How to buy a used car

If you’re going to buy a used car there are a few things to consider. Make sure the vehicle is on as level ground as possible and check these things.

1. Check the Radiator.

Caution: This check has to be done while the engine is cool. Do not open the radiator if the car has been running as steam or hot fluids may burn you. The radiator is usually at the front of the engine and is be clearly labeled. Make sure the radiator is cool by placing your hand above the cap to see if you feel any heat. If the cap is cool, unscrew the cap, and take a look at the fluid inside. Green, Red or clear water is good. Muddy brown suggests that an additive has been added to the coolant to seal a leak in either the radiator or water pump, or the vehicle has a blown head gasket.

2. Check the Oil Level.

Get a paper towel and with the engine off, take the oil dipstick out and wipe it off. Look at the tip of the oil dipstick and find the low and high indicators. Then dip it all the way back in the holder again. Take it out again and look at the level on the dipstick. The oil should be close to or at the high point.
Low oil levels could indicate leaks, or that the vehicle has been poorly maintained.
Look for water in the oil. Water gives the oil a frothy cappuccino-like appearance and could suggest a blown head gasket which is a costly repair.
Credit: Evan Mitchell

3. Smell the Oil.

Take the oil cap off and smell it. A burnt smell may indicate engine failure or an engine that has been run with not enough oil for long periods of time.

4. Check the Transmission Fluid (Automatic transmissions only).

A healthy or decently maintained transmission will be a bright pinkish red colored fluid. Brownish red colored fluid suggests that it is probably time for a fluid change. Just brown fluid indicates poor maintenance on the transmission which may require immediate attention. Worse yet, if metal filings are found in the fluid, the transmission is about to fail.

5. Inspect Belts on the Engine.

If the belts on the engine appear to be cracked or worn, they will need to be replaced.

6. Visually Inspect the Engine.

Simply look at the engine to see if there are any oil spots which could imply an oil leak.

7. Check the Engine Temperature.

Allow the vehicle to warm up. Check the temperature gauge sitting on the dash. Make sure the temperature remains within normal temperature range, this is normally in the middle or just below middle. High heat can indicate a number of very costly issues to repair.
Credit: Brian Snelson

8. Check Exhaust.

While the vehicle is running, check the exhaust. The exhaust should be clear when the car is warm. If it’s cold outside the exhaust may appear white. Excessive smoke can indicate any number of problems.

9. Check the Braking.

While test driving the vehicle, stop often in order to get a good feel for the brakes. The pedal should feel firm and stopping should be easy. If there is a squealing noise suggests that the brake pads may need to be replaces. If the pedal shudders there is probably damage to the rotors.

10. Steering.

Turn the wheel fully to both directions and drive forward. Listen for clicking sounds. These sounds will indicate faulty axles or cv joints. If the steering is hard to turn there may be problems with the power steering unit.
Credit: Sh4rp_i

11. Alignment.

Releasing the wheel while driving will unmask any alignment problems. If the vehicle begins to veer to the right or left, then an alignment will be needed. If the veer is extreme, it is possible that there are suspension problems that could prove to be costly.

12. Check All Features.

Make sure to check all lights and signals. Make sure the heat and air-conditioner are working. Try to roll down all windows, either by hand if their manual or by using the electric buttons. Lock and unlock all the doors. A problem with any of the features is not indicative of how the vehicle will drive but it is something to be aware of.

13. Check the Body.

Make sure to look over the body for rust. Look carefully at the paint for surface bumps. Bumps underneath the paint could imply rust or bondo. Bondo is used to smooth the surface of a previously damaged body.
Credit: Jed Sullivan

14. Consider the mileage and the age.

The average yearly mileage that you should find on a used car is about 15,000 miles/20,000 km’s. This gives you a good idea of how hard the previous owner drove the car.

15. Check the VIN.

The VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) number is used to track everything that has ever happened to that individual vehicle. The VIN report should show you any accidents or any major repairs or recalls. is a great option and will give you a report that is easy to read.
Credit: Ken Mayer


You can always get a mechanic to check it out.
If you aren’t comfortable looking for the signs listed above, or you just want some more peace of mind, have a mechanic inspect it.

Featured Image Credit: Gust

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