Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

by Nancy Wagner

Buying a used car that fits your budget and needs starts with knowing what to look for and what you can expect to pay for the vehicle you want. Preparation lowers the odds that the vehicle turns out to be an expensive lemon. Knowledge also brings you more leverage when it comes to negotiating the final price of the car.

Initial Questions

When responding to an used car ad, find out the car’s mileage. If it was driven more than 20,000 miles annually, ask about how it was driven. Long trips and highway miles put less wear and tear on the vehicle than the stop-and-go traffic in the city. Find out if the key equipment you want on the car is available. Ask about the condition of the body, including descriptions of dents and scratches. The answers to these questions will help you determine if it’s worth taking time to schedule a test drive.

Look Inside and Out

Once you see the car, take a whiff of the interior to find signs of smoking or pets if these things bother you. Test drive the car to make sure it shifts into gear properly without stiffness. Try the four-wheel drive, if available. Confirm all mechanisms and locks on windows, doors and the trunk work. Try the windshield wipers, air conditioning and heat. Test the stereo, GPS system, CD player and any monitors. Look for wet spots under the car as these may indicate a fluid leak. Take the car to a mechanic of your choice for a thorough inspection and opinion on the mechanical condition of the vehicle.

Review History

Request the Vehicle Identification Number so you can buy a history report from a company such as CarFax. Make sure the car has not been in a major wreck. Ask to see all maintenance records to confirm the vehicle was maintained as recommended by the manufacturer. Confirm the car passed its most recent emissions and safety tests. Ask a dealership to see if the car has ever been recalled for safety violations or mechanical problems, and if so make sure the problems have been corrected..

Finalizing the Sale

As you get ready to pay for the car, consider buying an extended warranty directly from a dealership. If buying from a private seller, purchase a warranty from companies such as Carchex or Warranty Direct. Make sure the seller has the title to the car. If not, ask your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles what paperwork is required to transfer ownership and obtain a bill of sale. Consider meeting a private seller at his bank so he can pay off the loan and transfer the title to you.

Used Car Auctions

Buying a used car at an auction requires a sharp eye for mechanical problems since you’re not allowed to test drive the cars before making a bid. Ask the auction company beforehand what fees you need to pay if you place a winning bid. If you bid and win a vehicle, you’ll need to pay for the car within a few days, allowing you to obtain a cashier’s check or finalize a line of credit so you can pay and remove the car from the auction lot.

About the Author

Nancy Wagner is a marketing strategist and speaker who started writing in 1998. She writes business plans for startups and established companies and teaches marketing and promotional tactics at local workshops. Wagner's business and marketing articles have appeared in "Home Business Journal," "Nation’s Business," "Emerging Business" and "The Mortgage Press," among others. She holds a B.S. from Eastern Illinois University.

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