Maintenance Monday: Buying a Used Car

The seasons are changing and flowers are blooming, which means it’s about that time to start planning summer road trips. You might be eyeing a newer vehicle to take on those trips, and if you decide to go the route of buying used, it’s important to understand how to avoid a lemon. Buying a used vehicle can be like rolling the dice on a craps table. Many people do not sell or trade in their vehicle unless they are having some sort of issue with it. There are plenty of good buys out there, however, and typically if the vehicle runs good and looks decent, it’s a keeper. Following a few simple rules will make your used vehicle purchase a safer one.

Maintenance Monday: buying a used car

The best purchases are typically from a private party who purchased the vehicle new and have properly maintained the vehicle. The general rule of thumb is that the fewer owners, the better. Ask for all of the maintenance records and repair history, because proper maintenance from day one is a great way to keep that vehicle reliable for the remainder of its life. Be cautious of buying a used car from a car dealer – many of those vehicles were purchased at an auction house and may have underlying issues that even the dealer is not aware of. If you do end up negotiating a deal through a dealership, insist that you get a warranty so that if something does come up within a reasonable time period, they are responsible for it. Some problems don’t present themselves right away.

If you are buying from a private party or a car dealer, always insist on a test drive. The drive should be long enough to get a good feel for how the vehicle runs, handles, rides, brakes and accelerates. If something doesn’t feel right, sound right or smell right, walk away from the deal before it is too late. Here are the basic checks you should do:

  • Open the hood and look for obvious problems such as oil or coolant leaks.
  • Check the oil level on the dipstick – if the oil level is low, the engine may be burning or leaking oil. If the oil is very dark and thick, it might have been awhile since the last change.
  • Pull out the transmission dipstick. The fluid should be a pink or red color. If it is dark brown or has a burned smell, the transmission may have problems.
  • Look at the tires. Uneven wear usually means worn suspension parts that could be expensive to replace.
  • Turn everything on and off to see if it works. This includes the lights, turn signals, wipers, heater, defroster, air conditioner, power windows (front and rear), power seats, radio, power door locks, etc. Anything that doesn’t work should help you negotiate a lower price.

Lastly, I always recommend that you have a mechanic take a look at the vehicle first hand before you purchase it, especially if the above checklist seems daunting to you. Let them know this is a potential purchase and to document any issues with the vehicle. Most repair shops will perform a complete vehicle pre-purchase inspection for a reasonable fee. This gives the opportunity to look underneath and identify any leaks or previous damage the vehicle may have suffered. I also recommend using a service such as to do a quick search to see if the vehicle has any previous accident repair or outstanding recalls. Do not use in lieu of having it inspected by a mechanic – you should do both things for the best possible outcome.

These are just a few things that you can do to get the most out of your used car purchase experience.