What to Check When Buying a 2nd-Hand Car

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Buying a used car can be tricky. Whether you’re doing it for commuting, as a passion project, or to restore and sell at a profit, the things to look for in a used car remain the same. This article lists what to look for when buying a used car.

Inspect the Car on Level Ground

With the car parked on level ground, take a step back and look at it. Take note of any sagging or misaligned components sticking out from the undercarriage. Make sure that the muffler, trunk bed, engine or floor isn’t hanging down and about to fall off.

Check the Frame

Pop the hood to check the frame for damage by inspecting the undercarriage, and where it meets the front fenders and holds the radiator. This section may be welded or bolted; check the bolt heads at the fender’s top. Look for scratches, as these will indicate that the fenders were replaced or realigned, most likely due to a collision. Note that cars involved in collisions or received serious frame damage will have a significantly reduced lifespan.

Check the Body

Ensure the car is clean and free of dust or mud which might conceal the condition of the paint and problem areas. Look at the sides of the car from front to back and note any deviations in color or waviness in the paint finish. Look for scratches, rust spots, bubbling or dents on the surface. Feel around the edges of the joints between panels—if you feel any rough spots, they are likely to be from the residue of masking tape during a new paint job. While these cosmetic imperfections won’t affect engine performance, they will affect the price of the car.

Check the History

The owners of the car should supply you with a log detailing the car’s service history. Ask for any record of repair or maintenance work done on the car. If you can, visit the auto repair shop where the car was serviced and ask the mechanics about the car.

Research the Manufacturer Online

Some car models, whether by year, nameplate or both, may have had design issues. For example, Subaru head gaskets in various models produced from 1999 to 2011 had to be replaced to avoid the engine overheating. Volkswagen recalled 679,000 cars in 2011 due to electrical problems and Ford is recalling 600,000 cars to fix a hydraulic defect.  Before agreeing to buy any used car, look up its make and year of production and see if any specific problems like these pop-up. You can check documented problems on old cars here.

Check the Engine

Check for dents, cracks, rust or any other sign of damage or wear when the engine is cool. Any of these problems can mean that the car was poorly maintained, had serious damage in a collision, and is otherwise unsafe to drive. Remember to check the engine for leaks and rust as well. Should you find any dark brown oil stains, this could mean there’s a crack in the gasket that will lead to costly repairs down the road. Inspect all the fluid levels—oil, water, coolant and brake fluids. If any of their holding tanks are empty, there might be a leak. Hold off buying the car if there are leaks unless you don’t mind paying for repairs.

Test-Drive the Car

After you’ve established that the car is safe to drive, take it out for a short drive. Start the car and listen for any unusual noises. Rev the engine and take note of the idling. If the engine is idling between 600 and 1000 RPM, that’s fine—anything beyond that is too high and may be a sign of a more serious problem. If you still want to buy the car, have it checked by a mechanic to determine the cause of the problem, and how much it will cost to repair. Otherwise walk away as a car like that will have a shorter engine life and lower fuel efficiency. Be sure to test all the other moving parts as you drive—the turn signals, headlights, wipers, A/C, radio, shift stick or automatic transmission, clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals, and of course the parking brake.

Inspect the Interior

car interior

Get in the rear passenger seat and look under the floormats. Check if there are any holes on the floors. Inspect the upholstery of all the seats and look for tears, stains, or other damage. Make sure the seats are adjustable and the seat belts lock securely.

Buying a used car can be overwhelming and challenging. Don’t expect the car to be in perfect condition, but don’t lower your standards. A decent used car doesn’t have to have a pristine paint job, but it should at least run properly and not be a danger to you or other motorists. To get the best out of the deal, think about what you’re willing to forgo, what you can repair, and how much use you want out of the car.

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