Days of buying a car and keeping it till you can pass it along to your children, or other family member, are pretty much over. Cars just won't last that long anymore. In an effort to make vehicles lighter, faster, and more fuel efficient, the manufacturer makes them out of materials that simply won't last for 15 years, or longer, anymore. That doesn't mean that you can't buy a reliable, quality used car anymore though. Quite the opposite in fact. The used car market is booming more now than it has in quite a long time. People are holding on to their cars for a longer period of time, and when they do trade them in, they're more likely to buy used than new, because the economy crash taught us all that the financial success we enjoy today, isn't necessarily guaranteed for tomorrow.
Most all of us that have driven a car for a while have heard horror stories about used car salesmen, used car sales lots, and any combination thereof. Or we've experienced it ourselves. I have been asked on a pretty regular basis over the years, "What should I look for when I go shopping for a used car?" Well there's not a right or wrong answer to that, but there are several things you can do to be much more certain you're not being taken advantage of.
The very first thing I always recommend is to do your homework! Don't go to a used car dealer without a good idea of what type of vehicle you want. If you show up just wanting a different vehicle, they're going to do everything they can to accommodate that. If you spend some time looking online, you can browse without being hassled by a salesman, you can find what kind of vehicle looks good to you, what colors you think look good on that body style of car, and what brand carries the model that looks best to you. Then when you show up at the car lot, you're not walking in to be sold something, you're walking in to purchase something you specifically want.
The next thing to do, is research what's available in your area, and what the common price is. If there are 10 dealers near you that have the car you want, with the options you prefer, and a mileage range you're comfortable with, but one of those dealers is offering theirs at a significant discount, you can be sure it's not from the kindness of their heart. Make sure to check kbb.com and nada.com to get a good idea of a fair price for the vehicle you want. Vehicles are routinely marked a few hundred to a few thousand dollars over fair market value, to allow for negotiation of the price. If you don't have a good idea of what the vehicle is worth, you can easily end up paying $2,000 more than you needed to.
Now that you've done some preliminary research, it's time to go and see the vehicles in person. The first thing to do is the most obvious- a walk around inspection of the outside of the vehicle. You'll want to start by looking at the tires. Take a penny, turn it upside down, and put it in the tread of the tire that looks the lowest to you. If President Lincoln's head is covered up completely, that tire has at least half of its usable life left. Anything less than that and you're going to be buying new tires within 6 months to a year of purchasing your new vehicle, and you should factor that into your price negotiation. You'll also want to check the condition of the paint, look for any obvious signs of body damage and rust, make sure to look at the housings for the headlights and tail lights as well. You want to make sure there's no water in the light housings, because that will indicate a seal is bad on the housing and it will need to be replaced. Light housings are not cheap!
Once you've looked over the outside, it's time to check the interior. When you turn the key to the on position (not starting the car, just turning it on) look at the dash board. All of the warning lights will light up for a few seconds. This is a bulb check that the vehicle performs every time the key is cycled on. Make sure you see the check engine light (if the check engine light is on you can visit mycheckenginelight.net for help diagnosing it, repair advice from an experienced technician, and much more), air bag light, ABS light, oil light, and any other warning lights this vehicle may be equipped with. A dishonest shop will remove the bulb from the dash to keep from having to perform expensive repairs. This has actually happened to me personally, and the car turned out to have a multitude of drivability problems. Once you're satisfied that all of the warning lights are present and functional, check all of the electronic functions. Make sure all of the windows go up and down smoothly, the wipers work, the washer fluid sprayer works, the power door locks work, the radio turns on and all of its functions work, and then check the turn signals and headlights. You'll want to go back outside for just a second to make sure the lights are working properly.
Now it's time to start the car and continue the inspection. Make sure it doesn't crank for too long before it starts. If it does, this could indicate anything from a weak battery to a faulty fuel system that's not keeping enough pressure. Test the function of the heater and the A/C. Many people miss one or the other. If you live in the north and you're buying a vehicle in the winter months, a surprising amount of people will only check the heater because it's so cold outside. The reverse is true for the south. By the time they've realized that system was faulty to begin with, it's much too late to take it back in most cases. Providing that there are no problems with the start-up, no problems with the heater or A/C, and no abnormal noises, it's time to take a ride!
Quite a few people will only test drive a used car for 5 miles or less, and they very rarely take it on the highway. These are both big mistakes. The vehicle will reach full operating temperature in 5 miles, in most cases, but that's not the same kind of heat stress that will be exerted on the vehicle after 10-15 miles. Once everything is hot, you need to drive the vehicle at that temperature for a while and then see how it reacts. The transmission in particular is completely different once it's been driven for over 10 miles. The same goes for driving on the highway (if it's feasible to do where you live). Your transmission can slip at 70 when it doesn't slip at 50. This is also true for noises in the drivetrain, vibrations, and even overheating of the engine in certain situations. So make sure to take a lengthy test drive to see how the vehicle is really going to act once you've purchased it and taken it for your first pleasure ride. If you've done all of these things and the vehicle you're looking at has passed all of these items, it's a pretty safe bet that you're going to get a dependable vehicle, without having to spend the money to buy brand new. Good luck, and happy car hunting!