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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car can be a great investment if you qualify for a reasonable auto loan. Used vehicles often cost thousands of dollars less than brand new cars. However, savvy shoppers should be wary of some lots selling these automobiles. You always want to perform your due diligence to make sure you will not have to perform significant maintenance on the car before you can even drive it to work. To avoid purchasing a lemon, you need to keep an eye out for the following, and if a car does not seem right for you, then do not hesitate to tell the salesman you are not interested.

Test Drive

Before you buy any car, you need to take it for a test drive first. You need to take the vehicle on both the freeway and city streets. Taking it on the freeway lets you see how smoothly the car accelerates. On city streets, you get a good feel for how well the brakes work and whether the car can take sharp turns adequately. No matter where you are, you want to pay attention to any unusual sounds made by the engine or brakes. You also want to test out all the lights and the radio to ensure they are in good working order.

The Vehicle’s Interior and Exterior

Many shoppers know to carefully inspect a car’s exterior before purchasing to make sure there are no dents or scratches. However, you want to give equal attention to the interior. You want to ensure the upholstery is good quality. Press all the buttons to make sure the air conditioner works and actually blows cold air. Bring a device with you that explains error codes when you plan on looking at vehicles with onboard computers. 
This is also a good time to open the hood to check for any rusted or dirty parts. It is acceptable for a used car to have been in an accident in the past, but you need to double-check to see if it was repaired by a professional. You may not be a mechanic, but you can at least inspect the belts and hoses to see if there are any cracks. It is also a good idea to remove the oil filler cap to see if there is any foam residue. In the event there is foam, you may want to move on to look at other possibilities.

Any Leaks

As part of the vehicle’s inspection, you should see if there are any puddles directly underneath the car. Pink fluid indicates a problem with the transmission while green fluid means anti-freeze is leaking. If you see black fluid, then the car is leaking oil.
It is possible the lot owners will clean up any leaks at the lot, so when you are out on a test drive, you want to park the vehicle on a clean surface. Run the vehicle while parked for 30 seconds. This should be enough time for leaking to start, and you now know to bring the leak to the owner’s attention.

Mechanic’s Report

Before you buy a vehicle, it will work in your best interest to hire a professional mechanic to come out to make sure it is fully operational. This will generally cost you about $100, but it is worth it if it prevents you from spending thousands on a car that requires an extra thousand dollars in repairs soon thereafter.


At some places, cars end up in a used lot because they were part of a recall. Before you purchase a vehicle, you want to input the vehicle identification number with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It will tell you if the specific make and model of vehicle you are looking at was involved in a recall and what that recall entailed.
In the event it has been recalled, it does not necessarily mean you cannot buy the vehicle. It does mean you need to be absolutely certain the issue has been resolved. In 2017 alone, over 30 million individual cars were recalled, so there is a good likelihood a used car you want has been part of a recall.


Whether you are buying a used or new car, you always want to check the reviews. People these days go online to find reviews for everything from restaurants to apps. You want to see what other people have to say about a car you are interested in. A simple search online is typically all you need to do, but if you have any friends or family members who have experience with a specific make and model, then ask them their opinions on the item.

Vehicle History Report

You need the vehicle identification number to check for recalls, but you also need it to check the ownership history. This will tell you whether it has been in any accidents, and you can see if there are any prior title problems. Checking the VIN also allows you to see if the car you are looking at matches the title and accompanying records.
There are some used car lots where the owner replaces a stolen vehicle’s VIN with a number that is registered legally. This is fraud, and it is critical for you to report it if you catch it. Checking only takes a few seconds, and you can find plenty of VIN decoder charts online.


In cases where the vehicle is only a couple years old or has low mileage, the initial warranty may be transferred to you. Additionally, in cases where you are looking at certified pre-owned vehicles, you should see what warranty it comes with. Certified pre-owned cars come with warranties that extend beyond the initial coverage. You get further peace of mind in case something that comes up in the first few years.

Fair Purchase Price

When you buy on a lot, you should never pay the listed price. It is always a negotiation, and you want to make sure you pay as little as possible. To have a good idea for where these negotiations need to begin, you need to check Kelley Blue Book to determine what the value of the used version of the vehicle you want is. Overall condition and mileage will naturally come into play, but at the very least, you can obtain a ballpark figure to aid in the conversation.

Plenty of Questions

A salesman will try to get you to buy a used car as quickly as possible. However, you want to take your time, and you can show you mean business by coming in with as many questions as you can think of. You never know what additional information the salesman may divulge, and you may even catch him off-guard. Some good questions to ask include:

  • Do you have the service records available?
  • How well has the car been maintained over the years?
  • Are there any features that do not work the way they need to?
  • How did you come to this price point?
  • Would you be willing to drive this car across the country tomorrow?
  • Is the title readily available?


A lot of buyers only think about auto insurance until after they purchase a vehicle. However, you would do well to get some quotes on specific vehicles before you sign on the dotted line. The premiums you have to pay may vary substantially from one vehicle to the next. Therefore, it may actually be more affordable in the long run to pay more for a certain car upfront and pay less in insurance over the years.


Buying a car will be one of the most significant purchases you make in your lifetime. One final step to take is to see what type of car loan you qualify for. Residents of Arizona can get great auto loans at reasonable rates from Deer Valley Credit Union. Have questions about our auto loan process? Feel free to contact us at your earliest convenience to get all the answers you need.

Rates, terms, and conditions are subject to change and may vary based on creditworthiness, qualifications, and collateral conditions. All loans subject to approval.

This article is intended to be a general resource only and is not intended to be nor does it constitute legal advice. Any recommendations are based on opinion only.