Used Car Shopping: Buy a Peach, Not a Lemon

Keep these tips in mind when searching for a used automobile.

A used car can be a great buy…or, it can be a disaster. Despite that uncertainty, used cars outsell new cars by more than 2 to 1. The reason is value. A used car with about 75 percent of its life expectancy left often sells for about half the price of a comparable new model.

If you’ve never considered a used car, or if you fear buying a lemon, here are some tips:

  • Begin looking before you need to buy. That will lessen the pressure and give you time to look at a variety of vehicles.
  • Take a friend or family member with you. Two sets of eyes are better than one. A disinterested third party can also help keep a buyer grounded in reality. When shopping, wear older clothes and take a notepad, flashlight and mirror.
  • Start by simply looking at the car, preferably in the daylight. Mismatched paint, body panels with uneven gaps, and small amounts of paint on door handles or rubber gaskets suggest substandard bodywork. The engine compartment should have an even coating of dust and dirt but no oily residues or signs of leakage. A squeaky-clean engine in an older car suggests the seller might have given it a thorough scrubbing to hide signs of leakage. If the engine is cold, check all the fluids.
  • Check the trunk for signs of rust by removing the spare tire, assuming that the car has one; not all do. While you are at it, make sure the car has all its tire-changing tools.
  • Use the mirror to look under open doors and under the body for rust or damage. Use the flashlight and mirror to look under seats and, if you can, under the instrument panel. Water stains or mud suggest flood damage.
  • Before starting the car, turn the key to the “on” position. Do all the warning lights work? If they do, start the engine while listening for unusual noises. The warning lights should go out and the gauges should respond correctly.
  • Check every system and accessory. That means operating every window, the door locks, climate control system, lights, horn and even the sunroof. Make notes of anything that does not work to your satisfaction.
  • Take the car for a test drive once you have verified its registration and insurance. Make sure your route includes the types of roads you typically use. You and your friend should look and listen for any possible problems. Be sure to drive the car long enough to completely warm up the engine. Then, at the end of your drive, open the hood and look for any fresh leakage of coolant or oil. Remember, the engine is hot, so don’t touch.
  • Keep a healthy skepticism when dealing with a private seller. Some individuals who seem friendly and honest are not. Always verify how long an individual has owned the car and determine who holds the title before proceeding.
  • Check for recalls at gov/recalls. You can also refer to a third-party vehicle history report such as those from Carfax or AutoCheck. Some dealers will provide this at no charge. In a private sale, you will probably end up paying.

    If after these checks the car seems like a good bet, it probably is. However, you should always take any vehicle you would like to buy to your own mechanic for a professional evaluation. This will cost you some money, but if the mechanic finds a major problem, not buying this lemon could save you thousands of dollars. If no problems are found, you can buy with greater confidence while a few minor problems unearthed in this examination can be used as a bargaining chip when negotiating the price. Or, have the seller address these problems before you buy.

A used car in good condition can provide years of trouble-free service, often at half the price of a new vehicle. Using these shopping techniques will help you steer clear of the lemons.

James MacPherson is a freelance automotive writer and broadcaster from South Windsor, Conn.

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