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What To Look For When Buying A Used Car

Hanna Kielar7-minute read
January 10, 2022

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Cars are pricey, big-ticket items, and choosing a used model over a new model can significantly cut expenses when done carefully.

In the past, knowing what to look for when buying a reliable used car could be tricky. Now, there’s plenty of information that exists about a vehicle’s history to help navigate doing a car check. This can include its accident history, mileage and number of owners, which is all usually linked to the vehicle’s identification number (VIN).

Continue reading to discover how to get the best model for the lowest cost, what to check when buying a used car and how to inspect the car.

Determine What You Can Afford

First off, you should think about your price range. Most people can't afford to purchase a car with a single payment. If this applies to you, a monthly payment schedule might be the most practical solution.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, you should take stock of your net income and monthly cash flow before purchasing a car. A good rule of thumb is to set aside no more than 10% – 15% of your net monthly income to cover total transportation costs, including insurance and maintenance of any cars.

Remember to take into consideration all the additional costs that come with a car, not just the monthly loan payment.

To help prepare for the car buying process The Federal Trade Commission proposes taking the following steps:

  • Get a copy of your credit report to determine eligibility for an auto loan, and find out from lenders how much interest you'll have to pay.
  • Compare multiple financing options, including direct lending and dealership financing options, to find the best deal on a used car.
  • Save up for a down payment to reduce total financing costs.
  • Ask for pricing information before visiting each lot so you can compare offers and stay alert to sellers trying to change prices or tack on additional fees. You can ask them what fees are and aren’t covered in their prices.
  • If working with a used car dealer, talk to them in advance about add-ons, special financing offers from manufacturers, discounts and rebates, and don't be shy about negotiating APR terms.
  • Check the trade-in value of your old car and consider any remaining loan balances on your current vehicle. But, you should wait until negotiations on pricing with the dealer are finalized before you discuss whether a trade-in is possible.

Research Which Car Is Best For Your Needs

Even if you've got a specific make and model in mind, take the time to conduct thorough research on different kinds of used vehicles. You might find other options you weren’t previously considering.

Type Of Vehicle

There are many types of cars, each suiting various road users' needs and preferences. Vehicle types to consider include:

  • Sedan
  • Coupe
  • Sports car
  • Station wagon
  • Hatchback
  • Convertible
  • SUV
  • Minivan
  • Pickup truck

Vehicle Features

As technology continues to advance, used car buyers need to consider a vehicle's features and how important these are when choosing a car. While base models can be worth buying, used cars may have additional features that enhance safety and overall driving experience, such as:

  • Forward and reverse automatic braking
  • Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection
  • Automatic headlights
  • Lane departure warning
  • Driver attention monitor
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Rear cross-traffic alert
  • Infotainment system
  • Hybrid powertrain
  • Cruise control
  • All-wheel drive, four-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive

Of course, how you plan to purchase a used car factors into what options you can prioritize. You can visit a used car dealership and negotiate in person, take the risk of buying from a private party or buy a car online from a registered company on the online marketplace.

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Here's What To Check For When Buying A Used Car

Below is a breakdown of some of the most important things to look for when buying a used car.

Vehicle History Report

You can visit the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System's website for a guide on how to obtain and understand car maintenance records. You'll find federally approved vehicle check providers, where you can enter the used car's vehicle identification number and pay a small fee to discover its history.

The FTC suggests obtaining an additional vehicle history report from the following providers, which might have additional information:

  • Vinaudit
  • Carfax
  • AutoCheck

Keep in mind that these reports shouldn't replace an independent vehicle inspection. Incorporating both into your used car buying strategy helps to ensure you get a full picture of the vehicle before you purchase it.

Find if there have ever been recalls on the car you’re looking at, or if there are any current recalls from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Don't stop there. See if a car has been declared as salvage from the National Insurance Crime Bureau to make sure you’re not ending up with a car that has been severely damaged in a car accident and deemed a loss by an insurance company.

Car Mileage

Determining good mileage for a used car should be a top priority for buyers. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the average vehicle was driven 10,200 miles a year in 2018. You can use this as a benchmark when deciding which model to purchase.

However, be sure to note the odometer reading on your car check report, your own inspection of the vehicle and what the seller tells you.

If cost is your primary consideration, a high mileage vehicle may be the best option for reducing costs up front, but be mindful of any additional maintenance this may mean for your vehicle.

Let's look at the pros and cons of opting for a high mileage used car:

Pros

  • While high mileage on a newer car may suggest overuse, opting for an older car with relative mileage to its age can be highly cost-effective.
  • High mileage cars tend to depreciate slower than newer models.
  • If well-maintained, a used car may have already had parts replaced that help improve the overall quality of the car.

