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How To Buy A Good Used Car (and NOT a Lemon!)

by Larry Carley copyright 2021

used car mustang

used car for sale Buying a used car or truck can be an adventure. Whether your are buying a used car from an individual or a used car from a dealer, you are never quite sure what you are getting. Are you buying someone else's problem or are you buying a good, used car or truck that will provide years of reliable service?

Remember, most people don't sell or trade their old car unless they are having problems with it, spending too much on repairs or just plain hate it. An older car that still runs and looks good is usually a keeper. A used car or truck that is nothing but trouble becomes a trade-in or a for-sale-by-owner.

I'm not saying all used cars are trouble. Many are good buys and were traded in because a lease expired, or the former owner wanted a new vehicle or a different type of vehicle. The best buys are used cars and trucks with LOW miles that have been well-maintained by their former owners.

You are always better off buying a used car or truck from an individual because you can look them in the eye when you ask questions about the vehicle's maintenance and repair history, and whether or not the vehicle is in good running condition and is reliable. Always ask to see receipts or other proof that the oil & filters were changed regularly, or receipts for any major repairs that have been done recently.

When you are buying a vehicle off a used car lot, there is no vehicle history to ask for. If there were any maintenance or repair receipts in the glovebox, most dealers throw all the paperwork away to intentionally obscure the history of the vehicle. Some will lie through their teeth about the vehicle's repair or maintenance history. Others will be more forthright about previous repairs that may have been made, especially if they had to repair or replace something to make the vehicle driveable. If the dealer has made repairs to a used vehicle, ask about any warranty coverage they provide.

Many used car dealers say they perform a multi-point vehicle inspection on every car they sell. They say they inspect fluid levels and safety items such as lights, wipers, horn, brakes, tires and the exhaust system. Hopefully, any repairs that are needed are made before the vehicle is sold. They should also check for outstanding recalls that may affect vehicle safety or reliability. However, many used car dealers fail to do this so ask them for a list of the things they do check. If a vehicle has received a thorough inspection and no major problems are found (or repairs are made), you can probably buy the vehicle with confidence that it will be safe and reliable to drive. But some used car dealers cut corners to save time and money, and essentially flip a vehicle as quickly as possible without putting any time or repair money into it. Our advice is to search the used car dealer online to see what kind of Yelp, Better Business Bureau or other online ratings they have before you buy. If they seem sketchy or you find a bunch of consumer complaints, look elsewhere for your next vehicle.

You are always taking a change when you buy a vehicle online without actually seeing it or driving it, especially from private seller listings. Some listings are outright scams. Craigs List has a bad reputation for these types of scams. The car that is being advertised may not exist and the photos are of a car the seller does not own. They just copied the photos from someplace else online.

If a used car price sounds too good to be true, it is likely a scam. DO NOT send the seller any money unless it is through an escrow account, or you are using a payment platform that provides you with some type of buyer protection in case your purchase turns out to be a scam.

If you are shopping for your next vehicle online (which most people do these days), the safest way to buy a used vehicle is to go direct to the car dealer's own website rather than going through a third party site.

Another online shopping option is to buy a used car from a reputable online seller that offers a money back guarantee if you are not satisfied with your purchase. Carvana and similar companies do offer such money back guarantees as well as delivery direct to your door. These companies may also offer to buy your old car if you have a vehicle you would like to trade-in.

NEVER Buy a Used Car Without Inspecting and Driving It First!

Buying a vehicle that is out of state or out of town is always risky, so our advice is to buy locally when possible. This way you can ask the car dealer or seller to let you test drive the vehicle before you buy it. The drive should be long enough to get a good feel for how the vehicle starts, runs, handles, rides, brakes and accelerates. If something doesn't feel right, sound right or smell right, walk away from the deal before it is too late.

A lot of people are buying cars sight unseen online these days, but personally, I would NEVER buy a vehicle without driving it first.

A short test drive will tell you a lot about a vehicle and reduce the risk of buying a lemon or a vehicle you may not be happy with. Is the vehicle easy to get in and out of? Does it fit you? Does it have the features you need or want? How does it ride and handle? Do the brakes feel firm and even? Does it make any unusual noises, rattles, clunks or vibrations? Do all the gauges and lights work? Are any warning lights on? Does the engine run hot after it has been driven awhile? Is oil pressure normal? Better to discover any problems now rather than after you have purchased it.

Be sure to test the lights, turn signals, horn, wipers, radio, heater, air conditioner and other accessories. If you discover any problems, now is the time to negotiate with the seller regarding repairs or lowering the selling price of the vehicle.

Pre-Test Drive Inspection

Before you take a test drive, open the hood and look for obvious problems like oil or coolant leaks.

Check the oil level on the dipstick. If the oil level is low, the engine may be burning or leaking oil. If the oil is very dark and thick, the engine may not have had an oil change in a long time.

