Even a normally reliable vehicle can become a problem if it’s not properly maintained. Worse is the used car that has hidden damage from an accident, flood, or other incident that can affect its performance, safety, or reliability. That’s why it’s important to thoroughly check out any vehicle you intend to buy. The last thing you want is to pay thousands of dollars for a set of problems someone else is trying to get rid of.
Here, we’ll tell you how to begin sizing up a vehicle over the phone by asking the right questions. We’ll also show you how to perform a preliminary inspection and test drive, check a vehicle’s past for hidden problems, and discuss the pros and cons of certified used cars.
By investing a reasonable amount of time up front, you can greatly reduce the chance that you’ll end up buying a car that will be trouble for you down the road.
Ask The Right Questions
When you’ve found a vehicle or two you’re interested in—whether being sold by a dealership or privately—you can begin sizing up their condition and history over the phone. Ask some basic questions. The answers can help you determine whether it’s worth a trip to take a closer look, particularly if you’re buying from a private party. Break the ice with soft questions such as the car’s color, but get specific about its condition, features, and history. Any strange or far-fetched answers should put you on guard.
“How many miles does it have?”
If the mileage is higher than 20,000 per year or lower than 5,000, ask why. A high-mileage car used on a long highway commute is better than if it did a lot of short trips or stop-and-go driving. Still, take any “these were all highway miles” claim with a grain of salt. Low mileage is nice, but it is no guarantee of gentle care.
“How is it equipped?”
Whether they’re listed in the ad or not, ask about key features: transmission type; A/C; antilock brakes; airbags; audio system; power windows, locks, seats, and mirrors; cruise control; and so forth. Double-checking on those could produce some telling comments.
“What's the car’s condition?”
Start broad and see where the seller takes it. He or she could bring up something you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.
“How about the body and interior?”
If these areas weren’t covered before, ask about them specifically.
“Has it been in an accident?”
If yes, ask about the extent of the damage, the cost of repairs, and the shop that did the work. Don’t worry too much about minor scrapes, but think twice about a car that has been in a serious crash.
“Do you have service records?”
You want a car that has been well cared for. It should have had maintenance performed at regular manufacturer-specified intervals. Be skeptical if the owner claims to have done the maintenance but can’t produce any receipts. Ask for receipts for any new muffler, brakes, tires, or other “wear” parts that have been replaced. Repair-shop receipts normally note the car’s odometer reading, helping you verify the car’s history.
“Has the car been recalled?”
Ask if any safety-recall work was performed or, more important, still needs to be done. Dealerships keep records of that. Note the mileage when work was performed.
Questions for Private Sellers
“Have you owned it since it was new?”
You want to be able to piece together the car’s service history. Be wary about a car that has changed hands several times in a few years.
“Are you the person who drove it the most?”
Ideally, you want to meet the car’s principal driver or drivers to see if they strike you as responsible.
“Why are you selling the car?”
Look for a plausible explanation rather than an interesting story. If the answer sounds evasive, be wary.
Inspect it Carefully
No matter who you buy from, always look over the vehicle thoroughly and take it to a mechanic for a complete inspection. Dress in old clothes and give the car a good going-over. You can learn a great deal by using your eyes, ears, and nose.
Take along a friend for help. Do your inspection in daylight on a dry day, as floodlights can make cars look shiny and hide body defects. The car should be parked on a level surface and shouldn’t have been driven for at least an hour before your inspection.
Body condition. Check each panel and the roof looking for scratches, dents, and rust. Watch out for misaligned panels or large gaps, which can indicate either sloppy assembly at the factory or shoddy repair. The paint color and finish should be the same on every body panel.
If you think a dent may have been patched, put a small magnet on it. The magnet won’t stick to an area with body filler. If other parts of the car have been repainted, there may be paint adhering to the rubber seals around the hood and trunk lid.
Minor cosmetic flaws and light scratches are no cause for concern, but rust is. Check the body for blistered paint or rust. Also inspect the wheel wells, the panels beneath the doors, and the door bottoms. Bring a flashlight to look inside the wheel wells for rust.
Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Gently lift and let go of each door, particularly the driver’s door. If it seems loose on its hinges, the car has seen hard or long use. Inspectrubber seals for tearing or rot.
Glass. Look carefully at the vehicle glass to make sure there are no cracks or large, pocked areas. A small stone chip may not be cause for alarm, though you should bring it up as a bargaining point in negotiations. But cracks in the windshield will worsen and lead to a costly repair.
