Most people that have bought a used car know that cars lose up to 20% of their value as soon as they’re taken off the new car dealer’s lot. Buying used can save you a lot of money, even if it is just a few years old. For some people buying a pre-owned vehicle can seem like a gamble, but here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself and your investment.
- Check It Out Before You Go – Do some simple research on the model and year you’re looking at including consumer reports, automotive magazine review, online reviews from real people who own the car and potential issues.
- Inspect – Walk around the vehicle and check for obvious problems. Paint shades should match, doors and windows should open and close easily, gaps between body panels should be even and consistent, and tires should be worn evenly. Any inconsistencies should warrant a closer look.
- Look Under the Hood – Even if you don’t know much about cars, you should look under the hood. Check for leaky hoses, worn or frayed belts, and dirty oil. Automatic transmission fluid should be clear with a reddish tint and not spell burned. Radiator coolant should be light yellow or green in color (though some models may have a pink or orange coolant, check the owners manual or manufacturer’s website).
- Stop, Look & Listen - Not just good advice when you come to a train crossing. You should always sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key on, but do not start the car and check that all the warning lights and gauges work. Then you should start the car and make sure all the warning lights go off after a minute. Pay particular attention to the airbag warning lights. Then, rev the engine for a few seconds and listen for knocks or odd noises and check for smoke (black or white) coming from the tailpipe. Keep in mind if it’s cold outside some light white smoke is normal since the exhaust gasses are hot. The engine should idle smoothly and should return to idle when you let off the accelerator.
- Take it for a Spin – Get behind the wheel and actually drive. Get on a main road (don’t just cruise around a residential area) and get the car up to 35-40 MPH. The transmission should shift up and down smoothly, steering should keep relatively straight, and the car should not pull hard to one side when braking. The steering wheel shouldn’t shimmy at high speeds and cornering should be smooth.
- Check the Paperwork – When buying through the classifieds or online listings, check the name on the title with the seller’s driver’s license. Many unlicensed and unregulated dealers are disguised as private sellers, also known as curbstoning. A private party can only legally sell a car that actually belongs to them.
- Get Professional Help – Not that kind of professional help, always get a pre-purchase vehicle inspection from a qualified and trustworthy mechanic of your choosing.
- CPO Vehicles – No, it’s not a character from Star Wars, a Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle will typically have a comprehensive inspection, repairs and a limited warranty in addition to any remaining on the original warranty from the manufacturer.
- Get the CARFAX – Most used car dealers should provide a CARFAX Vehicle History Report to you. If the dealer doesn’t offer reports, or if you are purchasing from a private party you can order one online at CARFAX.com.
Since new vehicle lose so much of their value after purchase, used cars are a smart financial alternative. Thanks to manufacturing and maintenance standards, they are better than ever and a great value. Just remember to do your homework and use the tools and helps available to you.