Buying a used car

10 Things to Check Before Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car is a great way to save money. However, there are some things that are crucial before making the purchase.

Modern manufacturing practices have made the question of buying a new or second-hand easier to answer for many buyers. More cars now come with better reliability and advanced safety features that keep pre-owned vehicles in good shape throughout the duration of their use.

Whether you want to save money by buying a second-hand car or practice your driving skills before buying a brand-new set of wheels, the used car market offers you plenty of options. You can now buy from individuals, brokers, or even companies dealing exclusively in pre-owned vehicles.

As you prepare to go shopping, remember that every used car has a story, and the previous owner sold it for a reason. You may be lucky to find out the reason if you are buying directly from the seller.

However, when buying from a broker, consider getting a vehicle history report to find out exactly what you are getting. With the car’s history and our used car checklist, you are sure to get the best bargain.

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What To Check Before Buying A Used Car

Here are some of the crucial things to check when buying a used car:

1. Check the Vehicle History

Getting a vehicle’s history information is easy when buying directly from the previous owner. However, when dealing with a broker or used car company, you may not have that benefit.

They might have acquired the car at an auction or as a trade-in, so they do not have much information about its history.

Consider getting the vehicle history through CARFAX or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. Use the VIN number to see whether the car was involved in an accident, has any liens, or was recalled by the manufacturer for any defects.

You can also run a search on the National Insurance Crime Bureau to determine whether the car has been reported stolen, salvaged, or totaled.

2. Check The Engine

When buying a used car, checking the engine is critical to getting a good bargain. A quick test drive will not help you evaluate any mechanical problems the engine might have, so we recommend engaging a certified mechanic to help you with this part.

A car’s engine operates under tight tolerances, which means poor or irregular maintenance can cause serious problems.

3. Check for Leaks

There are several fluids running throughout the engine, including coolant, engine oil, transmission fluid, windscreen washer fluid, and more. A well-maintained engine should not have any leaks.

When buying a used car, check for any signs of leaking fluid underneath the car, such as oil on the tarmac. If the car has recently been moved, there won’t be any signs of leakage on the ground underneath. However, it may have sludge and grime stuck to the undercarriage caused by leaking oil mixed with dust and dirt from the road.

Open the bonnet to check for other fluids that may be leaking, such as:

  • Coolant Leak: Indicated by signs of pink, green, or yellow fluid.
  • Gearbox fluid: Indicated by a thick and reddish-brown fluid.
  • Engine Oil: Indicated by brown fluid if it is freshly replaced oil and black fluid if the oil is old.

While leaking oil does not always mean that the engine is damaged, you can use any of these signs to negotiate and get money off the asking price for repairs. Consult a qualified mechanic to find out the exact damage and cost of repair.

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4. Check The Oil

It may seem trivial, as it is a general car maintenance practice, but do not forget to check the oil. The dipstick should read at the correct level, and the oil should be brownish with the right consistency.

Check the connectors for dirt and grime, as this usually means that the car has been poorly maintained. A strong burnt oil smell under the hood is also an indicator that the car has had multiple oil leaks.

5. Check The Head Gasket and Exhaust Colors

The gasket prevents engine oil and coolant from entering the cylinders. If the gasket is leaking, it can cause multiple problems, including loss of power or, in some cases, complete engine failure.

Remove the oil cap and look under it using a flashlight to see the internal parts. The parts should be clean with no sludge or carbon deposits. Sludge indicates a blown gasket which makes it difficult to establish exactly how much damage the engine has suffered.

Another sign of a blown gasket is a smoky exhaust. A cold start can reveal a variety of hidden problems. Visit the seller early in the morning and start the vehicle you intend to buy. Some of the problems you may discover include:

  • Bad battery: If the car needs a boost to start, it probably has a faulty battery.
  • Loud noises and blue smoke: Blue smoke means that the engine is burning oil.
  • Black smoke: The engine is burning too much fuel.
  • Excessive white smoke: This is an indicator of gasket failure. Coolant fluid might be mixed with fuel.

6. Check the Clutch and Gearbox

Take the car on a test drive to feel how the car engages its gears. Cars with manual and automatic gearboxes behave differently on a test drive. However, the clutch should engage smoothly and quietly.

Make sure you engage all gears and take note of any resistance and grinding noises. Having a mechanic on hand will make it easier for you to determine whether the car needs an adjustment or pricy repairs and replacements down the road.

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7. Check the Bodywork

Walk around the vehicle and look at its frame. Check whether it is level with the ground and if there are parts hanging from the undercarriage. During your visual inspection, check for dents, chips, and signs of recent painting or panel replacement.

Look for evidence of a crash, such as uneven body panels, overspray, new bolts, and warping, among others. Uneven gaps between the panels on the body are an indicator that there has been a replacement or, in some cases, chassis misalignment caused by heavy impact during a collision.

Inspect the front and rear of the car, as this is where most low-impact collisions occur. Bent panels under the boot carpet and bonnet indicate the car has had a low-speed collision. Some of these dents could be a result of a minor collision with another car or a wall while parking.

As you inspect the exterior, check the wheels to see whether the car has new tires. If the car has old tires, ask for money off the original price to accommodate a new set, as these can be costly. Ensure the car also has a spare wheel.

The tires on the car should not have cuts, bulges, splits, or any visible sign of damage. Inspect the tread and note any uneven wear or alignment. Remember to check for dents on the wheel and rim. Larger dents on the rim can lead to expensive repairs or replacements.

In case the rims are dented, check with your mechanic to determine whether the car is significantly damaged.

8. Check the Interior

Inspect the interior of the car and check the fabric. A low-mileage car should not have a worn-out interior. Check the upholstery for rips, stains, holes, tears, sagging, cracked leather, or burning from cigarettes. Upholstery can be expensive to replace.

Ensure the air-con, windows, radio, sunroof, central locking, and other electrical equipment are working. This will help you negotiate some money off the price for repairs.

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9. Check the Warning Lights

Turn on the engine and check the car for any warning lights. Check the mileage to see if it corresponds to the advertisement. Worn-out pedals, upholstery, and the gearstick differing from the odometer are all signs that the mileage may have been changed.

10. Check the Maintenance Records

A used car will come with a long history of repairs and replacements. You can use these documents to check its history and inspect the parts fitted. These documents can also be a great asset to help you determine the car’s mileage.

If you buy a car with well-maintained service records, it is likely to serve you well compared to a vehicle with little to no documentation. A verbal history can only tell you so much, so consider an inspection with a professional mechanic before signing any documents.

Other documents to check include:

  • The registration certificate
  • Car insurance
  • Transfer of ‘No Claim Bonus’
  • Financing documents such as form 35 and the company’s No Objection Certificate

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Ready to Buy a Used Car?

Before you decide to buy a pre-owned car, consider visiting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration site to view which cars are safest on the road. You can also use this site to determine whether the specific make and model you are interested in has had manufacturer recalls due to defects.

As you shop, keep your eyes open and do not settle for any car that has too many repair and replacement needs. Unless you are looking for a rare classic, there is always a better car on the market.

Made it to the end? Here are other articles you might find helpful for buying a car:

6 Tips For Buying Your First Car

Guidelines For Buying Your First Car

Can You Get Insurance on a Salvage Title Car?

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