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How do I choose a good used car?


Published February 26, 2021

Compared to buying a new car, finding a good used car poses some challenges. Because brand new cars quickly depreciate in value, it’s actually a good practice to drive used cars and replace them regularly. We’re going to explain some of the most important aspects to consider when buying a used car to ensure that you get the most out of the purchase.

Budget & Market Value

Whether you have a set budget or a particular model in mind, you’ll need to do extensive research of the market to get an idea of how much any model costs. Websites for private car sales are a good place to start, followed by used car dealerships.

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When searching by budget, set it to at least 20% less than your limit, and fill in your requirements to narrow down the search. Once you find the most appealing models, make individual searches within their category, to get the full range of prices and what to expect. The 20% you’ve deducted can now come in handy if you find a really nice model.

When you look at the cheapest options, you should exercise caution. If you were a seller, you’d check the market for a realistic price of your car. Unless there’s something wrong with the car, or you’re in a rush to sell it, there’s no reason to offer it cheaper than others.

Maintenance Costs & Known Issues

When you find the right car within your budget, it’s time to see what others have to say about the model. Manufacturing flaws tend to reveal themselves in five-year intervals, with the first one happening after the warranty expires.

Browse the forums, look for opinions and experiences from other drivers. Rust, fuel injectors, turbochargers, and transmission issues can be an instant dealbreaker, as parts and labor could easily surpass the value of the car. Even if there’s nothing problematic with the vehicle, certain parts have an expected mileage lifespan, so take that into the account.

Check how much it would cost to do regular service, the price of tires, or a car battery. A large SUV might have the same price as a compact car, but the upkeep in expendable parts will quickly make the difference obvious. Lastly, take a look at headlamp, taillights, mirrors, and windshield prices to know how much it would cost you to replace them should they get broken.

Inspecting the car

When exploring a car, you can never be too thorough. Make a list of every feature, button, and knob on the car, and test them one by one. This may be tedious, but you don’t want to buy a car only to find out when winter hits that the heater doesn’t work.

The Exterior

You can quickly tell a lot about a car by looking at the exterior. Signs of neglect, like scratches, bumps, and dirt indicate that the car wasn’t well maintained. Bring a flashlight and try to see as much of the underbody as possible. Wheel arches are a weak spot for rust resistance, and bubbling paint as a clear sign.

Look at the body from different angles and lighting - slight tone differences indicate repainted or replaced parts, which is typically a sign of a previous crash. Check the tire tread and year of manufacture, as you’ll have to buy another set if they are worn.

The Interior

True mileage of a car might not be evident on the exterior, but there are red flags on the interior if the odometer has been tampered with. Although higher end vehicles have more durable interior finishes, the usual signs of wear can be seen on the door upholstery, driver’s seat, steering wheel, gear shifter, and heating/AC control.

Some sellers are aware of this, so they’ll replace the cheaper parts to mask the wear, but if you know what you’re looking for, this won’t trick you. Make sure to test as much as you can, especially heating, AC, cruise control, and the infotainment/radio system.

The Engine

Even if your knowledge of the engine is limited, there are steps you can take to get an idea of how it was maintained. Engine oil levels have to be perfect, and oil must not be muddy or contain granules. Take a look at all the fluid containers to see whether everything is at an acceptable level.

There’s a number of engine issues that can be hidden once the engine gets warm, so it’s important to check everything when it’s cool. Cold start is the best way to spot problems with the car battery or alternator. It can also reveal rattling, problematic idle, and other issues the engine might have.

During the test drive, don’t be afraid to step on the gas and see if the acceleration is uneven or causes noise. Press hard on the brakes a few times, and listen for noise that may indicate worn-out brake discs and caliper pads. If you can, plan a route where you’ll drive over a few speed bumps to test out the suspension.

Talk with the Owner

A well-maintained used car should have a service book detailing when regular maintenance was done, and what parts were replaced. Even if the owner did most of the repairs themselves, they most likely kept the receipts. Ask a variety of questions, and do your best to gauge whether they’re answering truthfully, or if they’re trying to hide something.

Summary

We sincerely hope that by this point, you know a little more about choosing a good used car than you did before. As long as you keep a level head, do your research and inspection, you will end up with a reliable vehicle that is going to last you for years.

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