I consider myself a car enthusiast. Those closest to me may call it an addiction, for I have owned many used cars over the years. But the apple didn’t fall far from the tree since my father and uncle share the same enthusiasm. At one point my uncle had 32 cars while living and going to school in Berkley. My father had less, but both of them were the usual suspects for parking tickets. Mind you these were not “fully functioning” cars. They just loved tinkering and had an eye for the odd ball ones. Needless to say I spent a lot of time in the driveway with them trying to sort out what made the car a “mechanic’s special.”
This article has been a collaboration between my father and friends. In addition to this I reached out on multiple forums on Reddit to see what others might suggest. The love of cars and car culture runs deep within us, the following is compilation of learnings over the years. So when you go to buy a used car you can quickly read this and have a good understanding of what to prepare for.
Before we dive, I want to acknowledge that every situation is different. The following information here does not cover every instance or exception. By sharing this, I hope you will avoid the mistakes we have made. The most important takeaway is to put in the time to inform yourself, before you check out a used car. When I purchase a car, all of the hard work is done upfront. By doing so, I make sure the car I selected is worth the money and is the value and fit that I am seeking.
If you are interested in having a checklist version or infographic please let me know int he comments below, or reach out on the contact us page.
Resources to gather information on a used car
So, first thing, I want to provide you with some good resources that are readily available to gather information about used cars.
⦁ Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. These help you gauge the local price of the car, given the mileage and essential condition. Do note that Kelley Blue Book doesn’t take into account current events such as inflation and shortages.
⦁ YouTube and online forums. You can Google-search the make and model of a car you’re interested in and a list of forums and YouTube videos will most likely pop up. I did this for the Sequoia I purchased and this gave me a lot of information on what to look for.
⦁ Reddit. Some cars have cult followings and have Reddit pages. These are great because you can post a question such as “What should I look for?” on a used car.
⦁ Google. You can literally Google reliability ratings, recalls and most importantly, the required services and intervals for just about everything for any vehicle.
⦁ Carfax. It is a paid service and sometimes a seller provides the report. You can see reported accidents and service records.
Maintenance and accidents – Carfax
The age and mileage of a vehicle can give you an idea of how much wear and tear it has experienced. Obviously, higher mileage and an older vehicle may require more maintenance and repairs. Carfax is a good resource to make sure the owner has kept up on maintenance. If there are any accidents reported they will also show up in this report. The cost for one report for a single VIN is around $40. You can order up to three reports for $59.99 and six for $99.99. Many sellers usually provide the Carfax report as well. It doesn’t hurt to ask them to provide one as well.
It’s important that the title is clean. That means it is not a salvage title. If the vehicle has a salvage title and it is a deal you still are considering, then have the car inspected by a professional to evaluate the repairs and possible risks. In general, the resale value of a salvage title vehicle is not favorable and the market of prospective buyers is much smaller
Smell of the car
Does the interior smell moldy or moist compared to other cars? This may be a sign of a leak somewhere in the car and can cause substantial damage. In my experience, sunroofs are a common cause of a leak. Also, walk around the vehicle after your test drive and stick your nose in the engine compartment to determine if you smell radiator fluid or burning oil. I once had a Range Rover that had a slight leak in the coolant system and I could smell it but it wasn’t enough to concern me. I regretted this later, since it led to a much larger problem.
Look for any visible damage or wear and tear on the exterior of the vehicle. Check for dents, scratches, and rust. Take note of the condition of the tires, including the tread depth and any visible damage. Sometimes body shops drill a small-ish hole in door frames to get access to the body panel to pop out dents. Be sure to look for these as they can be bargaining chips. Also, I should add that looking for excessive orange peel texture in the paint relative to the body panels around it can indicate that the car was repaired in that area.
Check the condition of the interior, including the seats, carpets, dashboard, and any other upholstery. Look for visible wear and tear or damage. Tortured family cars usually have stained headliners as well as carpets. Also, water damage shows up first around the sunroofs and in the corners of foot wells.
