Financially speaking, it’s smarter to buy a used car than a new car. Used cars depreciate at a slower rate, meaning they retain more of their original value after being purchased. Statistics show that new cars lose about 10 percent of their original value the moment they are driven off the lot. And after a year, they lose an additional 10 percent to 30 percent of their original value. Used cars can still suffer from depreciation but at a much slower rate than their new counterparts.
Even with their cost-saving benefits, though, some consumers are reluctant to buy a used car, fearing they could end up with a lemon. If a car was previously owned, how do you know that it was properly maintained and is safe to drive? Here are 12 things to look for when buying a used car to ensure you get the right vehicle for the right price.
One of the first things to look for when buying a used car is to inspect the odometer to see how many miles the used car has been driven. High-mileage cars are more likely to have underlying problems that require fixing than low-mileage cars. This shouldn’t prevent you from buying a high-mileage car, however. Prior to the 1990s, most cars lasted an average of 100,000 miles. Cars manufactured past the 1990s now last for nearly 200,000 miles on average. When maintained according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, modern cars can reach 300,000 or more miles easily. Just remember to consider a used car’s mileage relative to its price, and don’t overpay for a high-mileage car.
2) Check Engine Lights
The malfunction indicator lamp (MIL), or what’s more commonly known as the check engine light, is an integral part of a car’s engine control unit (ECU). Displayed on the dashboard, it flashes in short intervals when a severe problem is detected and remains solid when a minor problem is detected. If you see the check engine light illuminated in a used car, ask the seller if he or she knows what’s causing it. It could be something as simple as a loose gas cap, or it could be a clogged catalytic converter — a more expensive problem to fix.
3) Climate Control System
Heating and air conditioning is something that many drivers take for granted. It’s only when a car’s climate control system stops working that drivers realize its importance. To ensure you aren’t left sweating in summer or freezing in winter, inspect the used car’s climate control system. After turning on the air conditioner and setting the dial to the coldest setting, you should feel cold air coming out the vents. When the air conditioner is turned off and the dial is moved to the hottest setting, you should feel warm air coming out the vents. In either case, you should not feel room-temperature air, which could otherwise indicate an expensive problem with the car’s air conditioner or heater core.
4) Tire Tread
Inspect the used car’s tire to see how much tread they have left. If they are too worn, you’ll need to replace them to reduce the risk of a blowout while driving. Buying a new set of tires isn’t cheap. Depending on the size, brand and type, you can expect to pay about $50 to $150 per tire. Therefore, you should factor in this cost if you are thinking of buying a used car with worn tires.
Using a tire tread depth tool, you can see exactly how much tread is remaining. If there are less than 0.0625 inches left, you should replace them. Alternatively, you can place a penny head-first into the tread. If there are more than 0.0625 inches of tread, Abraham Lincoln’s head will be completed concealed, in which case you won’t need to replace them.
5) Body Damage
Of course, you should inspect the used car for body damage. Go around the car’s exterior and look for signs of damage to the bumper, front end, doors and side panels. Dents, deep scratches and worn paint are all common signs of damage. Aside from being an eyesore, body damage such as this is expensive to repair. If you discover body damage that the seller didn’t disclose, however, you can ask the seller if he or she will either fix it or lower the car’s price so that you can fix it yourself.
6) Headlights and Tail Lights
If you’re shopping for a used car during the day, you may forget to check the headlights and tail lights. But when the sun drops and you’re unable to see the road, you’ll quickly realize your mistake. Before buying a used car, turn on the headlights from the driver’s seat. This should engage both the headlights on the front of the car as well as the tail lights on the rear. If a headlight or tail light doesn’t come on, you may be able to fix it by replacing it with a new halogen bulb for about $20. However, it could also be a bad headlight or tail light assembly, which can costs $200 to $700 to replace.
Consisting of struts or shocks as well as springs, connectors and other components, the suspension system is responsible for absorbing shock. If a used car that you are considering buying has a bad suspension system, it may cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500 to replace.
You can check the suspension by getting behind the wheel for a test drive. When going over bumps and turning corners, the car should drive smooth and quiet. If the car bumps heavily or produces an unusual noise, such as a squealing or grinding noise, this could indicate a worn suspension system.
8) Engine Oil
With the hood bonnet popped open, locate the engine and remove the oil dipstick. Next, wipe the dipstick clean with a paper towel or washcloth, reinsert it back into the engine, and remove it once again. If the oil is lower than the “low” mark on the dipstick, it means the engine doesn’t have enough oil. This could be attributed to human error from the last time the engine oil was changed, or it could represent a more serious problem like an oil leak. Either way, you should think twice before buying a used car with low oil levels.
When inspecting the oil dipstick, pay attention to the color of the oil. Healthy oil has a light brown, amber color when the engine is warm. When the engine is cold, it’s a slightly darker amber due to the condensed, low-viscosity properties of the cold oil. Black oil, whether the engine is cold or warm, indicates either that it was overheated or that it contains a substantial amount of contaminants.
9) Exhaust Gas
The color of a used car’s exhaust gas can provide insight into how well it was maintained. With the car running but parked, walk around to the rear and look at the tailpipe. If the engine is healthy, the tailpipe will emit transparent, colorless exhaust gas. If the exhaust gas white, on the other hand, the car may have a warped cylinder head or blown head gasket that’s allowing coolant to enter the combustion chamber.
Back exhaust gas is also a telltale sign of a neglected used car. Exhaust gas turns black when the engine burns an excessive amount of fuel, which can be caused by a dirty air filter, clogged fuel injectors or malfunctioning sensors.
Never buy a used car without first inspecting the interior. It may look pristine on the outside, but the interior could be torn and riddled with stains. Inspect the seats, headliner, door panels and other areas of the interior for damage. And if the interior smells like cigarette smoke, there’s a good chance the previous owner smoked driving it. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate cigarette smoke odor from a car’s interior. You can mask it with air fresheners, but it will likely return once the air freshener has dried out. If the upholstery is severely damaged, expect to pay about $500 to $1,500 to replace it.
If the radiator on a used car is faulty, you may have trouble keeping the engine temperature in check. The radiator is a critical automotive component that protects the engine from overheating. It features a series of tubes through which coolant flows. As coolant flows through the radiator, one or more fans spin to cool it with air.
When inspecting the radiator, look for signs of spilled coolant. If the coolant is fresh, it will appear as a green or blue liquid. If the coolant has dried and evaporated, it will appear as a white powder. Both are problematic because the radiator, along with the car’s cooling system, is closed so that coolant doesn’t leak. Coolant only escapes the radiator when there’s a problem with the car’s cooling system.
12) Transmission Fluid
Like engine oil, you should check the used car’s transmission fluid to see if it’s low. Transmission fluid is responsible for lubricating the gears and parts inside of the transmission. If it’s low, the previous owner either didn’t change it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations or the transmission is leaking. To check the transmission fluid level of a used car, pull the dipstick and look to see how far up the oil goes.
Buying a used car be unnerving. If you fail to thoroughly inspect it, you may find yourself with expensive repair bills later down the road. So, use these 12 things to look for when buying a used car. It could save you some headaches down the road.