10 Used Car Shopping Tools

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tool kit 2Do you seriously need a tool kit when shopping for a used car? Sure you do. Buying a used car can offer its own particular set of challenges. Avoiding pitfalls and rip-offs to find a top-quality used car requires some degree of research and planning but having your tool kit ready when it is time to inspect the vehicle can definitely save you time and money. While I strongly recommend having any used car thoroughly checked out by a reputable automotive technician, prior to purchase, this kit will aid individuals who are experienced enough to complete a brief check before a professional pre-purchase inspection, which will normally cost approximately an hour in labor fees. Depending upon local shop labor rates in your area; these simple items might just save you nearly a hundred dollars per vehicle inspected.

Finding a top-quality low mileage used car, truck, van, or SUV is easier than ever thanks to the help of a different type of used car tool. Used car websites like BestRide.com. can direct you to the car of your dreams in only a few clicks.

Before beginning your used car shopping experience, make a checklist of things that you will likely investigate.

Most folks don’t go used car shopping in their work clothes. Add a pair of loose coveralls to your used car shopping work kit, so that you can kneel and even lay on the ground if necessary. Used car sellers will know that you mean business when you begin to climb into your coveralls for a thorough inspection of the vehicle in question. He may even volunteer more information, if he assumes that you will find the flaws on your own.

In the pocket of your coveralls, keep a small notebook and ink pen. Itemize any needed repairs that you detect while performing your inspection. Never depend upon memory retention when negotiating; use your itemized list to deduct for faults which will eventually cost you money if you purchase the car. When negotiating, if the seller seems unwilling to lower the asking price due to needed repairs, remind him that the repairs will likely cost him in the future. Either way he will incur the cost. Why not knock it off the cost of the vehicle?

Add a simple, inexpensive OBD-II code reader to your used car shopping tool kit to save thousands. A code reader can be purchased at your local department or parts store for around $20. Regardless of whether or not the service engine light is illuminated on the vehicle in question, attach the code reader to the diagnostic port and retrieve any codes which are stored. Most manufacturers of code readers will include a code description list with the tool. Some toolmakers provide online help for understanding diagnostic codes, as well. OBD-II diagnostic connector port locations vary from one car maker to another but most are underneath the driver’s side instrument panel. Nissan frequently uses the fuse panel cover for their diagnostic connectors and Honda has placed some of theirs behind the ashtray in the center console on select models. Should you happen upon a used car that has a “P” code stored in the computer, with no service engine soon light illuminated, suspect that the malfunction indicator lamp has been tampered with in order to avoid a costly repair.

Using a simple household magnet, such as a refrigerator magnet, can help you to detect the presence of excessive body filler. Substandard body repairs can look fine, initially, and then deteriorate quickly costing you tons of money in the bargain. Check the exterior of the vehicle carefully by gently attaching the magnet to random spots on the fenders, hood, trunk, and roof. If the magnet doesn’t adhere itself to a steel body panel, you must investigate the cause. Someone will bear the brunt of a substandard body repair on the used car. Try not to let it be you.

You will be amazed at the things you can see using a good, bright flashlight. If you are pretty familiar with disc brakes, you can see the general degree of pad wear present by looking through the vent holes in the wheels. Use your flashlight to check for leaking struts by inspecting the top of the cylinder, where it accepts the strut rod. If hydraulic fluid is present, then the strut is faulty. Since strut replacement is recommended in “twos” this can equate to a major repair and should be taken into account when negotiating the price of the vehicle. Look for fluid leaks of any type by using your flashlight. Inspect the front of the brake booster, where the master cylinder contacts it. Inspect the entire engine and transmission for the presence of residual fluid. Carefully observe the backing plates on rear differentials for signs of leaking axle seals and faulty axle bearings. Any sign of leaking components should be noted and accounted for when negotiating the price of the vehicle with the seller.

Use a small pry bar or hubcap hammer to carefully remove hubcaps before performing a “wheels-on” brake inspection. As mentioned earlier, this can be achieved by shining your flashlight through the vent holes located in the wheels. Use caution when inspecting braking components, they can be very hot.

A short windshield wiper blade is extremely helpful when checking for exterior roof distortion caused by frame damage. Just lay the windshield wiper blade flat on top of the roof, from end-to-end across the entire roof line from side-to-side and front-to-rear. The wiper blade is also particularly handy for inspecting a wet car, should you find yourself in this precarious position. Just use the wiper blade to carefully squeegee water from the body panels, followed by wiping with a clean dry hand towel. It is best to avoid inspecting a used car in rainy conditions, altogether, but occasionally you may find yourself looking at a recently washed or otherwise wet car.

The distance between Honest Abe’s head and the edge of the penny is exactly the same as the recommended minimum tread depth of a passenger car tire. Chances are that you will be able to visually determine whether a used car needs tires or not. An Abe Lincoln Penny will help you to prove it to the seller, in no uncertain terms. Just place the edge of the coin in the groove between the tread of the tire and shine your trusty flashlight thereon. If the top of Abe’s head is present, then it is time for some new tires. The considerable cost of new tires should be factored into the negotiated price of the vehicle.

Never take anything for granted when planning to purchase a used car. I am not saying that everyone is dishonest but, for many individuals, their moral compass changes when selling a car. Inoperable components are typically excused by the seller by explaining that a fuse is blown and simply needs to be replaced. Add a selection of assorted fuses to your used car shopping tool kit. Should a component have a blown fuse, then replacing the fuse should put it in normal working order. Replace the fuse with one of your own and retest the operation of the component. If the fuse blows again, then an electrical short is present and it will cost money to have it repaired. This must be considered when negotiating the final cost of the vehicle.

Used car sellers tend to dismiss roaring, growling, and screeching noises from the face of the engine as “only a loose or faulty belt.” Unfortunately, these types of noises can be caused by something far more serious than simply a bad belt. By adding an automotive stethoscope to your tool kit, you can get to the bottom of the racket with very little effort.


S.M. Darby

S.M. Darby

I am a freelance author with over 25 years of experience as a professional, ASE certified automotive technician and shop owner, muscle car enthusiast, avid street racer, and classic car restoration specialist.