Follow along below for a detailed car buying walk-through -
For a lot of people, buying a used automobile can be a scary and nerve wracking experience, but it doesn't have to be. Equip yourself with a little bit of knowledge and preparation and you can be a smart car buyer, save money buying a good used car, and save yourself grief by passing up on a bad deal. Every week I get several people coming through the gates of our dealership to look at our vehicles. Some simply look at the prices and leave, others will walk around the vehicles, then some others will want the keys to look inside or start them up and others (mostly the ones that buy a car) want to take the vehicle on a test drive. One thing I've learned is that most people are not very well educated on what they need to do in order to inspect a vehicle before purchasing, I've literally had people ask me to pop the hood so they can take a look and then say to me while looking under the hood, "I don't have a clue what I'm looking for, but figured this is what you're supposed to do when you buy a car..." When this happens (more frequently than you think) I do a basic run down with them of all the easy and smart things they need to do to look the car over, so I'm going to share a few of those with you now.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Ask the Seller if There are Any Problems -
A quick an easy way to find out if there are any problems with the automobile is to ask the (hopefully honest) seller if they know of any problems with the car and also ask if they've made any repairs. This is a good thing to ask before you even go look at a car, but if you forgot, ask when in person.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Look the Vehicle Over Well -
I've been doing this for a while and still miss things when I buy vehicles. When you arrive to look at the car, don't get distracted when you are looking it over. Walk around it 3-4 times, check out the body and the paint, are the tires good, is the interior clean, does the trunk open, is there a spare tire, look for any rust, is there anything that looks off? Take a good look at the outside of the car before you start checking it out mechanically.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Check the Oil -
This is a very simple, smart, and very important thing to do when you are looking at a car. First thing you do is obviously pop the hood, then look for the dipstick, usually located on the left side or right side of the motor on a 6 cylinder or 8 cylinder and more commonly in the front on a 4 cylinder vehicle. Take a rag or a few paper towels with you when you go to look at a car, good to help keep your hands clean and to help check fluids, when you pull the dip stick out it will have oil on it, you want to wipe it clean with your rag, re-insert it into the tube you pulled it out of, put it all the way back in, then pull the stick out again and you are going to check a few things. The first is you want to see where the oil level is at; is it full, is it low, is it way low, is it half full? If it is anything but full, oil has gone somewhere; leaked out, burned up or something. Ask if they know why the oil is low, when they last had the oil changed, or if they are having to add oil in between changes. The next thing you want to do is look at the color of the oil, you do not want it to be black and you do not want it to be white/yellowish. You want a clear/tan to a light brown color. If you see white/yellow sludge like/ mayonnaise/peanutbutterish stuff on the dip stick or under the engine cap/Oil cap, you will want to stay away, the vehicle has a blown head-gasket. The third thing I usually do is sniff the dip stick, if it smells burned, that means the vehicle is burning oil. It's not rocket science, this is all easy stuff, and it also lets the seller know that you mean business and that you know what you are doing.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Check the Coolant -
Always Always Always make sure that a vehicle is cool before attempting to remove the radiator cap. I like to be able to look at a vehicle when it is cold, in a "first start up of the day" environment if possible. But once you know the vehicle is cool, you'll want to remove the radiator cap and look in the top and see if the coolant is full and if it is coolant or water. Coolant should either be bright green or bright orange for the most part. There should not be silvery particles floating around or any kind of gunk. The top of the reservoir should be clear of any kind of build up and so should the underside of the cap. This is the same process now as with the oil, if the coolant is low, why? Have you had it flushed? Why is it filled with water instead of coolant, etc. If there is a bunch of gunk in the radiator or if you can tell it is significantly low, it's a good indicator there is some kind of an issue, leaking hose, cracked radiator, bad water pump, bad thermostat or more. If there are issues with the coolant, its levels, etc you should probably steer clear unless you are prepared to invest a little money in repairs.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Check Under the Vehicle-
I know it is dirty work, but if it was easy everyone would be doing it, and not every makes wise decisions when buying a used car. Make sure the vehicle is in park and shut off, be extra safe and apply the emergency break. Lay down on your belly and use a flashlight if you have one handy and look underneath the vehicle. It is common to see some condensation dripping down if the vehicle's A/C is running, but that should be about it. If you find anything greasy, oily, or any other substance that is accumulating on the underside of the vehicle, something is leaking. Good idea to look back up top side and see if you can find the source. Ask if they know what it is, why is it leaking, have they had it looked at. It's now up to you to determine whether it is a minor thing that you are ok with if you buy it or if it is a deal breaker.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Take It On a Test Drive -
