Buying a car “used” tends to get a bad rap. After all, we use the term “slimy used car salesman” to describe anyone whose motives aren’t on the up and up! If you’re like most people, you want to take advantage of the good bargains you can get on a used car, but the last thing you want is to end up with a lemon that’s got way more problems than you ever planned on dealing with.
Luckily, “used” doesn’t have to equal “abused”! It IS possible to find a used car that looks and performs well. You just have to know what to look for. Here’s what we suggest:
Focus on the aesthetics first
No one wants to drive around in an ugly, old beater, but those bad looks aren’t just embarrassing. Certain aesthetic issues can actually be a sign of major problems with the way your potential new-to-you car runs!
For example, rust along the floorboards isn’t just ugly. It’s also a sign that the safety of the entire vehicle has been compromised! Or, if you see rust on some of the exterior panels, that can be a big problem. Because these panels are so thin, it doesn’t take much corrosion to cause holes!
Another issue is paint. It may seem like a selling point that your potential car has a fresh coat of paint, but ask why. Is the paint covering up rust? Was the vehicle in an accident? If so, how bad was it? And, remember, the entire car may not have been painted. Look carefully for differences in color. They’ll tell you which areas have gotten a new coat of paint — and then you can find out why.
Yet another issue is a dirty engine. Yes, it’s ugly, but a very dirty engine can be a sign that fluids are leaking — something that can turn very serious (and very expensive!) if it’s not addressed right away.
While you’re checking out the engine, look up at the windshield. Even tiny chips and cracks can compromise the entire windshield’s structural integrity and put you in danger every time you get behind the wheel. If it’s weak enough, something as innocent as driving over a speed bump can cause your windshield to shatter!
Also be sure to look at the condition of things inside the car, too. For example, excessively worn seat belts may not be strong enough to protect you.
Look for the tell-tale signs of water damage
Unfortunately, a car that’s been through a flood can actually look and run OK. If you don’t want to run into problems later, you’ll have to be extra-careful when you look for water damage. Since we don’t tend to have floods here in California, you may not even think about checking for water damage, but it’s always possible that your potential car came from a flood-prone state. State law requires sellers to disclose whether the vehicle was in a flood, but you also need to do your own homework.
- Here’s what you need to look for:
- Moisture in the headlights, taillights, or turn signal lights
- Silt in the engine or in the interior
- Discolored upholstery or carpet
- Musty odors
– Problems with any of the electrical systems (like a clock that doesn’t work, interior lights that don’t turn on, an audio system that doesn’t work, etc.)
Kick the tires
The tires are the only things that connect your car to the road, so they’ve got to be in tip-top shape. As a general rule, any tire that’s older than six years old should be replaced. You’ll need new tires sooner than that, though, if there are any cracks along the sidewall, uneven wear on the tread, little or no tread at all, missing valve caps, or small bits of debris lodged in either the sidewall or the tread.
Also, take note of how the tires feel during your test drive. If they feel rough — like, for example, they’re vibrating or giving you an uneven ride — that’s a big problem that needs to be addressed immediately.
Give the odometer the once-over
It’s estimated that one out of every 10 cars in America has an odometer that’s been rolled back. Luckily, there are things you can do to avoid becoming a victim of odometer fraud:
- Compare the mileage on the odometer to the mileage listed on the title.
- Compare the mileage on the odometer to the mileage listed on state inspection records.
– Compare the mileage on the odometer with the age of the car. Drivers put, on average, 10,000-15,000 miles on their car every year. If the mileage is significantly lower than that, find out why. There could be a simple explanation — like the owner worked from home or had a company vehicle to drive during the work week, for example.
- Look in the glove box for any records from a mechanic, because these will have the mileage listed on them.
- Find out if the car has the original tires. Cars with less than 20,000 miles should still have the original tires on them.
Check with a third-party
Companies like Carfax and AutoCheck exist to help used car buyers like you! Either one can give you an unbiased history report of the vehicle you’re interested in. That way, you don’t have to worry that you’re not getting the full story from the dealer or that you’ve missed something important in your own inspection of the car!
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