Suspension. Walk around the car to see if it’s sitting level. Push each corner down. If the shock absorbers are in good shape, the car should rebound just once, not bounce up and down. Grab the top of each front tire and tug it back and forth. If you feel play in it or hear a clunking or ticking sound, the wheel bearings or suspension joints may be shot.
Lights and lenses. Have a friend confirm that all lights are working. Make sure all light lenses and reflectors are intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.
Tires. You can tell a lot from the tires. A car with less than, say, 20,000 miles should probably still have its original tires. Be wary of a low-mileage car with new tires; the odometer may have been rolled back. Also check that all four tires are the same. Any different tires may show they have been replaced.
Tread wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right side tires. Ask if the tires have been regularly rotated. If not, the wear is usually more severe on the drive wheels.
Aggressive drivers tend to put heavy wear on the outside shoulder of the front tires, at the edge of the sidewall. Assume the car has been driven hard if that area shows heavier wear.
Tires that have been driven while overinflated tend to wear more in the middle than on the sides. Chronically underinflated tires show more wear on the sides. Cupped tires, those that are worn unevenly along the tread’s circumference, may be a sign of a problem with the steering, suspension, or brakes.
Tires must have at least 1/16 inch of tread to be legal. Check the tread depth with a tread-depth tool (available at auto-parts stores) or a quarter. Insert the quarter into the tread groove, with Washington’s head down. If you can see the top of his head, the tire should be replaced.
Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look for dents or cracks on each wheel. Be sure to check that the spare is in good shape and the proper jack and lug wrench are present.
It’s the inside of a car that may matter most since that’s where you’ll be spending the most time.
Odor. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty, moldy, or mildewy smell could indicate water leaks. Remove the floor mats and check for wet spots on the carpet. An acrid smell may indicate that the car was used by a smoker. Check the lighter and ashtray for evidence. Some odors, such as mold or smoke, can be very hard to get rid of. If you don’t like what you smell, find another car.
Seats. Try out all the seats even if you likely won't sit in the rear. Upholstery shouldn’t be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car with low mileage. Try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work properly and that you can find a good driving position.
Pedals. The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn’t show much wear. Pedal rubber that’s worn through in spots—or brand-new—indicates that the car has been driven a lot.
Instruments and controls. Turn the ignition switch, or without starting the engine. You should make sure that all of the warning lights—including the “Check engine” light—illuminate for a few seconds and go off when you start the engine. Note if the engine is hard to start when cold and if it idles smoothly. Then try out every switch, button, and lever.
With the engine running, turn on the heater full blast to see how hot it gets, and how quickly. Switch on the air conditioning and make sure it quickly blows cold.
Sound system. Check reception on AM, FM, and satellite radio. If there's a CD player, try loading and ejecting a disc. Bring along your smartphone or MP3 player to test out the connection. Try pairing the device via Bluetooth if the car is so equipped.
Roof. Check the headliner and roof trim for stains or sags to see if water is leaking through ill-fitting doors or windows. If equipped with a sunroof or moonroof, check to see if it opens and closes properly and seals well when shut. Inspect the convertible top for tears by shining a flashlight up into it.
Trunk. Use your nose as well as your eyes. Sniff and look for signs of water entry. See if the carpeting feels wet or smells musty, and check the spare-tire well for water or rust.
Under the Hood
It’s best to make these checks with the engine cool. Look first at the general condition of the engine bay. Dirt and dust are normal, but be wary if you see oil splattered about or on the pavement below. Also be on the lookout for a battery covered with corrosion, or wires and hoses hanging loose.
Hoses and belts. Squeeze the various rubber hoses running to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts. The rubber should be firm and supple, not rock-hard, cracked, or mushy. Feel the drive belts to determine whether they are frayed.
Fluids. The owner’s manual will point out where to look to check all fluid levels. Engine oil should be dark brown or black, but not gritty. If the oil is honey-colored, it was just changed. If the dipstick has water droplets on it or gray or foamy oil, it could indicate a cracked engine block or blown head gasket, two serious problems. Transmission fluid should be pinkish, not brown, and smell like oil, with no “burnt” odor. The dipstick shouldn’t leave visible metal particles on the rag, another sign of a serious problem.
Check the automatic-transmission fluid with the engine warmed up and running. On some, the dipstick has two sets of marks for checking when the engine is either cold or warm. Power-steering and brake fluid should be within the safe zone.
Radiator. Look into the plastic reservoir that’s connected by a rubber hose to the radiator. The coolant should be greenish or orange, not a milky or rusty color. Greenish stains appearing on the outside of the radiator are a sure sign of pinhole leaks.
