What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Are you shopping for a used car? Here are 10 questions to ask to make the process easier and make sure you get the most value for your money.

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Unless you are Superman and can look through sheet metal, inspecting a used car before signing on the dotted line can be overwhelming.

I have been an auto auctioneer and car dealer for over 20 years. Yet I sometimes get surprised by a problem that creeps up after I’ve checked over a used car and have been driving it for a while. From the smallest fasteners to the various electronic control systems, cars have thousands of parts. Ensuring they are all working safely and reliably before making a purchase requires a healthy amount of due diligence on the buyer’s part.

I’ve also learned that you’re not buying just a car, truck, van, or SUV. You’re purchasing the habits of the prior owner who drove, repaired, and maintained that vehicle. With that in mind, here’s a list of what to look for when you’re shopping for a used car.

1. Is the Seller a Car Enthusiast?

I love buying from automotive enthusiasts. They usually empty that bucket of problems well before it gets full and invest in their vehicle with quality parts and repairs.

This doesn’t mean enthusiasts are perfect or even completely honest. But when you talk with them about a vehicle they are selling, they can usually provide a detailed rundown about the car and its history.

2. Was the Vehicle Garaged?

A car kept indoors away from the hot sun or freezing ice and snow for years on end should be in better condition than a vehicle left outside against the elements.

Even if the seller claims the vehicle was garaged, check the exterior paint and trim quality. Ensure the steering wheel doesn’t have a sun-faded area, and the dashboard and headliner don’t have any peels or sagging.

3. What Part of the Country Did the Car Come From?

It’s important to know where a used vehicle came from and what happened to the title.

Vehicles driven in sunny areas with no rust issues will almost always last longer and have fewer suspension issues than those from northern states where the potholes are aplenty, and salt is put on the roads.

If the car was near the beach or on the shoreline, make sure to have it inspected for rust. The same is true for flood-damaged vehicles.

4. Does the Vehicle Have a Complete Service History?

Finding a brick’s worth of records in the car’s glove box is nice. But these days, privacy issues require that car dealers get rid of those records. It stinks, but there is a way around it.

To find out a vehicle’s history, the first step is getting a vehicle history report, which is available from companies like Carfax and AutoCheck. Owner’s manuals may also have the personal information of the prior owner(s). If you can find out why they decided to sell the car, you may be able to stay ahead of any issues that you don’t already know about.

5. Was the Car Driven on a Regular Basis?

Older vehicles don’t like to sit around, especially hybrids and electric vehicles, which have batteries that need to be used relatively regularly. A car driven daily tends to have its issues looked after more regularly than one which sits for weeks and months.

Online pictures and a vehicle history can eliminate the worst offenders. Look for the mileage history on the vehicle report to show at least 3,000 miles of driving every year. Steer clear of vehicles with crumbling plastics, evidence of animal infestations, and those covered in a thick film of dirt. Cars that sit around for months on end may need immediate repairs to the battery and alternator—or have other hidden issues which may require even greater repair costs.

6. Does the Car Have Any Protection Accessories or Upgrades?

I have a weakness for any car or truck with nice floor mats, an upgraded infotainment or radio system, and protected seats, especially on older vehicles (think sheepskin and leather instead of cheap cloth).

Even if that seat underneath has some minor rips or tears, this shows the prior owner cared enough to spend money on nice materials and they wanted to make this car a keeper.

7. Has the Vehicle Been in a Severe Accident?

Police reports don’t always get the details of an accident correct. Many cars with reported severe accidents may have only experienced a sideswipe, an emergency braking that required them to swerve off the road, or a jump off a curb.

Accident histories generally aren’t important so long as an experienced mechanic has a chance to look at that part of the car and judge the extent and quality of that repair.

8. Will the Seller Allow for a Pre-Purchase Inspection?

Even if you think you know everything about the used vehicle you are interested in buying, you probably don’t know as much as an experienced mechanic. The cheapest insurance you will ever have from hefty repair bills and heartache will come from paying a mechanic to perform a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) on the car who can see beyond what’s obvious.

Google reviews, Yelp, and referrals from friends will go a long way towards picking out an independent repair shop that can perform a thorough PPI. Also, if there’s anything you found to be not quite right with the car, mention it to the shop beforehand so that they can take a closer look.

GMC9. Were Quality Parts Installed?

When you have a used vehicle inspected by an experienced independent mechanic, ask them if the prior owner installed quality components or just relied on the cheap stuff.

Tires, in particular, are critical. You want all four tires to match. If the seller opened their wallet for a nice set of tires, it’s likely they weren’t shy about spending money on everything else attached to those four wheels.

10. Should I Expect the Car to Be Perfect?

The average car on the road is now over 12 years old and has more than 100,000 miles. That’s a long time. With that comes the reality that not everything stays mint underneath all that sheet metal.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you feel like you are getting a hard sell, it may be worth getting a second opinion or simply walking away.

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Steven Lang
Steven Lang is a special contributor to Capital One with nearly two decades of experience as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction. Some of the best-known auto publications turn to him for his expert insight. He is also the co-developer of the Long-Term Quality Index, a survey of vehicle reliability featuring over two million vehicles that have been inspected by professional mechanics.