Buying a used vehicle always involves a certain amount of risk but it can also save you a ton of money. You can mitigate at least some of the risk involved in buying a used car by spending a bit of time and maybe a little money to make sure that a vehicle is in good shape before you hand over your loot.
Read Reviews before Buying a Used Vehicle
Most of us have a dream car that we’d love to drive one day, no matter what other people have to say about it. Once you’ve decided on the type or model of vehicle you want to buy, the first thing you should do is check the ratings in publications like Consumer Reports, Edmunds, or the Lemon Aid series of books. If a vehicle consistently has terrible reviews or ratings, stay away from it no matter how badly you want it. The novelty of owning a vehicle will probably wear off but the repair bills and petty annoyances could go on, and on, and on.
Give it a Thorough Inspection
If the vehicle you like has decent ratings, schedule some time for an inspection and test drive. If you have absolutely no mechanical aptitude or know nothing about cars don’t go alone. Either take someone who knows something about cars with you or arrange to take the car to a mechanic that you trust.
If you’re feeling competent to do the initial inspection yourself, go prepared with a flashlight, a CD, maybe a small magnet, and something to lie on under the car (or else wear grubby clothes). If you have a friend or family member who knows cars, take them with you if possible – four eyes are definitely better than two. They might also notice things that you miss because you’re so excited about the prospect of buying a car. Look at a vehicle during daylight hours. It’s hard to spot problem areas in the dark and cars look shinier and body damage doesn’t show up as well in a parking log under floodlights. Make sure that the vehicle is parked on flat ground, and preferably hasn’t been driven for at least an hour because a car that starts quickly when it’s warm might be tough to start when it’s cold. Take along a list of things to check because in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget what you should be looking for. Be systematic – you could save yourself hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Start your inspection by checking each of the body panels, looking for scratches, dents, blistered pain and especially rust. Scratches and dents can be removed – rust is a big deal. Also look for misaligned body panels. They could indicate sloppy assembly, or a shoddy collision repair. You can use a small magnet to look for body panels that are full of bondo (the magnet won’t stick to them). Look for paint overspray on the rubber seals around the doors, trunk lid, and hood. This could indicate that the car was repainted after an accident. Look for cracks in the windshield. Rock chips can be filled but cracks tend to spread and eventually the windshield will probably need to be replaced.
Check the suspension by bouncing each corner of the vehicle up and down while it’s parked on a flat surface. It should only bounce once. If it bounces up and down like a pogo stick, the shocks are probably shot. Grab each of the front wheels near the top and rock it back and forth. If there’s a clicking or clunking sound it could mean that the wheel bearings are worn. Tire tread should be even and the same on both sides of the car. Cars that are driven hard often show heavy front tire wear near the sidewalls because of hard cornering.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time inside your car so you want to make sure it’s not going to make you feel sick. A car that’s been smoked in has an acrid smell that’s almost impossible to get rid of. A lot of people find it unbearable to sit in a car that’s been smoked in. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to get used to it or a spritz of Febreeze will take care of it. A musty, mouldy smell could mean that water is leaking into a car somehow, or that it was damaged in a flood. If there’s a sunroof, make sure it opens and closes properly and look for signs of water leaks. Check the gas and brake pedals. If they’re brand new or are heavily worn, it could mean that the car has more miles on it than the odometer indicates.
Turn on the ignition without starting the car to make sure that all of the warning lights work. Start the engine when it’s cold to make sure it starts easily and idles smoothly. Make sure that the heater works and then switch on the air conditioning to ensure that it blows cold air. Check every switch to make sure that they all work. Finally, test the radio and if there’s a CD player, put a CD in to make sure it works.
Under the Hood
If you really want to give a car a good once over, you’re going to have to get a bit dirty. Pop the hood and squeeze all of the hoses to make sure that they are firm and supple and not rock hard, cracked, or mushy. Check belts for cracks or fraying.
Check the fluid levels. If oil is honey coloured it’s just been changed. Older oil is dark coloured or black. Black is fine as long as there are no signs of grit or metal. If the oil looks grey or foamy, or there are water droplets on the dipstick it could mean that the block is cracked or the head gasket is blown and coolant has leaked into the oil. Both mean a very expensive repair. A dirty or dusty engine is normal – oil leaks aren’t. Look for signs of oil leaks anywhere on the engine.
Don’t forget to check the transmission oil as well. Transmission oil should be red, not brown or black, and it shouldn’t smell burnt. If it does, it’s probably been neglected and it’s possible that the transmission has suffered some damage.
Check the radiator for signs of leaks and look in the plastic reservoir. The coolant should be green or orange, not rust coloured or milky.
Some batteries have a built in charge indicator that looks like a little lens with a glowing light behind it. If one is present check to see if it’s green. If the indicator is yellow or black the battery probably needs to be replaced.
Under the Car
If you can squeeze under the car it’s a good idea to take a quick look underneath. If the car is parked in its usually spot in the garage or on the driveway look for oil patches or other fluid stains underneath. If the vehicle is front wheel drive, look at the Constant Velocity Joint boots by the front wheels. They look like rubber accordions. If they are cracked and leaking grease you can assume that the CV joints need to be replaced, another expensive repair. Look for oily deposits around that tailpipe. They might indicate that the car is burning oil.
Finally, look for dents in the gas tank or floor pan, and fresh welds that could indicate crash damage. Fresh undercoating could also be an indication that the vehicle was damaged in an accident.
The Moment of Truth – the Test Drive
At last, it’s time for a test drive. Drive the car under a variety of conditions and over different terrain, for example up and down steep hills. If anything seems to be off, for example you feel vibration coming through the steering wheel or the brakes feel mushy, don’t buy it without having it checked by a mechanic.
If in doubt, take it to a Mechanic
If, after doing your own inspection you still have concerns, have the car inspected by a mechanic you trust. It’s worth it to spend $100 or so to have a vehicle checked by someone who really knows what they’re doing and can put it up on a hoist to get a good look at the underside.
One Last Check
If you really want to cover all of your bases you can pay for a vehicle history report from companies like CarProof. A vehicle history report includes things like accident history, odometer records, service history, ownership, and should indicate if there are any liens or money owed on the vehicle. The last thing you want to do is buy a car that has a lien on it. Be aware that used car history reports are not 100% infallible and totaled vehicles have been known to turn up as clean in vehicle history reports.
Buy Used from a Dealership
As an alternative to taking a risk and buying a used vehicle from a private seller, you could buy one that’s already been safety inspected and repaired from a dealership. Many even offer certified pre-owned vehicles that meet certain criteria for age, mileage and condition and come with warranties. Kelowna Infiniti Nissan has the largest inventory of quality used vehicles in the Central Okanagan. Click here to check out our used inventory.