5 Things to do When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car is always a gamble, as you can never with 100% certainty know how the car was treated beforehand. It would be nice if it could be like those car commercials where the “second owner” of the car follows around the first owner to make sure they are treating the car well, but unfortunately that’s not possible in reality. But there are ways to increase the chance that you are buying a reliable vehicle that will last you years without any major issues. I’m hoping that these 5 tips can help you in doing just that.

1. Always have the car inspected – No matter what the owner or dealer tries to tell you, get the car inspected by a trusted mechanic. If you haven’t used a mechanic in a while, ask coworkers, friends, family and use online reviews to find one in your area. If you aren’t satisfied with what that mechanic finds, you can always get a second opinion as well. Most mechanics will charge around $100 for this sort of inspection. If you have to spend $200 to save thousands of dollars of repairs and maintenance down the line, this is always worth it. This doesn’t mean you have to get every car you look at inspected, though. Make sure you like the car, the car test drove nicely and you are happy with everything else. When you are seriously considering purchasing a vehicle then comes the time to have it inspected. The only time this probably isn’t necessary is when buying a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle that comes with a warranty. You can still get the vehicle inspected for peace of mind, but some dealers may even not allow it on a certified car.

2. Take the car for a thorough test drive – Walk around the entire car, get a feel for everything and look for scratches and wear and tear. Make sure all the paint looks original and all the panels line up correctly. If they don’t line up, this could be a sign that the car was in an accident and they were replaced. Check all the fluid levels. Make sure to take the car out to test all the driving you do: highway driving, smaller highway driving, some city driving. Take the car to a big parking lot and test the steering at it’s limits to make sure you don’t hear any strange noises. Test every single feature of the car, all power features, the air conditioning and heat. Try to not test drive the car with the air or the heat blasting (and radio!) so that you are able to hear and feel the ride of the car better. If you are buying from a private owner, have them take you for a test drive first! They might be more willing to discuss

3. Ask the previous owner for maintenance records/CarFax – You always want to receive a CarFax or AutoCheck report to see if any red flags come up. Obviously these are not perfect as they can only show what was actually reported but it’s a great resource. If the person serviced their car at a dealer or a certified technician, using a CarFax report can make things very easy for you though. You will be able to see in detail every time the oil was changed and service was performed on the vehicle. If buying from a private party make sure the owner kept up on basic maintenance like oil changes, spark plugs, air filter, rotating tires, etc. If they have receipts or kept a detailed log that would usually point to the car being well maintained.

4. Do your research on that car’s model and year – Make sure there aren’t any major recalls on the car, and if there were other recalls that they have already been done. You can usually input the VIN onto the manufacturer website to check for that. Use the IIHS and NHTSA websites to check how the car fared in safety tests. Check the car complaints website to make sure there aren’t expensive issues that are common with that vehicle. If you know someone that owns a similar or same year of that car you can ask them about it, but obviously anecdotal evidence isn’t always perfect. You can also check to see what “generation” of the car is and if it was the first model year of that generation. Most car companies will redesign a car every 4-5 years, and your best bet is usually in the middle or towards the end of that life cycle.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away – Whether you are buying a new or used car, it’s most likely going to be one of your largest purchases. If there is anything that makes your feel uncomfortable about the car or the person selling you the car, it’s best to just walk away. There are plenty of used cars on the market and you are going to be driving this car for years to come. Don’t settle on a purchase if you are truly unsure on the condition of the car you are buying. Never buy the car from a private party that doesn’t have the vehicle title!

photo credit: David Stanley Chevrolet of Norman via photopin (license)


  1. Your last tip is the most important when it comes to getting a good deal on a car.. You simply can’t fall in love with the car so much that you aren’t willing to walk away. If you do, then you lose all of our leverage, and you will pay more than you have to.

    Great list!

    1. I think that walking away is your most powerful leverage, but it also means you’re fine with not taking that deal as well. And you’re right – there are usually plenty of similar cars in the same area.

  2. Good informative post. This is my first time on your blog, I’ll have to look around. Anyways, the only other thing I can say is what you touched on in #5, which is being unemotional. It’s hard sometimes since it may be the vehicle you’ve been wanting, but sticking to your plan on checking everything and being vigilant can save you a ton of money and headaches. Speaking of money, super important is if you’re going to any sort of dealer and financing, ALWAYS get your financing set up beforehand at your local bank or credit union. They will seriously try to rip you off on the interest rate with their “finance managers” who know absolutely nothing about finance.

    – HMB

    1. Thanks for stopping by, hope that you stick around.

      I agree with setting up finance with your local bank, but not all dealers are out to get you in the finance department. I think the important part is not to get sucked into their “monthly payment” adjustments and stick to the actual purchase price. Sometimes dealers will be able to beat the interest rate you bring to them, especially on certified vehicles where they can offer more incentives. Just make sure it’s only the interest rate changing and not your total price paid.

  3. Great tips. All of my cars have been used. I almost got screwed with the 1st one. The fuel pump went out a week after I purchased it. I got lucky. The dealer paid for the repairs. My mechanic has been with me when I looked at my last 2 cars.

    1. At least the dealer made good and repaired that for you, fuel pump is not a cheap repair. It’s worth it to have an expert check out your car when you are going to be dropping a few thousand dollars. Even if you are good with cars, a second opinion and set of eyes always helps.

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