How To Decide If An Older Vehicle Is a Good Used Purchase Or Just Someone Else’s Problem

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Either from a thorough search or happenstance, you have found a used car to buy. How do you know it’s a creampuff and not a nightmare in disguise?

We’ve all been there. You have a car in front of you that seems like a good deal. The right half of your brain loves it. The left half has some serious reservations that it may be a disaster in disguise. How do you know if it’s a good deal or just someone else’s old problems? We can help. Here’s your step by step guide.

CarComplaints & Consumer Reports

The first thing to do is to determine if this specific car of a given model and year has a history of well-documented problems. There are two outstanding groups who have the information you need. First up is CarComplaints. This site catalogs owner complaints and then separates them by exact model and year and what the type of problem is. Even brands with outstanding reputations for quality have a few duds in the recent and distant past. CarComplaints is simple to use and the site does not pull punches. They even bless vehicles with their “Seal of Awesome” or steer you away with their “Beware of the Clunker” and “Avoid Like the Plague” warnings. You can read actual owner reports of the problems here until your eyes bleed.

Related Story – What’s the Most Reliable Year of the Honda Accord?

Consumer Reports’ quality ratings are based solely on actual owner reports, not any sort of editorial opinion or manufacturers’ funding support. You have to pay to see these ratings, but this is a service we feel is well worth the small price. Once you have screened your potential buy using these two sources, move on to the next step.

Check Prices And Options at BestRide

So your possible purchase passed the sniff test at CarComplaints and Consumer Reports. Good. Now, be sure you are not being taken to the cleaners on price. We are the experts on this. Search within BestRide for that same make and model and with a similar model year and mileage – using your own zip code and a radius around you – to see what these things are being listed for near you. This may validate that the person or dealer offering to sell you this car is giving you a fair price. If you think they are not, you now have a list of places to buy that same car nearby for less.

What Does “Dad” Think?

Or Mom. Or whoever in your sphere is a car nut. Look for oily fingernails. Do yourself a favor and involve your elders and the experts around you in major purchases and life decisions in general. You can always discount the advice, but more times than not you will benefit from avoiding someone else’s past mistakes. One qualifier here is to avoid the true fanatics. Folks like your cousin with eleven mustangs in his yard and a tattoo of cartoon Calvin peeing on a Camaro that think only one model from one brand makes any sense. Heck, there are publications with that view. They are not going to be as much help as you might think.

Get It Checked Out By a Mechanic

The CarTalk folks would riot if we didn’t include this. Mechanics are often able to bundle up our steps one and two at a glance. They know the seriously bad lemons from having worked on them for years. They can also do some quick diagnostics that can find big problems and they won’t charge you much. Once they have given you the thumbs up or down, listen to the advice. If your mechanic is shaking her head, keep looking.

Seriously Consider a CPO Vehicle

CPO means Certified Pre-Owned. Setting aside the marketing baloney about manufacturers “selecting only the best cars” for their CPO fleet yadda yadda yadda, all CPO cars come with a valuable comprehensive warranty that is backed by the manufacturer and which is applicable to all its dealers. If the transmission quits shortly after you buy the vehicle this will save your bacon. CPO cars cost a bit more, but the peace of mind is very tempting. These cars are usually available only from new car dealers selling used models, but some CPO cars come with transferable warranties. Do your homework.

Get Any Information You Can – CarFax, Maintenance Records etc.

There are services like CarFax and others that can be helpful excluding cars, but they are not really enough on their own to give you a green light. We recently helped an owner sort through all of the receipts she had kept for a ten-year-old car. In them, we could easily see the positives. Many oil changes at regular intervals. We could also see some red flags. Four visits for a check engine light in the past two years. Six (yes 6!) windshield replacements due to cracks. You need to be a bit of a CSI sleuth to get anything helpful here, but if a private owner ever tells that there are no service records for the vehicle, wish them well and renew your search.

Accord chart courtesy of