Checklist for Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car can be an intimidating process. After all, a car is an expensive purchase and it’s something you rely on every day. You want to be sure that the car you buy will provide safe and reliable transportation at a price you can afford.

And a used car can be a great deal. They retain their resale value better than new cars, which depreciate significantly as soon as they’re driven off the lot. Plus, thanks to improvements in reliability, today’s used cars are more dependable than ever.

So buying a used car can make a lot of sense. But it also requires a little more research and effort to make sure the car you’re buying is a deal–not a dud. By following this used car buying checklist, you can increase the odds in your favor.

Before You Shop

1. Figure out how much you can afford and how you will pay for it:
In general, it’s harder to get good terms for financing on used cars than it is for new cars. If you’re planning to take out a loan, check with your lender to see if there have any restrictions on used car loans, like a minimum amount or maximum mileage allowed.

If you’re paying cash, make sure you have enough left in your budget to pay for insurance and registration after you pay for the car.

2. Determine what car you need:
Now that you know how much you can spend, the next step in buying a used car is asking yourself some important questions. What general type of car are you looking for? A minivan for a growing family? A highly efficient compact car for commuting? A truck for towing?

Then, research particular makes and models available to find which ones have the features you need. When you’re buying used, it’s especially important to pay attention to which cars have a reputation for being dependable over the long haul.

And of course, pay attention to Kelley Blue Book values for those cars. Picking out the perfect car won’t do you any good if it’s too expensive for your budget.

While You Shop

3. Explore your options:
With the online resources we have today, used car buyers have more choices than ever. There are several websites that list used cars, including AutoTrader, CarMax, and even Craigslist (but be wary of scammers!).

You can also do things the old-fashioned way and simply visit used car lots and car dealerships that sell used cars. Whichever method you choose, you’ll definitely want to physically inspect and test drive any used car before buying it.

4. Get a vehicle history report:
Once you’ve spotted a car that you think might be worth a test drive, get the VIN number from the seller and run a vehicle history report, if the seller doesn’t already have one for you. This report will give you a lot of vital information, like how many owners the car has had, whether it’s been in any serious accidents, and whether it has a clean title.

5. Inspect the vehicle:
You may want to have your own mechanic inspect any car before you buy it—especially if you’re purchasing from a private seller. But before you bother with that step, perform your own inspection, preferably on a clear, sunny day. Here are some major things to look for.

• Visible body damage—Any scrapes, dents, rust, cracks in the windshield?
• Under the car—Any scrapes, rust, leaking oil or fluid, loose parts?
• Tires—Is there sufficient tread? Do they appear to be worn evenly? Any odd bulges or bumps in the sidewall? Are there an adequate spare and jack?
• Lights—Are all the lights working? That includes headlights, high beams, reverse and turn signals, and brake lights.
• Interior upholstery and carpets—Are they clean? Any visible wear or tears? Any moisture?
• Odor—Do you smell cigarette smoke? A moldy or musty smell can be a sign of water damage.
• Controls and features—Try everything to make sure it’s all working. That includes windshield wipers, air conditioning, windows, locks, mirrors, horn, navigation system, sound system, etc.
• Under the hood—Check oil and fluid levels. Watch out for visible bits of metal in the oil or transmission fluid—that’s a warning sign of serious engine problems. Check belts and hoses for cracks or fraying.
• When the car starts—How smoothly and easily does it start? Any visible smoke or burning smells?

6. Test drive:
When taking the car for a test drive, be sure to drive for at least half an hour. Take a route that includes a variety of driving conditions, particularly both highway and city driving, as well as going up and down a steep hill to test power and braking, and driving on some winding, curvy roads to test handling.

Find an open parking lot or other safe area to try taking your hands off the wheel (at a safe speed!) to see if the car pulls to one side or the other. Try it again while braking. Make some tight, slow turns and listen for noise that could indicate a problem with the CV joint.

Is there excessive noise coming from the engine? What about from the wheels and brakes? What about when you try the heat and air conditioning?

When You Buy
Once you’ve found a car that satisfies your requirements, it’s time to settle on the price. Use the Kelley Blue Book value as well as what you’ve found in your inspection and test drive to determine what you’re willing to pay and negotiate with the seller. Hopefully you can both walk away happy with a good deal!