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Evaluating Used Cars

Contacting the seller: Call the seller before you go to see a car. Create a list of questions before calling, and then use those questions to decide whether you want to see the car. Ask for the price, because it may have been lowered since the date of the advertisement. Ask about the mileage, the number of previous owners, and how often the oil has been changed. Before you buy, ask to see receipts for oil changes and other major services. If the car doesn’t fit your criteria, or if the seller seems uneasy answering questions, skip the visit and keep looking for other vehicles.

Verifying the vehicle history: Ask for and verify information about previous owners. With a $30 two-month subscription to Carfax (www.Carfax.com), you can determine how many previous owners there have been for a particular car and where each owner was located. To obtain this information, you must input the vehicle’s VIN number on the site. Carfax will then give you a detailed vehicle history, including mileage listed on the odometer and a title check, to make sure the vehicle was not stolen. Check out the vehicle history of every potential purchase.

Determining a fair price: Know the blue book price, or recommended price, for the car of the specific year and with the specific options of the car you are calling about. To verify a vehicle’s current value, use www.Edmunds.com, www.Kbb.com, or www.Superpages.com. If possible, come to an agreement with the seller on the quality of the vehicle (fair, good, or excellent) before you go to see the car. Coming to this agreement will allow you to determine a fair price beforehand.

Examining the vehicle: Go see the car and note your first impressions. Does the car appear to be well cared for? Although you are probably not a mechanic, you should look for potential problems anyway. The following is a list of some of the things you should look at as you evaluate a used vehicle:


Look for rust.

Examine the paint. New paint may be a cover-up for serious damage.

Look for dents, mismatched paint areas, or poorly fitting parts.

Check for ripples in door panels. Ripples may indicate previous accidents.

Check for body filler. Body filler is a plastic used to fix dents. It can be painted over, so use a refrigerator magnet to test suspicious spots.

Check the underside of the car for evidence of fluid leaks. Coolant is a greenish color, oil is black, transmission fluid is pink, and gasoline is clear and can be identified by the smell.

Wipe the inner surface of the tail pipe with a rag—white or gray dust is normal. A thick greasy film means the car burns a lot of oil, which can be a serious problem.

Check the shock absorbers. Bounce the car up and down at each corner of the car. When you release the car, you should not feel the car bounce back more than twice.

Examine the tire treads. A tread that is unevenly worn may indicate poor alignment or balance. All tires should be the same size, especially on a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Check the CV joint boots on the ends of the front axles. These CV joint boots are expensive to replace.

Push the top of one rear tire toward the car. If it moves too much, there may be bearing problems.

Under the Hood:

Check for mismatched bolts or offset paint. These mismatches may indicate a front-end accident.

Look at the underside of the hood. A black film on the underside usually means there is an oil leak.

Check the levels of oil, brake, and transmission fluids. Levels should be adequate, but if it looks like all the fluids have just been changed, this may indicate that there is a problem with the car. A low oil level may indicate either a leak or indicate that the owner didn’t have the oil changed regularly.

Take out the transmission dipstick and smell the fluid. Does the fluid smell burned? With a well maintained transmission, the fluid should not have a burnt smell.


Look inside the car for wear and tear on the seats and pedals. Make sure the amount of wear looks consistent with the mileage on the odometer.

Start the car: it should start right away. Listen for any unusual noises.

Verify that all gauges report information accurately.

Examine emergency lights. Make sure no emergency lights are on when the engine is running.

Test all lights—brake lights, headlights, reverse lights, turn signals, and so on.

Check for play in the steering wheel, clutch, and brakes. Play is the amount a part can move before it engages.

Hold the brake pedal down as far as possible for forty-five seconds. If the pedal doesn’t hold firm, there may be a leak in the brake fluid. There should be very little play in the pedal.

Look for a jack and lug wrench in the trunk. If there isn’t one, ask the seller to provide one with the vehicle.


Test-drive the vehicle personally. Notice how the vehicle feels and fits.

Evaluate how quickly the car accelerates from a complete stop. Does the car hesitate, or does it accelerate as it should?

Listen to the engine while accelerating. Is it smooth or rough?

Check for hill-climbing power, braking power, cornering, suspension, and seat comfort.

Check for rattles and squeaks from interior controls.

Play the radio, tape deck, and CD player.

Qualified mechanic inspection: If you are interested in buying the car, take the car to a qualified mechanic for a more complete inspection. Choose a mechanic who regularly works on the type of car you are looking at; such a mechanic can generally be found at a dealership that sells the make and model of vehicle you are looking at. Mechanics that do not specialize in the specific vehicle you wish to buy may be only guessing about potential problems. Dealers may also have the car’s history on their computers, which is also helpful.

Have the mechanic do an engine compression check and look for oil leaks and other fluid leaks. For cars with automatic transmission, take the car to a transmission specialist to have the transmission examined.


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