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Learn2 Check Out a Used Car
(8 steps)

This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship...

Buying a used car can be exciting. It can also be a gut-wrenching experience if you don't know what to look for. A smooth-talking seller mover can easily gloss over the effects of an accident or irreparable damage. This doesn't mean drop it all and opt for a high-interest lease: private-party buying is still the most affordable option.

Of course, taking the car to your own mechanic for a lookover is always recommended. Since this gets expensive after a few passes, you can narrow the field of choices by being better informed. This 2torial explains several good omens in a used car, and also some warning flags that you should be on the lookout for. When you've found a good candidate, take it into your mechanic for the final run.

Note: There are certain exceptions to these guidelines for diesel engines. This 2torial may not assess all of those exceptions.

Before you begin

Either on the phone or in person, ask the seller a few general questions to evaluate both their knowledge and the car's condition, as well as possible problems. Be forewarned that car sellers might not be aware of any troubles. Even if they do, they may understate them. Here are good questions to ask:

  • Are you the first owner? If the owner has cared for the car, there will usually be receipts to prove it.


  • What's the mileage? Don't emphasize this too much, but do take it into account. Ask if they drove mostly on highways or in the city. Highway miles are better, but this is still only one indicator. Accurate mileage can be assessed through maintence records or by checking the stickers on the inside of the driver's door.


  • Why are you selling the car? "Because I had a baby," is a good answer; "I just feel like it," can make you wonder if the car has needed continual repairs.


  • What condition is it in? The "Get What You Paid For" theory certainly applies to used cars. Ask how often the car has been maintained (oil checked, timing adjusted, tires rotated) just to get a general idea. Ask to see the receipts for this work.


  • Has it been in an accident? An accident can alter anything from the car's steering to the engine's performance; front-end damage can be especially problematic.


  • Has the car been emissions-tested? Different states have different regulations, so find out what's need in your state. Be careful--this can require complex repairs if the car isn't up to standards.


  • Any other problems? These might include problems with: the engine (strange noises while running, oil leaks), the transmission (clunking sounds while shifting, slipping out of gear), the clutch (sticky, stiff, or difficult to shift), the brakes (pulling or locking--see Step 6), and the body(rust, dents).
   Go to Step 1 of 8

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Step 1: Note your first impression
Step 2: Check the underside and tires
Step 3: Check under the hood
Step 4: Perform gauge and listening tests
Step 5: Check the oil and brake fluid
Step 6: Check the shock absorbers and lights
Step 7: Check for play
Step 8: Take it for a drive

  • A flashlight
  • A rag
  • A notepad
  • A friend who isn't colorblind


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