Battery. Some “maintenance free” ones have a built-in charge indicator: green usually means the battery is in good shape; yellow or black usually means it's dying. These reveal the condition of just one cell and may not give an accurate reading on the health of the whole battery. If the battery has filler caps, wipe off the top with a rag, then carefully pry off or unscrew the caps to look at the liquid level. A low level may mean that the battery has been working too hard. Any competent mechanic can check out the charging system and do a “load test” on the battery.
Under the Vehicle
If you can find where a car is usually parked, look for marks from old puddles of gasoline, oil, coolant, or transmission fluid. Clear water that drips from under the car on a hot day is probably just water condensed from the air conditioner.
Feel the tailpipe for residue. If it’s black and greasy, it means burnt oil. Tailpipe smudge should be dry and dark gray. While some rust is normal, heavy rust might be OK but could mean a new exhaust system might be needed.
If the vehicle is high enough to slide under, you may be able to do some basic checks underneath. (If not, make sure your mechanic checks it.) Spread an old blanket on the ground and look under the engine with a flashlight. If you see oil drips, oily leaks, or green or red fluid on the engine or the pavement beneath the car, it’s not a good sign.
On a front-wheel-drive car, examine the constant-velocity-joint boots inboard of the front wheels. They are round, black-rubber bellows at the ends of the axle shafts. If they are split and leaking grease, assume that the car has bad CV joints, another costly repair.
Structural components with kinks and large dents in the floor pan or fuel tank all indicate a past accident. Welding on the frame suggests a section might have been replaced or cut out to perform repair work. Fresh undercoating may hide recent structural repairs.
Visit Your Mechanic
Before you close the deal, have the car scrutinized by a repair shop that routinely does diagnostic work. A dealer should have no problem lending you the car to have it inspected as long as you leave identification. If a salesperson tells you that an independent inspection is not necessary because the dealership has already done it, insist on having your mechanic look at it. If a private seller is reluctant to let you drive the car to a shop, offer to follow the seller to the shop where the inspection will take place.
A thorough diagnosis should cost around $100, but check the price in advance. Ask the mechanic for a written report detailing the car’s condition, noting any problems found and the cost to repair them. You can then use the report in any negotiations with the seller.
If you don’t know of any repair shops, try to get a referral from someone you trust. You can also ask for the name of a good shop at a local auto-parts store. If you can’t get referrals, look on the Yellow Pages website or at the Car Care Council. This organization is supported by the auto aftermarket industry, but there are no performance criteria for shops listed on the site.
To check for complaints about any shops you aren’t familiar with, research the companies at the Better Business Bureau’s website. Members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) can use one of its recommended facilities.
If you’re visiting a shop for the first time, look for certificates or window decals from AAA or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). AAA-certified garages must meet certain quality standards. The ASE grants certificates to mechanics who pass exams in any of eight areas of expertise. The institute does not certify shops as a whole, but if 75 percent of the employees are ASE-certified, the shop can carry the seal.
The Problem of Salvage Vehicles
Repairing and reselling “salvage” vehicles is a very large business. About one million salvage vehicles are returned to the road each year, according to the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), an organization of attorneys who represent consumers victimized by fraudulent or abusive business practices.
While it is possible to restore such a vehicle to good condition, rebuilders often cut costs to make a profit. Even if they try to do a good job, no one can predict the crashworthiness and mechanical reliability of those vehicles.
Similar issues affect the estimated 60,000 vehicles that are repurchased by manufacturers under state lemon-law programs. Many are resold at retail. Lemons usually don’t have the severe problems you’d expect with salvage cars. But it can be very difficult verifying that the chronic defect has been corrected.
State laws differ, sometimes considerably, on what they define as salvage vehicles and on how—or even if—those vehicles need to be inspected and buyers informed before resale. Your state DMV can explain how to spot a salvage title.
Consumer Reports found that differing standards have led to interstate trafficking of salvage and lemon vehicles. Even if titles of former lemon and salvage vehicles are conspicuously branded or labeled as such, those who buy a used car from a dealership often never see the previous title.
If you’ve unknowingly purchased a salvage vehicle or recycled lemon, contact your state consumer and motor vehicle officials. You can check with NACA, which keeps a list of lawyers who specialize in such cases.
Before you buy, check to see what protection your state offers and what’s required of the seller. The Federal Trade Commission requires used-car dealers to post a "buyer’s guide" on every used car, which details in writing all warranty information. Keep this after the sale.
More from Consumer Reports:
5 least reliable cars from Consumer Reports' survey
How to buy long-lasting tires
Best cars for making it to 200,000 miles
Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.