Whether you’re buying your first car/truck or you’ve bought many over the years, finding a good used vehicle can sometimes be tricky. Many teens buying their first used vehicles sometimes grab the first thing they see without looking it over carefully, just because they are excited about getting a car. And, if they don’t have someone experienced along with them, they could come home with a real clunker. It’s okay to buy something that needs some work if you like doing your own auto repair, just don’t pay more than it’s worth.
Here are some tips on what to look for when you are used car shopping.
When buying a late model – vehicles 8years old or less. Check rating and review web sites for problems listed for the year, make and model vehicles you are interested in. Site like Edmunds have detailed reviews, ratings, technical service bulletins and recalls on most cars. Vehicle history reports can let you know if a vehicle has had major damaged due to things like collision or flooding, but if damage hasn’t been reported you won’t know about it.
The ideal conditions to check out a used vehicle would be to go while the sun is out, so you can see any potential problems in good light. The vehicle shouldn’t have been driven for an hour previously and will be easiest inspected on a solid level surface. This usually isn’t a problem with reputable dealers, but privately owned vehicles are sometimes parked on grass, dirt, hills or uneven ground, making it harder to see underneath or get accurate fluid level readings.
Know the current value of the vehicle you are interested in by researching prices online or checking multiple area dealerships. Once you find something you like, take the vehicle for a test drive on both city streets and a highway, so you can listen for any unusual noises and feel if the ride is rough or smooth.
When looking at a late model vehicle that you expect to be road ready it’s best to take it to an ASE certified auto technician for a full inspection, so there are no surprises after the purchase. If you don’t already use a shop for your maintenance and repair work, be sure to find one that has qualified ASE techs.
If you are going to do the inspection yourself dress for the occasions and pick up a pair of rubber gloves, because you’re going to be on the ground and in the engine compartment checking things out. And, don’t forget a magnet and a good bright flashlight.
Before you start the engine
If the vehicle you are looking at is parked in the same place daily, you can tell a lot by looking at the ground underneath it. Look for fluid puddles or stains and then use your flashlight to look at the underside of the vehicle to check for any dripping fluids or residue. Black, red, or green fluid puddles indicate a leak.
Check motor oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, wiper fluid and transmission fluid for proper color and level. Low brake fluid level is an indication of a leak or worn linings.
The lines on the motor oil dipstick will tell you if the oil is at the proper operating level. The color will tell you the condition of the oil. Clear honey colored oil indicates that it has been changed recently. Black is a normal color for oil, but it shouldn’t look metallic or gritty. Oil that has turned a thick beige color indicates coolant leaking into the engine, which is a sign of a bad head gasket or cracked head.
Most transmission fluids are a clear pink color when brand new and get darker as time and mileage go by. Brown, metallic colored or burnt smelling transmission fluid indicates an internal problem. Consult the owner’s manual to find out if you check the fluid level while the motor is running or off.
When looking over a vehicle, check for dents, scratches, rust, rot, paint fade and peeling paint from bumper to bumper. Also look for bulges in the paint, which could be rust building up under the paint. Keep an eye out for misaligned body parts, which could mean the vehicle has been in an accident, or in the case of a door could mean a broken hinge pin. Look for mismatched color and finish of body parts, which is a clue that they may have been replaced or repainted. Paint on door or trunk seals or overspray are also some signs that a vehicle may have been repainted. On metal body parts you can check for filler by touching a magnet to a spot you suspect of being repaired; the magnet won’t stick to filler.
Check the windows and windshields for chips and cracks. A small chip or crack in a windshield will get bigger every time you drive. Open and close all the doors, windows, the trunk lid and the hood to make sure they operate correctly. A sign of a broken hinge or hinge pin is the door dropping slightly when it is opened. Pull up slightly on each door the see if they move at all. And, check the door and trunk seals for torn or missing sections.
Operate all the running lights, fog lights, signal lights, headlights – high and low beam – backup lights, emergency flashers, and brake lights. It’s easier to have a friend along to operate them as you look to see if they work. Any reputable dealer will replace bulbs that are out, but remember, if you are buying a privately owned or older vehicle, it may not be as simple as a burnt out bulb. And, moister on the inside of a lens indicates a bad seal.
For more, see Used car buying: Part 2 and Used car buying: Part 3