Free Guide to Buying a Used Car — Step 2

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used carsSo, you have finally decided which type of used car that you want. There are so many choices; sports cars, luxury cars, compact cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs — not to mention any combination, thereof. Determining which type will best meet your daily requirements is a huge step in the used car selection process. Now you must locate just the right car at just the right price, from just the right person. Utilizing a used car website, such as can be an extremely valuable tool in your search. As mentioned in the Free Guide to Buying a Used Car — Step 1, we determined that from whom you choose to buy a used car can factor greatly into the likelihood of success or failure. Once you have located the right car, before a fair price can be determined the condition of the vehicle must be carefully scrutinized.


Never underestimate the importance of driving a used car prior to purchase. Make sure that the radio is turned off and there should be no talking on the test drive. I have driven used cars in which the seller insisted upon riding along during the test drive in what can only be described as an effort to chat through the entire trip. This type of behavior makes me very suspicious. The seller could be intending to camouflage noises caused by component failure with conversation. It is not rude or unfriendly to ask for quiet while you are test driving the vehicle. Listen for any strange noises. Roaring noises, squealing, squeaking, popping, clunking, and pinging noises included; always make a mental note of these noises and mention them to YOUR mechanic should the pre-purchase inspection become necessary (if you remain interested in this particular used car after driving it). The same is true for any strange sensation while driving. Strange odors should brought to your mechanic’s attention prior to the pre-purchase inspection. Vibrations that you can feel while driving or sitting at idle should also be forwarded to your mechanic. It will aid him in determining the source of the vibration if you can take note of the general description of it.

  • Vibrations felt in the steering wheel, while driving are typically coming from the front end or front tires.
  • Vibrations which are felt in the seat or floor are generally coming from the rear.
  • Pulsating vibrations when braking are normally caused by warped brake rotors.

Unless you are a qualified automotive expert, you should never purchase a used car from anyone without first having an extensive pre-purchase inspection performed by YOUR mechanic. I know that it sounds absurd, but never have the inspection performed by anyone which the seller recommends. That is not a wise decision. Take the vehicle to a reputable automotive repair facility, of your choosing. Most repair facilities will work you in to perform these types of inspections, at a minimal fee. You cannot afford NOT to have this inspection performed prior to buying a used car. Whether buying a used car from a used car dealer or an individual, if the seller will not allow you to have the vehicle independently inspected, then I strongly suggest that you abandon the sale and buy a used car elsewhere.

Having noted the importance of the pre-purchase inspection, I will point out a few areas of the perspective used car which should be included in any pre-purchase inspection checklist.

Body and Frame

body fillerThe appearance of any used car is what draws or repels a potential consumer. Even if the exterior appearance is acceptable, there are things which must be considered. Fresh, shiny paint could conceal recently covered damage from rust or collision. Substandard body repair, using various body fillers, may look acceptable now but will crack and sink within months. One easy and inexpensive method to test for the presence of fillers in steel body panels is carried out using a refrigerator magnet. Keep the magnet in your pocket and nonchalantly touch it to the metal body panels. If the magnet fails to adhere to the car, then you know that body filler is present.

Once you have established the presence of body filler, further investigation is necessary. By looking inside of the area in question, you may discover damage. Look behind carpeted panels in the trunk and door panels, if necessary for damage that can allow you to make an educated decision regarding the purchase of this particular used car. Pay careful attention to the inner fender areas, which are visible from underneath the hood. Misaligned body panels and bolt holes can indicate a substandard repair Carefully examine the frame, uni-body, or engine cradle for bends and/or damage, including dents or heat marks, which could indicate that the frame has been straightened. Once you are aware of the extent of the damage, you can determine to walk away from this used car or use the damage as a bargaining tool to purchase it at a reduced price.


underhoodThis consists of the engine, transmission, and differential (if equipped). Mileage and fluid condition must be determined and considered for every major component. The presence of leaks should be taken very seriously. Ignition tune-up maintenance parts should be inspected; timing belt components should also be inspected, along with drive belts and cooling system hoses. Depending upon the mileage of the vehicle, automatic transmissions which have excessively contaminated fluid are cause for concern. Vehicles which reach 100,000-miles without ever having the transmission serviced present the potential for a major component failure. A sample of the fluid from the differential should be inspected for the presence of excessive steel shavings. Excessive shavings in the fluid can indicate faulty bearings or gears, requiring an expensive repair. The engine’s exhaust system should also be considered. Broken hangers and leaking pipes, mufflers, resonators, and catalytic converters should be carefully inspected. Again, once the need for repairs has been determined, you can opt to decline purchasing this used car or use the potential expense of the repairs to obtain the vehicle at a reduced price.


load testAll electrical systems should be tested. A load test should be performed on the battery and the charging system checked for potential malfunctions. The on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems must be checked for codes and pending codes, as well as to determine whether codes have been recently cleared. By testing the powertrain control module (PCM) for OBD-II readiness, a determination can be reached regarding the length of time elapsed since the codes were reset. If it is determined that the codes have been recently reset; then chances are that the vehicle has a malfunction which the seller has chosen to conceal, in lieu of repair. Often shady sellers will remove or disable the malfunction indicator lamp bulb in order to avoid a repair. Having the PCM checked for the presence of codes will inform the technician of this condition. Being aware of this gives the buyer the option to walk away from the deal or use the information as a bargaining tool. All interior and exterior lighting, horns, electrically operated seats, windows, door locks, sideview mirrors, trunk and fuel door releases, etc. must be checked for proper operation. No component is so insignificant that it should be overlooked.


brakesIt is important that the wheels are removed from the used car in order to perform this inspection thoroughly. Brake pads and shoes must be inspected. In addition, the rotors and drums should be inspected for gouging, heat cracks, and pitting. Rotors should be measured, using a digital caliper, and the thickness compared with OEM specifications to determine if they are in need of replacement. Drums should also be checked for grooves and cracking and drum brake hardware, axle seals, and wheel cylinders should be closely inspected. Visually inspect the brake master cylinder for signs of leaks (pay particular attention to the area where it bolts onto the booster); also inspect the condition of the brake fluid. Fluid that is excessively dark has been contaminated and will need to be replaced. This will require a brake fluid flush and should be considered in the vehicle price. Rubber brake flex hoses should be carefully inspected for cracks and leaks. Calipers and caliper slides should also be tested for proper operation. If rust is present, then inspect all steel brake lines, too.


tire wearObviously, with the cost of tires skyrocketing, tire wear must be taken into consideration. If the tires which are currently on the used car will need to be replaced, then the significant cost of replacement must be reflected in the price paid for the vehicle. Not only must the replacement cost of the tires be considered but also the wear pattern of the tires. Uneven tread wear can inform a skilled technician about the condition of the suspension and steering of the used car. Alignment problems could indicate suspension and steering linkage problems which can definitely run into money. Vehicles that cannot be conventionally aligned often have damaged components, which will require replacement. Again, being aware of these conditions will enable you to make an educated decision to buy the used car at a reduced price or buy elsewhere.

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.