Buying a used car can be a little daunting. You want to know you’re getting a safe, well-maintained car for a good price.
Unfortunately, there are those unscrupulous folks out there who might try to pull one over on you by covering up a car’s not-so-shiny past. The most important thing is to have a trusted mechanic look at the car for you before you buy. A reputable seller should have no problem with allowing your mechanic to take a look at the vehicle.
Choose a mechanic you know well, or with a great reputation from people you trust. The cost of a basic inspection, while not insignificant, can save you a lot of money in the long run. But before you invest in a mechanic’s professional opinion, here are a few quick tips to help you decide if it’s worth taking to the shop.
Before You Get in the Car
Look carefully at the paint for dents, scratches or rust. Feel along edges between panels for any roughness from masking tape, which would be there from a paint job. Rust should be fairly easy to spot, as long as you take the time to specifically look for it. Also, look at the sides of the car from the front or back to see if there are any waves in the body of the vehicle. This means that paint work has been done, which you’ll want to ask the owner or dealer about.
Check under the hood to make sure all the hoses and belts are in good condition. This means they have no cracks and the radiator hose is not soft. According to A1 Auto, the most important (and therefore most expensive) belt to replace is the timing belt. This belt regulates the engine’s valves allowing the engine to work properly.
Find out if the car’s timing belt has ever been replaced, and if so, when. The average lifespan of a timing belt ranges from 60,000 to 100,000 miles. If the car has a steel timing chain, you’ll want to talk to your mechanic. Some manufacturers say the chain is good for the life of the car, while others say it should be replaced at a certain mileage. Timing chains will last much longer than timing belts but if it fails, it can be catastrophic to the engine and the parts around it as well.
If you end up buying a used car, the last thing you’ll want to do is turn around and spend a few hundred dollars on new tires. So check them out now.
First, be sure the car is on level ground. Seeing the car on a hill or on rocky ground will give you a false sense of how the tires sit.
Second, make sure that the number of miles matches the wear unless they’ve been replaced. If the tires are worn or bald but the car mileage is low, this means the tires are from another car or the mileage display is incorrect. Either is a circumstance you want to avoid. A car with a lot of miles but new tires isn’t odd, because they’ve likely just been replaced. Mechanics can quickly check the tread of your tire and know how soon it should be replaced.
For a quick check before you take it to the mechanic, try the coin test. Take a penny (or other coin) and place it in a groove of the tire tread on several different spots on the tire. If part of President Lincoln’s head isn’t always covered by tire, the tires will need replacing soon.
Next, make sure all the tires match each other. They might all look good individually but if they don’t match, it’s likely that they will wear unevenly and need to be replaced prematurely.
Finally, be sure to check the alignment. Bad alignment can easily be fixed, but it is good to be aware of while negotiating price. And be sure to get the alignment fixed soon after purchasing the care because it can cause uneven wearing, or more difficult steering for the driver as the car canpull to one side. To check this during a test drive, drive on a two-lane road in the left lane. The car may drift slightly to the left, which is acceptable, but if it pulls strongly left or right, the alignment needs attention.
On to the belly of the beast! The engine will need to be looked at by your mechanic, but for a cursory glance, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Inspect thoroughly for any leaks or signs of corrosion. With the engine running, look at the transmission dipstick to make sure the transmission is completely filled. The fluid should be pink or red. It may be darker in older models but definitely should not look or smell burnt.
Do not buy a car with a damaged frame. Repairs from accidents can be easily covered up, but you will want to carefully inspect front fenders, bolt heads and inside doorjambs with a flashlight for suspicious things like welding and scratch marks. Examine the trunk and quarter panels for welding, patch panels or fiberglass. Repairs like these can be very well covered, which is why you’ll be taking this car to your mechanic and not theirs.
Headlights and brake lights obviously need to work properly. But don’t forget to check the interior lights. You may not notice in the light of the afternoon, but trying to get in the car at night and finding out those lights don’t work will be an unwelcome surprise.
Inside the Car
Cars age two ways: time and mileage. An old car with few miles or a car that’s only a few years old but has a ton of miles are both actually old cars. When buying a used car, you mayhave to make a choice between these two. If you’re looking at older cars to save on price, your mechanic can give you a better idea of whether you’re making a smart investment. If the car seems fine today but will nickel and dime you over the next couple months or years, the benefit of the lower price is no longer applicable. If you’re deciding between the two types of old, look more at the condition of the car – if the parts seem to be in working order and a trusted mechanic signs off, it could be just the car for you.
While you may not get any say in the style of the interior, do make sure that it is in good condition. Check the wear of the seats and the floors. Make sure there aren’t stains and that the previous owner or dealer has taken the time to clean the car as it should be before you take ownership. Check the trunk carefully for any signs or wear, leaks or rust.
9. Air Conditioning
Even in the cold of winter, turn on the air conditioning system for a little while to make sure it’s working well. If you definitely need AC, go with a car with R134 coolant. It will probably be a 1993 or newer model and will have a sticker on the AC condenser saying so. This is a more eco-friendly refrigerant that may last longer than some alternatives. Unfortunately, the truth is that all AC systems can leak a bit over time, usually due to degraded gaskets or o-rings. Proper inspection of the pipes, hoses and main mechanical parts is suggested.
Because your heating system is attached to the cooling system of the engine, you will need a mechanic to look at it.
When you’re test-driving at a higher speed (30 mph or more) press hard enough on your brakes to test them. Don’t slam hard enough to skid or cause an accident, but to make sure in an emergency they will be reliable. It’s best to do this in an empty parking lot.
A dependable, safe car is an important investment. Remember, most people and dealers are just trying to sell a car, not pull one over on you. But it’s important to do your due diligence. We want you protected and to feel confident as you inspect the car. Be sure take the car and your concerns to a trusted mechanic before you fork over any cash. Good luck in your search!