Buying a Used Car? Use This Checklist!

Whether you're looking to buy from a dealer or private individual, a good used car can save you thousands compared to a new one.
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Sometimes there can be a negative connotation around buying a used car -- people may imagine a rust bucket that smokes and coughs while rolling down the street. But recent research shows the used car market is booming -- more than 9.4 million sold in Q3 of 2015 alone -- and the age of the average used car is actually getting younger due to the continued emergence of Certified Pre-Owned programs. Simply put, used cars can be a great value for many who are ready for their next vehicle.

Whether you're looking to buy from a dealer or private individual, a good used car can save you thousands compared to a new one. If you are not an auto aficionado, however, the process can seem daunting. For anyone anxious about going through the process by themselves, we recommend taking along a friend or family member for support. Even if this person is not a car expert, you will feel more confident knowing you have someone by your side who can help you weigh your purchase decision and ensure you aren't compromising on what you want or need.

It's also important to research the establishment you are planning to visit (easy enough to do in this age of Google and smartphones). We've all seen the stereotypical used car salesman on TV and in the movies, trying to sell clunkers disguised as sleek rides. While there certainly are some slimy salespeople out there, anyone who is truly interested in both the sale AND your satisfaction will take the time to answer all of your questions. If you ever feel as if you are getting hustled, simply take your business elsewhere. Nearly every major auto brand has a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle program, the advantages of which include a pre-sale checklist and an extended warranty. While CPO cars cost more, they can raise your level of trust and confidence in the experience.

Not everyone can afford (or will want to) seek out a certified pre-owned vehicle. So whether you're considering a $1,000 "station car" or a $20,000 year-old "creampuff", the principles of used car buying still apply. You need to ask yourself the same questions: How do I know if the car in which I'm interested is a good choice? Is my money going toward a vehicle that will last? What happens if my "new" used car is home for a week and already needs a repair, or fails to start?

That's why we've created this checklist to help you evaluate the used cars you're considering. We encourage you to print this out and take it with you, whether in response to a dealer ad or a Craigslist posting. While there are no guarantees that any used vehicle will be "perfect," taking the time to check as many things as you can will go a long way to minimizing the likelihood of unpleasant surprises. If you believe that you have been misled during the purchase of a vehicle from a dealer (either franchised or independent), we suggest that you research your state's Consumer Protection Laws. Protect yourself by getting any assurances in writing.

  • Condition of paint: clean, shiny, without chips, clearcoat not peeling
  • Condition of sheet metal: signs of rust, body damage, parking lot dings and scrapes
  • Condition of glass: clear, uncracked, windshield without chips or scratches
  • Condition of trim: chrome and stainless has shine, no loose parts, emblems not missing
  • Condition of tires: besides visual, ask seller when tires were last replaced
  • Look for signs of recent maintenance: do spark plug wires, oil & fuel filters (if visible) look recent?
  • Battery: are terminals clean and tight?
  • Oil dipstick: pull out: is level correct, and does oil look light brown, which means recent change?
  • Brake fluid: should be yellow to amber; dark fluid means it's old
  • Belts & hoses: even with cursory look, should not appear frayed, cracked, worn
  • Condition of seat upholstery, carpets, mats; all should be clean and undamaged
  • Dash and instrument panel: should be crack-free, and all gauge faces should be clear
  • Sun visors and headliner should be undamaged
  • Steering wheel and pedals: should show wear commensurate with mileage

All the above can and should be done before even starting the vehicle

  • Start engine, ideally car is "cold"; how easily does engine start? Should start within 2-5 seconds; starter should not make unusual noises
  • Listen to cold idle; any unusual noises?
  • Leave car in "Park"; while car warms up, check:
    • All exterior lights, including high beams, turn signals, and brake lights
    • Windshield washers & wipers (use washers first to put liquid on glass)
    • Power locks: do all doors lock/unlock?
    • Windows: do all windows go up/down without issue?
    • Mirrors, outside & inside: are all adjustable? Adjust them now for your test drive
    • Dash gauges: do all gauges read normally (confirm with owner that gas gauge is accurate)?
    • Step on brake pedal; should feel firm
    • With foot on brake, engage every transmission position; listen for unusual noises
    • Adjust seat for your visibility and comfort; put on seat belt; check mirrors again
  • Note odometer reading; check again at end of drive to make sure it works
  • Acceleration: car should move from standstill easily, and gain speed quickly
  • Test brakes at low speed (20-30 mph); car should stop straight, with no pulling
  • When turning, wheel effort should be smooth and consistent
  • Turn wheel back and forth, listen for any suspension noises
  • Continue test drive onto road where higher speeds can be gained; car should accelerate smoothly
  • Speedometer should seem accurate based on road speed
  • Steering should have no shimmy, wander or free play to it
  • Apply gentle pressure to brakes; car should immediately slow down, without pulling or noise
  • If installed, test cruise control
  • Leave car idling
  • Open hood: should be no signs of steam, and no burning odors
  • Check auto trans fluid level: should be reddish, and should not smell burnt
  • Do final check around car:
    • Open and close all doors; should operate easily
    • Check seat belts at all seating positions
    • Check trunk: are spare tire, jack, and tools present?
  • Ask seller for all maintenance/repair records:
    • Mileage service
    • Most recent oil change
    • Most recent timing belt (if applicable)
    • Most recent brake work
Be reasonable with yourself and with the seller. Not all "problems" you find should be deal-breakers. A car with bad paint on the trunk lid which is priced hundreds below comparable vehicles may be a good value, provided you're not bothered by its appearance. Conversely, a vehicle with an inoperative power window should lead to a discussion whereby the seller either needs to fix it first, or drop the price to cover the potential repair cost.

The faults you find from this checklist will fall into one of these three categories: a) cosmetic faults you can live with (and are reflected in the price); b) problems which need to be fixed either by the seller or by you shortly after purchase (again, with a negotiated price); and c) issues so major that you walk away from the deal. Do your research, take your time, don't make hasty decisions, and you will find that pre-owned vehicle that you can enjoy for years to come!

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