What to Check When Buying a Used Car

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years

UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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What You Should Know

  • Consulting your personal criteria will ensure that you get to purchase the right car
  • Check with the dealer to see if they can provide you with the car’s VIN ahead of time. This will give you a check what the car is like and what to expect
  • If odometer fraud has been reported, the VIN will show it

Whether you’re looking for an SUV for long camping trips with the family or hunting for your next favorite joy ride for drives up the coast, the used car hunt can sometimes feel a bit like you’re grinding your gears. Then, after what seems like endless searching, it happens—you’re standing in front of a vehicle that checks all of your boxes. 

But, how do you know you’re getting a trustworthy vehicle that will suit your needs and allow you to enjoy all of the benefits of a used car? 

Before you learn how to negotiate used car price, knowing what to check when buying a used car can help you find the perfect car. This brief guide will cover how to check a used car to ensure it checks all the important boxes so you can feel confident in your purchase. Put your car-hunting key into the ignition, and let’s get started. 

Step One: Consult Your Personal Checklist

Understanding what to look for in a second hand car starts with consulting your own personal criteria for that perfect set of wheels. By asking yourself what’s most important to you in your next vehicle purchase, you can streamline the buying process and ensure you’re getting just the car you’re looking for.

Before checking a potential car for purchase, ask yourself the following: 

  • What are my vehicle needs? – Starting with this question will help you create a baseline for the car you need. After all, a car is essentially a tool, and some tools are better suited for some tasks than others. For example, someone who’s looking for a cost-effective commuter car will be looking at completely different models than someone who’s looking for a heavy-duty vehicle for their construction business.
  • What’s my budget? – Once you’ve created a clearer picture of what kind of vehicle you’re looking for, you can set a budget. Take a look at car sites like Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds to gauge what years, models, and brands of cars will fit into your budget and suit your needs. Checking these sites will help you get a clearer expectation of what to pay. It will also help you identify when a car is overpriced or “too good to be true.”
  • What are my must-haves? – Must-haves are items on your checklist that you need your future car to have. This can include things like a pristine accident history, a certain maximum of mileage, or a spacious backseat area for your favorite four-legged road trip buddy. Because used cars have their own unique characteristics and histories, it’s important to know your must-haves to make the best possible purchase.
  • What are my nice-to-haves? – Nice-to-haves are items that you don’t necessarily need in your car, but (as the name suggests) would be nice to have. That might include vehicle color, backup camera functionality, or even seat warmers. While a car certainly fulfills an important function in modern life, your choice of vehicle is also an expression of your personality and lifestyle. Include a few “nice-to-haves” on your list to help you spot your dream wheels.
  • What are the highest rated used vehicles that check all my boxes? – Once you’ve answered the questions above, you can do some research into highly-rated used vehicles that are aligned with your criteria. Take a look at sites like Consumer Reports or U.S. News to help narrow your search and ensure you’re hunting in the right direction.

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Step Two: Check the Car’s History

Once you’ve found a car that fits your personal checklist, it’s time to do a little digging on that car’s history. Every car has a 17-character Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) found on the driver-side dashboard. Once you have decided on a vehicle to see in person, check with the seller to see if they can provide you with the car’s VIN ahead of time. This will give you a snapshot of the car, what to expect, or if it is even worth your time to look into further.

Places like AutoTrade and CarFax are highly trusted sites for viewing vehicle history reports. Once you have the VIN, simply enter it into one of these sites to see if there are reports of anything concerning, such as:

  • Accidents 
  • Repairs 
  • Theft
  • Recalls 

If you are interested in getting a precise quote for auto car insurance ahead of time, be sure to provide an insurance company with the vehicle’s VIN. 

Step Three: The In-Person Check

Once you find a car you like that is well-rated, reasonably priced, and has an acceptable history, it’s time to see that car in person. Because used cars have had a whole life (or two) before meeting you, it’s important to keep an eye out for potential wear and tear. Keep in mind: unless the motor vehicle has been listed “as is,” keep in mind that any faults you find could be worth citing when negotiating for a price decrease. When checking a used car, you’ll want to check:

  • The exterior
  • The interior
  • The odometer
  • Under the hood
  • How the car drives
  • How the car fares under professional inspection

Here’s how:

How to Inspect the Exterior 

Inspect the car’s exterior for damage that could cost you in future repairs. Look out for damage in the following areas:

  • Doors – Make sure the doors fit easily and seamlessly with the rest of the body when closed and that they are not creaky or loose when you open them.
  • Coat – Paint should be consistent in texture and quality without specks of rustKeep an eye out for attempts to cover flaws.
  • Tire Tread – To pass the legal safety inspection, all tires must have a minimum tread depth of 2/32 inches,1 though 6/32 is recommended. Ask the car dealer if they have a measuring tape or bring your own to ensure the tires are up to par.
  • Suspension – If the car bounces more than once after you get out of the driver’s seat, this could be a sign of faulty shock absorbers. 
  • Glass – Anything bigger than a nick or chip could mean an expensive repair in the future.
  • Levelness of vehicle – Take a walk around the vehicle. If one side of the car rests a bit higher than the other side, it may mean there are issues with the suspension. Though the front of the vehicle typically rides lower than the back, so in this case, check the passenger side against the driver’s side). 