Engine bay and mechanical components
Check under the hood for any visible signs of wear and tear or damage. Look for leaks or other issues that may indicate problems with the engine or other mechanical components. A big ticket item that could need replacement is the CV boots of the CV axles; have a look if the car has them and if they are ripped and throwing grease around the area. When the engine is running, listen for any outlandish noises. An odd one that I keep missing is folding mirrors. More cars are starting to have this option and tends to be overlooked if they work or not.
Check the levels of all fluids, including oil, transmission fluid, coolant, and brake fluid. Make sure that they are at the correct levels and do not look dirty or contaminated. Check under the oil cap and see if there is excessive buildup and look for rust around the gas cap for diesel cars — these are things you want to avoid. Ask when the last transmission fluid and differential oil change was, as this is often neglected maintenance. You can generally find the manufacturer’s suggested service schedule online.
Lights and electrical
Test all the lights and electrical components to make sure that they are in good working order. I cannot stress this enough. EVERYONE forgets to check all of the switches and buttons in the car. I recently bought a used SUV and forgot to check the sunroof only to find out it doesn’t work and leaks. Shame on me! It would have been a quick check and instead I paid $1,000 to repair it. Check the headlights, taillights, turn signals, and any other electrical components such as windows, locks, sunroof, mirrors and radio.
Suspension and brakes
Check the condition of the suspension and brakes. Make sure the car doesn’t make a clunking noise going over bumps and the steering does what you expect it to do. For some lifted vehicles, if they did not correct the suspension geometry after the lift — such as raising the pan hard bar (if it has one) — then the steering can do unpredictable things. For the brakes, if they pull to one side or you notice one wheel radiating heat more than the others after a test drive, then that is a sign they will need to be replaced.
Take the vehicle for a test drive to get a feel for how it handles and performs. Pay attention to the smoothness of the ride, the responsiveness of the brakes and acceleration, and any unusual noises or vibrations. This is a good time to check the air conditioning as well as the cruise control, if equipped. Try and get on the freeway if you can, my latest purchase develops a vibration around 65mph that I did not experience on the drive around the neighborhood.
Safety features and tires
Check to see if the vehicle has any important safety features such as airbags, stability control, and anti-lock brakes. Also see if the car came with a spare tire and if it has it. Check the tire sidewall quality and date codes on the tires. Here is a good resource on tires in general. A lot of people buy used tires as a cost saving option. I have also seen mismatched tires as well, double check they have the same brand and size all around. There are exceptions to custom and staggered vehicles.
Consider the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, especially if you plan on driving frequently. You can visit this site and input the year, make and model to determine the expected fuel economy. Check this number against what the owner says they are getting. If it is way off then something may be wrong. There is an exception to this: hybrids and custom suspension/ tires. For some reason I experienced the manufacturer’s MPG to be very different from the actual, this seems to be the case for most hybrids.
Consider the overall cost of the vehicle, including the purchase price, financing costs, insurance, and maintenance expenses. Remember there is a sales tax that you pay when you register the vehicle in your name and in some areas it can be up to 10%. So for every $10K paid at 10%, that’s $1K in taxes. If you are financing, credit unions usually have lower rates than banks, so spend some time shopping around.
Keep in mind the resale value of the vehicle in the event you decide to sell it in the future. Some vehicles tend to hold their value better than others. A couple of useful sites are Autotrader and Cars.com. You can search similar cars and go back a few years to see which ones are selling higher than the others. Again, do check out Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to gauge local prices of the vehicle since Kelley Blue Book doesn’t get this part right. Enjoy shopping.
In general anything that is making loud noises or is barely controllable are a no-go for me. The results of the rest of the findings can be used as a bargaining chip to lower the cost in a reasonable negotiation. I recently sold my hybrid and the perspective buyer negotiated the price down because the door handle and E-break switch being broken. Very reasonable points and I was able to meet his new price. He won and I won as well in the deal. Please keep in mind it is always a good deal to walk away from a bad deal.
Check back every now and then, I hope to add more photos and examples from the feedback I receive.