could be a valve cover gasket problem.
Checking Automatic Transmissions
Sit in the driver’s seat, place your foot on the brake. Shift the car from ‘park’ to ‘drive.’ See if the car jerks hard into gear and/or hesitates a bit before settling into ‘drive.’
When Test Driving a Car
The car should shift smooth from gear to gear without jerking hard or revving up really high, then kicking hard into gear; or just revving high and not shifting at all.
If any of these signs occur, often the seller has just forgotten to change the transmission fluid or might not even know where to place transmission fluid. Check the transmission fluid dip stick and be sure it has fluid before determining that the transmission is not good.
Let the car run for at least 20 Minutes without driving it and check the temperature gauge. If it starts to run hot, this can be a head gasket problem. If it doesn’t move at all, this can be a thermostat issue. It should stay right around the center between ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold.’
SMOKE OUT OF THE EXHAUST
The type of smoke coming out of the exhaust is critical.
White lingering clouds are usually a sign of a bad head gasket or some type of anti-freeze or water leak.
Black smoke is an oil leak of some type.
If a car has been sitting for a long time, it sometimes throws out white smoke that does not linger in the air. This is due to certain fluids not circulating for a while. Let the car run for 20 minutes and then drive it a few minutes, it should go away. This is most common in colder weather.
Suspension can be a very expensive fix, depending on the make and model of the car. Checking the shocks and struts is therefore very important. Place both hands on the trunk and push down a few times quickly and see if the suspension makes any strange noises.
Many cars have air suspension which can be a very pricy repair or replacement. Find out if the vehicle you are interested in has air suspension, if it does, see if the car is sitting awkwardly and not even. Often the back is usually sitting too low.
I recommend running a Carfax report, but be aware that a Carfax report is not fool proof. A Carfax report will only cover accidents that were reported to the police, insurance companies, and/or other state and federal agencies. A thorough inspection is therefore warranted.
Open the hood and check the metal frame right behind the headlights, look to see if it looks bent as if it was once bent. Look for solder points, irregular bulges, patches, or rust that might have developed over exposed and untreated metal. Ask for an explanation.
See how the doors open and close. If they close differently or if they stay off line once they are shut, this is a good indicator that it was hit before.
Check for different shades of color in the paint. See if all the emblems are where they are supposed to be. Often a person will change a part like a hood or truck and not replace the emblems or badges.
The mileage on a car is a huge factor in the value or life of the car. There are people who tamper with gauges and make it look like the car has less miles than it really does.
If a car has low miles for the year check the interior for any clues. You can run a Carfax report, but chances are that if the person went this far they have already done so, but it never hurts.
See if the mats look like they have been used more than the odometer makes it seem. See if the steering wheel has more wear on it than it should. Look at the wear and tear of the brake pedal, the carpet underneath the mats. Check to see if the seats are covered, ask the seller if it’s ok to remove the covers to see the condition of the seats. Look for signs that these things have been remedied, such as different colors or shades of colors between the steering wheel and the dashboard, the front seats and the back seats, the brake pedal and the gas pedal.
You will be driving this car for hours on end and some things that you may not notice when you first see the car might be the one thing that starts bugging you when you’re stuck in 90 degree weather going down the shore. Therefore, it pays big time to take your time and check the interior.
Check the headliner for cigarette burns. Check to see if it’s drooping at all. Look in the ash tray and see how much, if at all, the person is smoking. Check the cigarette lighter for ash deposits. Once again, if there are covers on the seats, ask the seller to remove them to check the condition of the upholstery. Look closely to see if there are any insects or signs of insects in the car. I once bought a car infested with spiders, I didn’t look closely enough to realize there were hundreds of eggs under the dash and it’s a pain to get rid of them afterwards. This usually happens when a car has been sitting under a tree, or simply idle, for a long time.
DEALER OR PRIVATE SELLER
Some dealers lie and claim they own the car and play it off like they have owned the car personally. This might not be a huge deal, but if it bothers you personally, there are ways to ensure that they are telling the truth. After all, if they’re lying about being the owner of the car, what else are they lying about? You can ask the seller directly, but if you suspect they are a dealer, here are some ways of knowing.
Check the license plate screws, see if they are loose. If you can turn them easily by hand, this can indicate the plate were on and off a few times recently.
Ask them whose name is on the title and if that person can show you a copy of their license.
Ask questions the owner would know, like; how do you switch the radio from AM to FM, how to change the clock, or adjust the driver’s seat. See if they hesitate and try to figure it out on the fly.
Tell them you may not be interested in this car (even if you are), ask them if they have anything else for sale.
If they say “my friend has a car” or “I might be selling another car” this is a pretty good indication.
This is not huge problem in itself, but it’s just nice to be buying from someone who is being honest.
BRINGING A MECHANIC
You should always bring a certified mechanic of your choice. The seller should be able to tell you three very important things about your purchase.
#1. Is the car in good mechanical working condition?
#2. To the extent of his knowledge, does it seem like there are signs of a previous accident/s?
#3. Is the car priced properly given the make, model, year, and mileage of the car?