How to Check the Interior

While the engine and exterior might feel most important, the interior will give you many clues about how the car has been treated. 

Here are some key things to look for when inspecting the interior:

  • Warning lights – When you turn the key in the car’s ignition, the service lights behind the steering wheel should flash and turn off. Check to see if any of them stay on.
  • Upholstery – Look for rips and burns in the upholstery as well as smells that might indicate water damage or smoking. 
  • Electronic features – Ensure that all electronic features of the car operate correctly.  Essentially, press all the buttons: turn on the radio, try the windshield wipers, check the emergency lights, trigger the car alarm—these electronic elements are all vital parts of safely operating a vehicle. It’s better to find out now if there’s an issue than when you’re driving home from the dealership. 

Tip:  If the seller rushes you through your inspection, it could be a red flag that something is wrong. Stick to your list, and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. 

How to Read the Odometer

The car’s odometer records mileage and can indicate the life left on a vehicle. The odometer is typically located behind the steering wheel.

Here are some facts and figures to keep in mind when reading the car’s odometer of a used car:

  • Mileage – Assuming routine maintenance, the average car is expected to run well for approximately 200,000 miles.2
  • Age of car – Divide the mileage by the age of the car to get an idea of how hard the car has been used. Given that the average car owner drives approximately 12,000 miles per year, a four-year-old car with 100,000 miles is likely to be more worn down than an eight-year-old car with 100,000 miles on it.
  • Odometer fraud — Some sellers lie about mileage, committing odometer fraud. If odometer fraud has been reported, the VIN will show it. You can also make an educated guess based on the car’s condition. If the odometer is low, but the car appears worn elsewhere, this could be a red flag that odometer fraud has been committed. 

How to Look Under the Hood

This can feel intimidating, but remember that you’re not inspecting the car as a professional; rather, you are trying to figure out if taking the car to a professional is worth your time and money. 

Here is what to do when performing a simple inspection under the hood:

  • Turn the car off – The car should be off and cooled down before proceeding
  • Inspect the engine and its related parts – Take a look at the hoses, belts, and battery to ensure no corrosion, cracks, or leaks. To help you feel confident in your inspection, do an internet image search for the car make, model, and “under the hood.” You’ll quickly find an example of what a healthy vehicle looks like under the hood.
  • Inspect the fluids – There should not be anything other than light brown oil on the dipstick, while the transmission fluid should be nearly transparent with a tinge of pink.
  • Look under the car – Look under the car for possible leaks, since it’s possible that everything under the hood has been recently wiped down. 

The Test Drive

You should never buy a used car without test driving it first. The test drive will confirm that the car works properly. It will also show you if the driving experience meets your expectations.

Here’s what to do on your test drive:3

  • Try out different roads – If possible, take the car on streets as well as main roads and the highway. Get a sense of how it accelerates, brakes, takes turns, and maneuvers through a range of different traffic.
  • Feel how it drives – Do you smoothly glide over every bump in the road? Or do you feel tiny potholes like you’re driving over boulders? Pay attention to how well the car handles the rougher spots in the road, like speed bumps. If you feel every little rough patch, the car may have issues with shock absorbers and suspension. 
  • Test how it parks – Remember that parking is also a part of driving. See how manageable it is to parallel park or back into a space with the car. 
  • Listen for red flags – Keep an ear out for any knocking, hissing, or other alarming noises that might spell more serious problems.

Get a Professional Inspection

When buying a used car, there is no replacement for a trustworthy mechanic. Be sure to call ahead to verify that the mechanic can inspect your car. You will also want to find out how much it costs. Consumer Reports suggests it shouldn’t cost more than $100 dollars.4 

Finish Off Your Checklist with 4AutoInsuranceQuote 

There’s nothing quite like finding the right vehicle that checks all the right boxes. But there’s still one item left to cross off your list—finding the best auto insurance. Plus, if you are asking, “do I need gap insurance on a used car” or “should I buy an extended warranty on a used car,” we’ve got you covered. 4AutoInsuranceQuote lets you digitally kick the tires of a variety of auto insurances. Compare quotes, find competitive rates, all in one place. 

So whether you’re driving away from the car dealership in a convertible or an SUV, find your perfect auto insurance with 4AutoInsuranceQuote.

References:

  1. TireRack.com. Minimum Tread Depth. https://tires.tirerack.com/tires/Minimum%20Tread%20Depth
  2. Tom Kadlec Kia. What’s Good Mileage on a Used Car? https://www.tomkadleckia.com/blogs/1309/good-mileage-preowned-car/
  3. Reader’s Digest. 10 Car Sounds You Should Not Ignore. https://www.rd.com/article/car-sounds-you-should-never-ignore/
  4. Consumer Reports. Inspecting a Used Car. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/12/inspecting-a-used-car/index.htm

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