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Buying a Used Vehicle

Used Car Purchase Check List

Buying a car is the biggest purchase most people ever make aside from a home. Buying a used car can be fun and exciting or it can be a huge headache. HRADA offers these important tips that you may find helpful in your search.

Give yourself plenty of time. If you buy on impulse or under pressure, you may make a mistake. There are plenty of good deals out there, although you may have to wait several weeks to find one.

Don’t get emotionally attached to a vehicle. A car that looks good may be in terrible shape mechanically.

Talk with a bank about a loan BEFORE you search for a vehicle. Knowing what your budget is in advance can save you a lot
of time later.

Pick the type of vehicle you are interested in, and talk with people who have owned them before. Was their experience good or bad? What type of breakdowns or problems did they have? Is this typical of this model? Would they buy another one?

When you find the vehicle you like, have it checked out by a professional. If this is not possible, check the following items.

Call a dealer and ask if there are any recall notices on the vehicle you are considering. You will need to know the VIN#.

Start the engine. Does it idle smoothly?

If the vehicle blows blue smoke continuously, it could be a sign that the vehicle needs a valve or ring.

Do the emergency flashers work?

Check the electrical system. Check the turn signals, front and rear; break lights, backup lights, headlights, taillights, high beams as well as running lights on the side of the vehicle. Check the horn.

Do all the gauges work?

When the vehicle is started, all the warning lights should light up to show they work. It is important that they are all in working condition, as they warn you of equipment failure.

Turn on the heat and/or air conditioner. (Turning on the air conditioner may cause the vehicle to idle faster to handle the increased load on the engine.) Check the fan.

How many miles are on the vehicle? The average driver drives 15,000 miles per year. Is it significantly higher or lower than this? Why? (Banks will generally not finance vehicles with more than 100,000 miles.)

Look at the brake, clutch and gas pedals. Is the wear on them consistent with the miles on the odometer? If not, this may be an indication that the mileage on the odometer has been “turned back.” Also check for wear on the carpets.

Lift the carpets up. Is it damp? Is there a musty odor? This could be a sign of leaking windows, poor seals, or even leaking from the heater.

Are the carpets stained with water, or is there any rust present? This could be a sign that the car has been under water,
in a flood etc.

Check the windshield wipers at all speeds. Check the washers.

Check the spare tire and look for the jack and lug wrench.

Open and close all the windows.

Open and close all doors. Check the door locks.

Move the seats the full range of motion.

Put on the emergency brake and put the vehicle in gear. It should not move forward at idle speed with the emergency brake engaged.

Turn on the radio. Does it work? Is there an electric antenna? Does it work?

Open the hood and look for oil leaks, steam rising off the engine, or a hissing sound from the radiator.

Check all the fluid levels. Are they full?

If the vehicle has an automatic transmission, check the fluid level of the transmission (the dipstick is generally at the back of the engine). The fluid should be full. It should also not be burnt. Burning transmission fluid usually indicates early signs of a transmission problem.

Look at the tires. Are they worn? Are they worn evenly? If they are worn on the sides, the vehicle probably needs an alignment. It may be something simple, or it may be an indication that the car has been hit in the front and can not be aligned properly.

Will the tires need to be replaced soon? A full set of tires is usually $200 to $500.

Push down on the fenders above each tire. When you release, does the car bounce or move back up and sit? Bouncing means the vehicle needs shocks. Shocks can run $50+ per tire to replace. McPherson Struts are more. Many vehicles use this type of shock.

Look for pools of oil or fluid under the vehicle. This could indicate leaks.

Drive the vehicle with the radio OFF. Are there any unusual sounds?

Go to a parking lot and turn the steering wheel all the way to one side and drive in a circle. Repeat in the other direction. Are there any rubbing sounds? This could indicate that the vehicle has been wrecked.

Drive over speed bumps. Do the wheels “bottom out”? This could indicate that the vehicle needs springs. Does the vehicle quit bouncing immediately? If not this could indicate that the vehicle needs shock absorbers.

Does the vehicle accelerate smoothly? Does the transmission slip between gears?

Is the steering wheel loose? This could be a front-end suspension problem.

Check the body. Feel under the fender rims for signs of bodywork.

Stand in front of the vehicle and look down the side of the vehicle. Are there signs of bodywork?

Open the door for the gas. This usually the best place to look to see if a vehicle has been repainted.

Look in the door jam area, another area to see if the vehicle has been repainted. Repainting may have been due to an accident.

What is the age of the State Inspection sticker? If it is over six months old you’ll want to get a current inspection.

Ask to see the title. Insurance companies will many times declare a vehicle as uneconomical to repair and sell it to a junkyard for parts. These vehicles are then sometimes repaired anyway. They will carry a salvage title with them. This is not necessarily bad, because a competent mechanic/body person can sometimes repair them for less than an insurance company was willing to pay. However, sometimes these vehicles are real problems. Buyers beware.

Ask why the vehicle is being sold. Does it sound like a legitimate reason, or does it sound like it is being sold because it is a continuous problem? Cars that list “many new parts” usually fall into the later category. The seller is tired of being nickel and dimed to death. If the car is being replaced, did the seller buy a similar model?

Does the owner have maintenance records? Also, any repair records? Many shops give a warranty with their repairs and those records could be very useful should you need to make a claim.

Be aware that when you purchase a vehicle from individuals, they are not obligated to give you a warranty, assist you with your DMV work or to be truthful about the vehicle’s history. A better price than the dealer is offering doesn’t make it a “good deal”.


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