If you are shopping around for a previously owned vehicle, be sure to do your research before you go to the dealership. If you visit just to look around and see what they have available, you’ll probably end up leaving with a car that isn’t right for you. Most dealerships have in-depth online inventories you can peruse at your leisure at home. If you don’t already have a make and model in mind, see what used cars they have and research the ones you might be interested in. Websites can provide you with useful specs and information, and you can read about owners’ experiences on car forums. Find out whether the type of car you want has any common issues or trouble spots. That way, you’ll know what to look for.
When it comes time to visit the dealership, ask to see the car’s title. If it’s marked “salvage,” that means the car was probably previously totaled. If you can, run a vehicle history report so that you can find out whether it was salvaged, stolen, or recalled, and you’ll also get a list of the previous owners. You can also ask the dealership for the car’s service receipts to find out more about its history of mechanical issues.
Be sure to look over any used cars you are interested in for rust. Rust is notoriously difficult to deal with, and vehicles with rusted bodies don’t pass inspection in some states. Also look out for imperfections in the metal, such as crinkled, dented, or shiny areas, which suggest the car was repaired after an accident. Repairs from small crashes could serve used cars fine for the rest of their lives, but it’s important to make sure it was never in a huge collision. Make sure to look for any leaks underneath the car.
Pop open the hood and see if there’s anything amiss in the engine bay, such as stray wires. Using a white cloth, check the fluids. The brake fluid should be yellowish to light brownish, like the color of tea. If it’s dark brown to black, that means the brakes likely need to be bled. The oil should be brown. If it’s milky, there is probably coolant in the sump, and if it contains flakes of metal, which means the engine is tearing itself up. The transmission fluid should be red to purplish, not brown or black. Make sure none of the belts and hoses contain any cracks.
Finally, take any used cars you might buy for a test drive and see how they feel. Is it shifting jerkily? Is it making any worrisome sounds? Does it pull to one side? Use your judgment and trust your intuition to determine whether the vehicle is a smart buy.