Also, pull out the transmission dipstick (if it has one). The fluid should be a pink or red color. If it is dark brown or has a burned smell, the transmission may have problems.

Look at the battery. If there is a date code, a battery that is more than four or five years old is reaching the end of the road. Also, if the battery posts or terminals are badly corroded, or the posts show signs of having been jumped (gouges or scratches), it may indicate a recent starting problem.

Look at the tires. Uneven wear usually means worn suspension parts that could be expensive to replace.

Turn everything on and off to see if it works. This includes the lights, turn signals, wipers, heater, defroster, air conditioner, power windows (front and rear), power seats, radio, power door locks, etc. Anything that doesn't work should help you negotiate a lower price.

Watch out for flood damaged vehicles! Water can cause long term, chronic and expensive problems with wiring and electronic modules. Look for water or mud stains on carpeting, on door upholstery, in the trunk and under the hood. If a floor-damaged vehicle has an insurance claim, it should show up on car history report. But if the previous owner never filed an insurance claim, there will be no history of flood or accident damage.

Can You Trust the Odometer Reading?

The odometer reading is always important. Low miles are usually best, but it depends on the type of driving. Highway miles are much easier on a vehicle than frequent short trip, stop-and-go driving. A car with 80,000 highway miles may therefore be in better condition than the same car with 50,000 city miles on the odometer.

Just remember that odometers can be turned back, even digital odometers, to show a lower mileage than the actual mileage on the vehicle (which is another reason why many used car dealers get rid of any previous maintenance and repair paperwork that may have been in the glovebox). Tampering with the odometer reading is illegal and can get a seller into trouble. Even so, there are people willing to take a risk if it means increasing the value of a vehicle thousands of dollars by turning back to odometer.

used car check listClick Here for Used Car Inspection Checklist

Let the Buyer Beware!

Most used cars are sold "as-is," which means if anything goes wrong with it after you buy it, so sad too bad. You are stuck with it and it is your problem now. The only exceptions are low mileage late model used cars that may still be under factory warranty, or come with an extended warranty. Most used car dealers offer extra cost used car warranties on late model vehicles (typically those with less than 50,000 miles on the odometer). One major repair will more than pay for the warranty. Just be sure to read the fine print on the warranty if you decide to buy the extra protection. Most of these warranties do not cover maintenance items or the brakes, tires, battery,filters, exhaust system, lights, or accessories.

The NHTSA maintains a database of recalls and defects. Go to the NHTSA website and search for any recalls or defect bulletins on the year, make and model of vehicle you are considering buying. You can also search for recalls and bulletins on our Technical Service Bulletin Help Page.

Consumer Reports is an excellent source for unbiased used car comparisons. They also publish a yearly Used Car Buyers Guide which lists repair and reliability ratings for most makes and models. The repair data is collected on thousands of vehicles and is analyzed to rank vehicles as good buys or not. In my opinion, they are usually right on the mark.

Some best used car recommendations

Used Car Reports

When buying a late model vehicle, it is a good idea to have the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) researched to see if the vehicle has had any accidents in the past, been flood damaged or stolen. The small fee charged for a vehicle report is cheap insurance for the problems it can prevent if the car has a questionable history. Here in the U.S. CarFax is a good source for vehicle history reports.

Used Car Buying Advice & Ratings

Other sources for advice when shopping for a used car or truck include online auto blogs (read what kind of problems people who own certain vehicles are complaining about). Two other excellent resources are and Or, do a keyword search online for the year, make and model of vehicle you are thinking about buying. See what kind of comments the owners of these vehicles have posted about their cars.

If you know a mechanic or take your vehicle to a shop you trust, ask your mechanic what he thinks about a particular make or model of vehicle. His advice can be invaluable because he fixes cars for a living and knows which ones have problems and which ones do not.

Shopping for a Used Car Online

Shopping for used cars online can save a lot of time and legwork. You can search thousands of listings in your own local area or nationwide. But buying a used car online without actually seeing it or driving it before you buy it can be risky. The seller's claims about their vehicle may be true, or they may be exaggerated or outright lies. Let the buyer beware. You also have to watch out for con artists who post ads for cars that don't exist. They will ask for a deposit or payment in advance, then disappear with your money leaving you smarter but poorer.

If you are buying a used vehicle from a private party, the safest approach is to agree to meet them to see the vehicle in a public place. A police station parking lot is a good choice. Also, if you feel vulnerable buying from a private party, bring along someone with you (safety in numbers, especially if they have a cell phone and make a video of the meeting).

Click Here for Used Car Information

More Used Car Related Articles:

Used Car Dealer Tricks (How NOT to get cheated on the next used car you buy!)

What Goes Wrong With Cars (and When)

New Car Lemon Law (How Lemon Laws can help you with new car repair problems)

My Advice for Selling, Trading or Getting Rid of Your Old Car or Truck

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