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Jonathan_hodgkins's avatar

How to purchase a used car?

Asked by Jonathan_hodgkins (402 points ) November 21st, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to help them in purchasing a used car.
What sort of mechanical things should I be looking for when examining a used vehicle? When you take the car to a mechanic to have them look it over before you buy it, what things are they looking for?

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10 Answers

john65pennington's avatar

Just purchased a 2008 Toyota Solara from CarMax. This car was just like a brand new showroom floor model with only 43,000 miles on it. I searched this vehicle from top to bottom for any flaws and could not find just one. Yes, they did show me the CarFax. It was a thoroughly clean automobile and a good buy.

If you are not car-savvy, I would recomind CarMax. Start on their website to locate a vehicle you might be interested in. If its not in your city, they can have it transported to you, many times without a charge.

I highly recommend CarMax.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

If you’re buying from a private party:

Ask the owner where they regularly took their car for interval services and oil changes. If they say they used a dealership, call that dealership service dept. and ask for print outs of what services had truly been completed.

Take the car along with the owner and pay to have the fluids changed out and looked at along with brake wear, tire wear, condition of undercarriage boots and bushings. Mechanics are pretty good at telling normal wear and tear from a car that’s sat idle awhile or one that’s had routine services skipped.

Ask if the car has a timing belt or timing chain that’s been replaced? If not, that’s a good chunk of regular maintenance money you’ll have to put out sooner than later on a car with more than 70K Same with draining and replacing the transmission fluid and coolant system.

YARNLADY's avatar

I would insist on having a mechanic look at it. In my area, there are people who will come to your location for a fee, and look it over.

Also pay for the CarFax report.

john65pennington's avatar

P.S…...no, I do not work for CarMax or receive anything from them for my answer.

jerv's avatar

I look for all sorts of details as I have seen (and owned) cars that were abused/neglected yet worked perfectly fine while others with meticulous maintenance records went tits-up in record time. Accordingly, I largely disregard records and look at the car itself. More importantly, I also listen to it and feel it. For instance, I saw one that I knew within seconds had transmission issues just from the way it felt when I moved the shifter. (Tip – Avoid anything with a Ford CD4E transmission! That included Ford Probe, and Escape, along with certain years of Mazda 626).

Of course, knowing the car helps too. For instance, my last Honda, I knew that the igniter module was going to go soon (I replaced it before it died) and the the timing belt was likely going to go despite being only halfway through it’s life according to the records. (Turns out Honda D-series engines eat timing belts about twice as fast as the manual claims.) Then there was the ‘85 Golf I bought as a project car; I knew the floorpan was rusted through before I even got pas the part hat said, “1985 Golf…”.

Even without that knowledge, a quick check of the fluids tells you a few things. For instance, transmission fluid is usually red or maroon; brown or black often indicates issues while a “burnt” smell definitely does. The oil should not be blacker than my cat, and should definitely not smell like gas. And don’t forget to check the radiator.

Another thing I do is grab the tires and try to shake them a few ways. That finds worn suspension, tie-rods, and bearings.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Buying a car, this is assuming it is a private party. Some of the things are a crossover if buying from a dealer but from a dealer there are usually less to check.

Before you even start the engine. Look under the vehicle, do you see anything dripping? Water, tranny fluid, oil etc? Look at the tires. Are they wearing evenly? Is one side wearing more than the other? Check all the windows to see if they all go up and down, and also listen for squeaks or gears binding. When the windows are up hear any wind whistling through it? When the windows are down check the condition of the seals (the rubber) around the glass. Walk the body with a magnet, if it stops sticking, it is a good chance they had body work done (there is Bondo under the paint). Check the corners of the body and under the corner of the trunk, see if there is any rust there. Also see if there is any rumples under the paint, could be rust also. Check to see if the paint on the body matches that in the doorjambs, and inside the trunk and under the hood. If different, maybe it was repainted after a collision. Check all the lights, turn signals, etc. Make sure there is no short. Check all the keys; make sure they work. Check the wipers.

Then check under the hood. See what look like rusted water sprayed on the under side of the hood? Could have an overheating problem. Are the hoses brittle, frayed or bulged? Is the wiring harness loaded with electrician’s tape repairs? Is there a lot of oil leaking from the valvecovers? Any moisture around the freeze plugs? Check the tranny fluid, any metal shaving in it? Burnt smell? Does it have a dark molasses color? Check the oil, does it look like café au le, or a milkshake? See any beads of water? If you can grab the fan blades and give them a shake. Does it wiggle? Check the radiator if you can to see if you see any leak.

Now you start it up. Does it start quick or do you have to lean on the ignition to get it to fire? Once it starts do the idiot lights on the dash go out or is any still on? While it is idling, is it a smooth purr, or is it loping? Do you hear any knocks up top, or down deep? Could be a bad cam, valves, valves hitting a piston top, or worse, it will need new rods. Is the exhaust clear? Do you see anything when you stomp the gas? When you let off the gas does it return to the idle you started with?

On the road, take your hands off the wheel (keep them real close) does the vehicle run straight, or does it pull to one side? Does it want to pull when you brake? Does it go into passing gear easy without hesitation? Is there excessive wobbling up front at speeds over 45 mph? Listen to those windows again, any wind whipping through them? Does the heater get warm? Is the A/C cold?

If it passes those things, the major ones anyhow, I would take a chance if the price was a really good deal.

robmandu's avatar

CarFax is fine, but if you want the tool the professionals use – and that costs less money – I suggest looking up a prospective vehicle’s history with Autocheck.

BTW, CarMax displays the Autocheck vehicle history report for every car they sell right on their web site… so you don’t have to pay out of pocket.

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