For some of you, this may sound silly, but I've had, on more than one occasion, people wanting to buy a car on the spot. No looking under the hood. No test driving it or anything. This is a BAD idea. Start the car up, take it on at least a 15 minute test drive, if you can get it up to 70 MPH on the interstate or highway, see how it drives. Make sure it doesn't overheat, make sure the transmission shifts smooth. Make sure the car isn't badly shaking, vibrating, or something else irregular. Check to make sure both the A/C and Heat are working. Also check to see if the power options work, power windows, locks, seats, cruise control, sunroof, radio, cd player, windshield wipers, blinkers, headlights, etc. Some of these things might not be deal breakers for you, but they might be price negotiation points.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Check the Transmission Fluid -
Commonly the transmission fluid dip stick is on the opposite side of the engine as the oil dip stick, but not always. It looks similar to the oil dip stick, some vehicles the top of it is yellow like the oil dip stick or red, occasionally it could be orange or black, but most times it's going to be yellow or red with the "trans" notation on it somewhere. You want to check the transmission fluid after you've taken the vehicle on a test drive, you also want the vehicle to be running when you test it in most cases, you want to see the level at operational temperature. So, same process as the oil check, pull the stick, wipe it, replace it, check the level, if it is low, why? etc. This is important to check the scent on as well, if it has a distinct burnt smell that's a bad sign that the transmission is burning fluid and you should stay away. Like engine oil, transmission fluid has a color it should be, most commonly a light to vibrant red color, if it is dark brown or black there is a problem and you should stay away.
When Buying a Used Car You Should Attempt to Negotiate the Price DOWN -
I am a firm believer that just about anything can be purchased for less than advertised and this is especially true when dealing with used automobiles, even if you can't get the seller down on their price, perhaps you can get them to throw something in with the deal. Get them to have it serviced and get a free oil change, get a new tire put on, have them get it detailed, or have them fix something minor. I've had people include TVs, BluRay players, all kinds of things to make a deal work. You never know unless you ask. I always price evaluate vehicles I'm looking to buy on Kelley Blue Book. I use the Private Party & Fair Market Price evaluations, and usually I select "good" for the condition. This is a good starting point for knowing what the vehicle is worth. If you are buying from a dealership, you should ask if they have a warranty program, if so, find out more! You have the power to negotiate while the money is in your hands, once you buy the car, the negotiation is over, get the most bang for your buck that you can!
Things to Bring With You -
A Bright Flash Light
A Rag or Few Paper Towels
A Printed Out KBB Price Report (For Negotiation)
Never Buy From Someone if You Discover They are Lying to You -
If you discover in some form or fashion that the person you are considering purchasing the car from is lying to you, walk away. I don't care how small or big the lie is, steer clear. If they are lying to you about one thing, the odds are, they are lying about others as well. Liars aren't playing fair, and if you want a good car deal, work with someone who is honest.
Make Sure the Vehicle is in Their Name on the Title -
I make a point of checking the Driver's License of the person I'm buying from and making sure it matches up with the information on the title. If the title isn't in their name, they can't sell the car unless they have a matching Power of Attorney form. If it's not in their name, don't buy it, unless you are certain they are selling for a relative and you've spoken with the actual owner of the car. The last thing you want to do is buy a stolen car, then later have the car taken away by the police, and never see your money again. You also want to make sure that the VIN # on the title matches up with the car you are looking at. Easy way to do this is to look on the edge of the driver side door or door panel, or in the bottom corner of the driver side of the windshield, the VIN # is always located in those places. You also want to make sure you have a clear understanding of the classification of the vehicle title; is it clean, rebuilt or salvage. If you need more information on this, just google it and you'll be up to speed.
Trust Your Gut-
The most valuable tool you have when evaluating an automobile and the seller is your instincts (or as I like to say, "your gut.") If you feel like something is off, walk away. You can always sleep on it and call back tomorrow, if the vehicle is gone, then it wasn't meant to be. You know that you can trust yourself, and if you are getting a weird vibe or are uncomfortable with the seller or are second guessing something about the car, its best to steer clear and not make an expensive mistake.
Although it is not an exhaustive list of what you can do to best evaluate a used automobile before purchasing it, it is a pretty good one. If you do all of what I mentioned above, you should come away with a good dependable vehicle at a good price. Nothing I mentioned above is too difficult, you don't have to be a mechanic, you don't have to have working knowledge of automobiles. You just need to be thorough, pay close attention, and be smart! Best of luck and happy hunting in the fun and exciting world of used automobiles!
Small Business Owner, Self Employed, Entrepreneur, Minister, Husband, Father, Son, Brother and Friend.