What to Look For When Buying a Used Car

 While many people rave about that “new car smell,” when it comes to buying a car, it's usually best to go with used vehicles. Buying a used car saves a lot of money, since new cars begin depreciating as soon as you drive them off the lot.

In fact, just leaving the dealership in your new set of wheels depreciates the car’s value by about 20%, and over the next year you’ll lose another 10%. Buying used allows you to get more car for your money. (And you can always buy a new car smell-scented air freshener.)

However, it’s important to know what to look for in a used car. All used cars are not created equal, and you’ll want to do some homework on the car you’re interested in buying, since some vehicles tend to need more repairs than others. Knowing what kind of mechanical issues might be more common in the car you’re interested in could help with the buying decision.

For example, Consumer Reports posts a comprehensive, searchable list of which used cars to avoid based on their reliability reports. If you’re interested in a certain vehicle, checking this list before you make a deal could save you time, money and headaches.

Buying From an Individual vs. Buying From a Dealer

There are two ways to buy a used car: either from a private seller or from a dealer. Each has its advantages as well as downsides, so you’ll want to consider what each one has to offer. Here are some of the factors that differentiate them:

Knowledge of the car. Unlike a dealer, a private seller will have first-hand knowledge of the vehicle’s history. Although not all sellers are entirely truthful when trying to strike a deal, there are many good private sellers and it can be helpful to learn more about the car’s background.

Price. A dealer needs to make a profit on the car, while a private seller might just try to get “what they can.” They may be willing to take a lower price, so it’s possible to get a lower purchase price from an individual.

Financing. If you don’t have the money to buy a car up front and need financing, you’ll soon discover that financing a used car is not as easy as financing a new one. Banks are sometimes reluctant to finance a vehicle from a private seller, which makes working with a reputable dealer your better option.

Regardless of whether you go with a dealer or an individual, get the vehicle identification number (VIN) of the car you're interested in and check its history using CarFax or AutoCheck. It’s also a good idea to visit safercar.gov and make sure the vehicle hasn’t been recalled.

Common Problems to Look For in Used Cars

Knowing what to look for in a seller is just the start of your research when buying a used car. Previously owned vehicles can come with their own set of issues based on their histories. Looking for the right things can keep you from buying a dud when you thought you were getting your dream car. Here are a few red flags to watch for:

Gauges and Warning Lights That Don’t Work

Today’s cars rely on warning lights to alert drivers to dangers, so check to see that they’re operating properly. In some cases, dealers might tamper with a light to keep it from coming on and alerting the buyer to a potential issue. From removing bulbs to placing black tape inside the panel to conceal the light, there are many ways to keep them from lighting up, so when you start the engine, make sure all the warning lights on the dash light up.

Brakes That Are Too "Soft"

Braking a car should be a decisive action; if the car’s brakes feel spongy, need pumping or sink too far when braking, that’s a big sign of trouble to come. Brakes have many different components that can need repair, ranging from a simple brake fluid flush to a costly master cylinder repair. In addition to checking how the brakes respond, have the hard brake line inspected for rust or weak, corroded spots that can result from chemicals used to rid the roads of snow in Ohio’s winter season.

A Noisy Exhaust System

As an exhaust system reaches the end of its life, a car will begin making louder noises. This could be caused by any number of issues, but it shouldn’t be ignored. If exhaust fumes are leaking into the car, it can put you and your passengers at risk, and it also affects your fuel efficiency and decreases the overall lifespan of your car.

Failing Electrical Components

So many features of today’s cars are operated electronically, from door locks and windows to the windshield washer pump and windshield wipers. Make sure you check each feature to see they’re working properly. Replacing these components can add up, and you don’t want to be left with windows that won’t roll up in a rainstorm or windshield wipers that don’t work.

Worn Shocks or Struts

Your car should have a smooth ride, not make you bounce around like you’re on a trampoline. A bouncy ride is one way to know that struts and shock absorbers need some attention; another telltale sign is uneven wear on the tires.

Unseen Structural Damage

While body repair after fender benders is fine, structural damage to your vehicle is another matter entirely. Crashes that have bent the frame or body structure cause damage that is difficult to repair properly and the vehicle may not be safe; it’s also difficult for the average person to detect. Because of that, your car should be inspected by a trusted, professional mechanic.

Looking for red flags and doing your research when buying a new car can ensure that you get a car that’s safe and reliable. Never buy a used car without having a trusted, professional mechanic inspect it thoroughly. Such an inspection can save you money and headaches, and might even save your life.

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