A Short Course in Buying a Used Car

Home | Diesel Engines | Basic Maintenance + Repair

Shopping for a used car is a difficult project. You never know how the previous owner cared for it and drove it. The previous owner might have sold it in order to escape expensive repairs or maintenance.

Below is a collection of tips in checklist form that will help you in selecting a used car. There is no guarantee that by following the advice presented here you won’t get a bum deal. However, you stand a much improved chance of buying a good used car at least knowing what problems you face. Try to eliminate surprises as much as possible.

First, when you spot a good looking car that appeals to you, find the value of the car. You can do this by checking the NADA Official Used Car Price Guide. Banks, libraries, and credit unions carry the latest addition. Find the value of the car in the NADA Guide, being sure to include the value of all accessories such as power steering, air conditioning, etc. Save this figure and compare it to the dealer asking price. If the dealer wants too much more than the NADA value and won’t budge on price, forget the car (perhaps the dealer, tool) and move on to something else.

Check on the recall history of the car. Have the dealer supply you with the manufacturer’s customer service telephone number. Call the customer service representatives and give them the vehicle identification number. They can tell you if the car was ever involved in a recall and if the previous owner complied with the recall by having the necessary repairs made. You can also obtain general recall information by visiting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) web site.

Years ago, it was common practice for unscrupulous used car dealers to tamper with the odometer by turning it back thousands of miles. What you thought was a car with 25,000 miles on it may have had, in reality, 75,000 or more miles on it. This is illegal today. Also, car manufacturers have installed anti-tampering devices on modern cars to thwart turning the odometer. In Ford and AMC cars, the odometer will break if it’s tampered with. In GM cars, an odometer that was turned back will exhibit white lines between the numbers. And, in Chrysler products, if the ten-thousandth digits are colored blue the odometer has either turned past 100,000 miles or has been tampered with.

What about warranties? Primarily, warranties are given on used cars to get you to buy—another sales gimmick. Most of them aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Unlike new car full warranties, used car warranties are limited warranties. They cover certain items for a short period of time, usually 30 to 90 days or 1,000 miles. They are hard to collect on. Should you have a claim on a used car under limited warranty and the dealer won’t honor it, the only remedy you have is through legal action. Legal action can be expensive and time consuming. Before suing, have your lawyer write a letter to the dealer reminding him of his obligations under the law. Have your lawyer quote the Uniform Commercial Code, effective in most states, or the Magnuson-Moss Warranty—Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act Public Law 93—6 73 January 4, 1975. If you can’t frighten the dealer into honoring your claim, you need to decide what is cheaper: suing for repairs and paying the lawyer or swallowing your pride and making repairs yourself.

So where’s the best place to look for a used car? New car dealers who maintain a used car lot are the best bet. The cars bought there will be more expensive, but chances are, they will be in better shape. Most of the established, new car dealers offer dependable warranties they honor for up to 90 days in some cases. Don’t buy a used car from a rental company. Those cars are used by people who have little interest in how they drive them. And frequently, although not always, they are poorly maintained. If you buy a used car from a rental company, demand to see the service record before you purchase. Buying privately can be a nightmare also, unless you know the party selling. You may get a used car by buying privately at up to 30% lower price compared to a dealer buy. If something goes wrong, however, you have no legal recourse unless you can prove deliberate fraud.

Before you hit the streets looking for your dream car, consult one of the leading consumer publications for information on frequency of repair and owner satisfaction for the used car you’re considering buying. Your best bet is a low-mileage (below 40,000), 4-door sedan with a medium size engine (six or small V-8). Also, consider buying one with an automatic transmission without air conditioning.

Feel free to take the checklist below with you on your hunt. Check the items in the order listed. Items that indicate major repairs top the list. If you record too many negatives right from the start it’s better to seek another car. And one last point, take a friend along and shop during the day. Night lighting has a way of making the poorest paint sparkle. Your friend, who has no personal interest in the car, won’t be dazzled by all the glitter and hard sell.

Used Car Buying Checklist: Category I - Items Indicating Major Repairs






Engine Oil

Section 3

Check appearance, feel.



If drop of oil sizzles on hot engine, oil is fouled with coolant.



Engine should not be oil covered.



No oil in air cleaner.



Check plugs for oil fouling.



Oil pressure at idle about 15 psi.



Oil pressure at run 40 to 60 psi.



Automatic Transmission Fluid and Transmission


Check fluid appearance, feel, smell.



Transmission shifts smoothly.



Transmission should not be noisy.



Radiator / Coolant


Check coolant appearance for signs of rust or oil.



Check radiator for leaks.



Check radiator cap.



Check coolant hoses.



Engine Performance

8, 9

Engine should not buck or hesitate upon acceleration.



Engine should not exhaust black, white, blue-gray smoke.



Engine should not emit strange noises.



Engine should restart easily when hot.



Engine temperature should remain normal at all speeds/conditions.





Check for rust.



Check for blisters in paint.



Check quality of repaint job.



Compare width of crack around doors, hood, and trunk on both sides of car. Cracks wider on one side indicate damage to body.



Check for quality of repairs.



Check trunk for rust.





Run the engine at idle with parking brake on.



Shift into first. Rev engine at fast idle. Slowly release clutch. When clutch is 3/4 of the way Out, engine should stall. Otherwise new clutch is needed.



Suspension / Steering

4, 7

Wheels should not wobble.



Check suspension over bumpy roads.



Check shock absorbers.



Check wheels for looseness.



Steering should not be loose or sloppy.



Car should not pull to one side on level, straight road.





Brakes should stop car smoothly.



Brakes should not squeal, fade, or grab.



Parking brake should hold the car on a hill.



Brake fluid should be within 1/2 inch of top of master cylinder.



Check for brake fluid leaks.



Brake pedal should not go to within 1 inch of floor when depressed.



Misc. Accessories

7, 9, 12

Check for bearing noise in water pump.



Check for bearing noise in alternator.



Power steering system fluid level should be full.



Check exhaust system for leaks, holes, and patches.



Belts / Hoses


Check all belts for condition.



Check all hoses for condition.





Check tires for wear. One-half or more tread left is passable.



Check tires for abnormal wear. If tires are retread—Fail.





Check battery case for cracks.



Check battery case and cables for corrosion.



Check charge of battery.




11, 12

Check wear of upholstery — wear, tears, rips, burns, punctures, etc.



Check condition of floor mats.



Check wear of pedals.



Check for flooding — musty odor, water marks, corroded fuse panel.



Check under Seat covers, if installed.



Operate windows, mirrors, doors.



Operate all accessories.





Operate exterior lights.



Operate turn signals.



Operate trunk, hood, and locks.



Check trunk for jack and spare tire.



Prev: A Short Course in Buying a Used Car

Next: Metal Fatigue

Home  Automotive Terms   top of page