Buying a Used Car? Six Things to Look at First

Mother and child in car

If you’ve ever put off an oil change, a tune-up or getting your brake pads replaced, you may have well thought, “Well, what’s the big deal, really?”

Maybe it isn’t a big deal, depending on how long you have put off your car maintenance.

But if you’ve ever bought a used car, what’s the first – beyond the price – that you find yourself wondering about? Boy, I hope the person who owned this car before me took good care of it…

That’s something to keep in mind, the next time you ask yourself, “Is it really a big deal that I’m putting off getting my tires rotated and that I’m going to hold off on the oil change I’ve been putting off for a while now?”

Yeah, it kind of is. It’s a big deal for your car, and you’ll likely be able to sell or trade in your car someday, if it is well maintained – rather than have to someday drive it, or have it towed, into a salvage yard.

Are you buying a used car? Well, you’re in luck. We happen to have a few ideas on what you should look for, before you fork over your credit card and sign the papers and buy a new used car.

Look at the tires. Even at a trusted dealership, the tires might be relatively threadbare. You’ve heard of people kicking the tires before buying a car – well, no need to do that, but that’s the premise behind doing it. The dealership is likely going to give you a car with tires that are full and have adequate tire pressure, but check the thread. You can always do the famous penny test, where you stick a penny, with Lincoln’s hair downward into the grooves of the tread at the top of the tire. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, you’re buying a car with tires that aren’t going to last long. Now, if the car is otherwise awesome, that may not be a big deal to you – buy the car and then buy some new tires.

But whatever you do, it would be nice to buy a car that doesn’t have a tire go flat a few hours after you drive off the lot.

Look under the hood. Even if you don’t know a spark plug from an oil filter, take a look at the engine. If you see corrosion, or oil leaks or a crack in the radiator, those would be bad signs. Most dealerships are going to have the engine looking just fine, so there’s no guarantee that a bright and shiny engine means that this is a great car. But take a look, anyway, just for your own peace of mind. And if you have time, as we’ve said before, feel free to test drive the car over to Milex Complete Auto Care, and we’ll tell you if we think you have a winner or a possible lemon.

Check out the Car Fax. Those CarFax reports, which come free with used cars, really are handy. If it looks like your used car has been to the shop for regular maintenance, like oil changes and tune-ups, or maybe a new set of tires, that’s a good sign. The previous owner has been taking care of this car. If the car has barely ever been taken in, and especially if the mileage is high, that could be a sign that the previous owner drove the car a lot but rarely, if ever, did any maintenance. You still may want to buy the car, but that would make it even more smart to drive the car over to Milex Complete Auto Care beforehand, so our mechanics can tell you if everything looks good or a car that will need a new head gasket soon. Or, if you feel good about buying the car, you still may want to bring it in soon for a tune-up, unless the dealership has made it clear that the car has been checked out by its mechanics.

Careful about buying an “as is” car. That means you’re buying the car with any potential mechanical problems. You probably aren’t going to get a warranty, in other words, and of course if you’re purchasing it from an individual, you definitely won’t receive one. So it’s all the more important to get your car checked out before you buy it. Yes, all states have “lemon laws,” but most of those laws apply towards people buying new cars. Only a handful of states actually have lemon laws that involved used cars.

Check to make sure the car hasn’t been recalled. If you really want to be safe, all used cars (as long as you’re buying something manufactured in 1981 or newer) should have a VIN (vehicle identification number). The VIN has 17 numbers and letters. With the VIN, go to www.safercar.gov, and you can see if the vehicle has been recalled. For instance, you don’t want to end up buying a car that was involved in that air bag recall (unless, of course, the air bag problem was fixed).

Take a test drive. It’s obvious, so we won’t spend much time on this, and we’ve already suggested you take a test drive. But it’s definitely not something you want to skip. If you are buying a used car, drive it around for a little while – don’t assume that just because it looks shiny and new that everything is right with the car. For instance, maybe the car’s engine light will be on during the entire test drive. That’s a pretty good warning right there that this isn’t necessarily a car you want to buy.

Because, after all, while we hope to see you around with your car – we want it to be on your terms, when you decide to bring it in to have it services. We’d like you to be able to avoid having to bring in your car every other month or so because something has gone wrong. So, yes, the price of a used car is important, but how it’s been treated by the previous owner or owners may be even more so.

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