Besides buying a home, an automobile is one of the largest purchases most people will ever make. While a factory warranty typically covers issues for consumers who purchase new cars, buying a used car can be a bit more dicey, especially when dealing with a private seller.
If you're in the market to buy a used car, protect yourself with as much information as possible by following these seven steps:
1. Purchase a vehicle history report
Opinions vary as to the value of reports available from companies such as Carfax and Auto Check. But if a report indicates a car you would have otherwise purchased is a lemon or was severely damaged, it's worth the investment.
If you're purchasing a used car from a lot, many dealers provide their customers a vehicle history report at no charge. If you're dealing with a private seller, considering purchasing a vehicle history report to learn as much as possible about the car's ownership history and any major damage. If you plan to evaluate multiple used cars, some vehicle information providers offer discounts for multiple reports.
2. Get a pre-purchase inspection from a trusted mechanic
While a vehicle history report may reveal important information about the car's past, an inspection by a trusted auto repair technician is the best way to learn about the car's present condition. Have the car inspected by somebody you know or have worked with in the past. Don't put too much faith in a technician's opinion if the seller referred you to them.
Getting an inspection will require making arrangements with the seller to get the car to the shop. You will also probably need to provide the seller a hold fee, but consider it money well spent. The fee should be applied to the cost of the car or returned if the sale doesn't materialize. Just make sure you put the transaction in writing and have the seller sign the agreement.
3. Ask the right questions
You might not consider yourself an auto expert, but there is plenty to be gained from asking the seller relevant questions. Are they the original owners? How long have they owned the car? What are their daily driving habits? How many miles did they usually drive? Was it highway driving or around town? Has the car ever been any accidents or fender benders?
Most sellers understand that buying a car is a huge decision, so don't shy away from asking questions that will provide the answers you need to make a confident buying decision. If a seller seems hesitant to answer or tries to dodge a certain question, it's probably a sign that you should continue your car search elsewhere.
4. Inspect for drips and leaks
Even the least-savvy buyer can learn a lot by taking a peak below a car. Look for stains on the ground where the car has been parked that can indicate a radiator or oil leak.
If you notice even a small puddle of brown or green fluid, take it as a sign that the car might be trouble down the road. If you notice that the car has been parked in various places, inspect the ground of the previous parking places for signs of engine leaks that should give you caution.
5. Look at the service records
Sellers who are serious about taking care of their cars will have paperwork that clearly indicates how well the car was maintained. Ask to see service receipts that indicate the oil has been changed, the tires rotated and the radiator flushed.
Other items you might inquire about include receipts to indicate the wiper blades have been changed, the brake pads inspected and/or changed and the tires replaced. Learning as much as possible about the car's history can tell you plenty about how the current owners have cared for it. While this information may not be available at a used-car retailer, it never hurts to ask.
6. Trust your first impression
Fast-food wrappers on the floor and dust on the dashboard won't impact the car's performance, but they can speak volumes about how well the owner cared for a car. A spotless interior is a good indication they've treated it well, but you'll also want to look closely under the floor mats and in the trunk for signs that the car was neglected until it was time for sale.
7. There's no reason to rush
Don't be afraid to walk away from a potential purchase. Take your time to consider the pros and cons. Whether you're dealing with a the infamous used-car lot salesman or a private seller in his driveway, avoid falling victim to the "act now or lose this great opportunity" pressure. If nothing else, your willingness to walk away may come in handy when it comes time to negotiate the sale price.