Cons

  • It might be harder to secure finance for a car with higher mileage.
  • You may need to spend more on maintenance, especially if previous owners did not keep up with these efforts.
  • An older car is unlikely to have enhanced safety features, high-tech gadgets or in-car entertainment options.

Car Engine

You don't have to be a mechanic to investigate under the hood of a used car and look for warning signs.

Here are the essential engine checks to conduct:

  • Does the engine start the first time you try?
  • Are there any unusual smells when you test drive the car? A moldy smell could indicate water damage, while a burning smell when you lift the hood can be a sign of worn components or incomplete combustion.
  • Look underneath the car for drips or beads of fluid that can signify engine damage.
  • Are there any visible cracked or damaged parts?

Body And Frame Condition

Let's look at the key components of the vehicle body and frame to inspect when buying a used car:

  • Check the roof and each panel of the vehicle for dents, rust and scratches.
  • Keep an eye out for significant gaps or misaligned panels.
  • Ensure paint color and finish is consistent across all panels.
  • Use a magnet to check for body filler if you suspect a dent has been patched.
  • Look for visible rust or blistered paint.
  • Inspect door bottoms and wheel wells.
  • Ensure rubber seals are free from rot or tears.
  • Look for pockmarks and cracks in all glass areas.
  • Confirm that all lights are present, uncracked and not fogged with moisture.

Condition Of Tires And Brakes

The condition of tires and brakes is a strong indicator of the quality of a used car, as well as whether the seller is honest. If a car has low mileage and brand-new tires, there may be cause for concern.

For example, a car with fewer than 20,000 miles should still have its original tires, although there could be exceptions to this, such as needing to replace a tire due to a flat tire incident, that are out of the owner’s control.

Note that excessive wear on the outer shoulder of the front tires is a sign of aggressive driving. A car that's been driven hard is likely to incur higher maintenance costs than one that's been driven carefully.

A tire must have at least one-sixteenth of tread to be legally roadworthy. Inspect sidewalls and wheel flares for cracks, bulges and scuffs, and make sure there are no cracks or dents on any of the wheels.

Also, note that worn gas, brake and clutch pedals are a sign of heavy use and shouldn't be present on a newer car. To check suspension, do a walk-around of the car to make sure it's sitting level. Push down on all four corners of the car to check shock absorbers. If they're in good condition, the car will bounce only once.

Interior Upholstery And Seating

When it comes to the interior of the car, there's plenty to watch out for. To maximize your driving experience, check for:

  • Smells such as mildew, must or mold may signify water damage.
  • Look for wet spots underneath floor mats on the driver and passenger sides.
  • Ensure upholstery on every front and rear seat isn't worn or ripped beyond what's acceptable to you.
  • Check the heating and air conditioning.
  • Make sure the trunk isn't smelly and that the spare tire well doesn't contain rust or water.

Tech And Safety Features

Tech is a priority for most people, so check all advertised features are fully functional. Switch the ignition on without starting the engine to look for any warning lights, and test the radio, CD player, rear audio controls and Bluetooth functionality if available.

Take The Car For A Test Drive

Let's break down the most important elements to pay attention to when test driving a car:

  • Can you find a safe, comfortable driving position?
  • Test different types of road, including the highway if you use it regularly.
  • Find a safe space to check the brakes with an emergency stop.
  • Ensure the clutch and brakes are smooth and effective.
  • Get a feel for whether the car is balanced or tends to veer.
  • Does the car pull away and accelerate smoothly?
  • Are buzzes or rattles coming from the engine?
  • Does the car take corners and go over road humps smoothly?
  • Perform a three-point turn to test the steering.

Get A Professional Used Car Inspection

While test driving and conducting your own inspection is essential, you should invest in an independent inspection from a mechanic or other automotive professional. A prepurchase inspection checks for:

  • Structural integrity
  • Electronic systems
  • Safety features
  • Suspension
  • Power train
  • Heat/air
  • Security
  • Exhaust
  • Interior
  • Emissions
  • Wheels and trims
  • Steering

The Bottom Line: Plan And Prepare To Get The Best Deal On A Used Car

The best way to get the most for your money is to conduct thorough research, learn how to inspect a used car and pay a mechanic to perform a thorough vehicle inspection. You can pay a nominal fee to gain access to any vehicle's history, which ultimately could save a ton of cash on future repairs and maintenance.

Keep in mind that inspections are just one crucial element of used car shopping. There are plenty more tips and tricks to get the most bang for your buck when buying a used car.

Car buying, reimagined.

Rocket AutoSM allows you to compare thousands of vehicles from multiple dealers.

Car buying, reimagined.

Rocket AutoSM allows you to compare thousands of vehicles from multiple dealers.

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Hanna Kielar

Hanna Kielar is a Section Editor for Rocket Auto℠, RocketHQ℠, and Rocket Loans® with a focus on personal finance, automotive, and personal loans. She has a B.A. in Professional Writing from Michigan State University.