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Helminc.com eNewsletter Archive > 2006 eNewsletters > December > Tips for Buying a Used Vehicle

Tips for Buying a Used Vehicle

Do your homework first to save time and avoid a lemon!

Start with some general research. Do some reading to become familiar with some common (and potentially costly) pitfalls of purchasing a used car from an individual or dealer. The US Federal Trade Commission has published a helpful article on things to consider when purchasing a used vehicle. This article provides information on requirements dealers must abide by when selling a used car as well as financing, and many do’s and don’ts.


Whether you are buying or leasing a vehicle, these tips will help you get the best deal and avoid problems.

Once you start narrowing your search, consider repair records, consumer reviews, cost of insurance, fuel economy, in addition to the asking price. These car buyer guides provide information for the prospective car buyer including vehicle specifications, pricing, reviews, dealer locators, insurance information, financial calculators, and trade-in values for vehicles:

Check out the used car prices for the vehicle you are considering at Kelley Blue Book.

Found a promising deal?

Ask the seller to show you a CARFAX report for the vehicle. The report can help uncover odometer rollbacks, and serious accidents and damage from which the vehicle was salvaged or repaired.

Perform a Visual Inspection

  • Upholstery stains, cigarette burns, scratches, gouges, or cuts not only detract from the attractiveness of your potential new vehicle, but they may also indicate that the previous owner had a careless attitude with respect to caring for and maintaining the vehicle.
  • Look for signs of wear that are inconsistent with the odometer reading or claimed degree of use. For example, look at the wear on the brake pedal, floor well carpets, the exterior paint, etc. Remember to lift up those brand new floor mats installed by the seller to inspect the original carpet beneath to judge the wear!
  • Ask the owner to show you the maintenance records with the receipts from the service providers, if available. Check the dates and compare to the recommended service schedule in the owners manual.
  • In addition to scheduled maintenance, ask to see the documentation of all repairs made to the vehicle within the past 2 years (or more if available). Does it show a trend of increasing repair costs or frequency? Or, does it show that the car has a lot of new parts installed with a lot of life left in them?
  • Are the tires worn? Is the tread evenly worn, or excessively worn at the edges? Bring a penny with you and insert it between the treads with Lincoln's head pointing downward. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, then the tires should be replaced.
  • Check the suspension visually. Is the front of the car sitting higher or lower than the back end? If so, the springs could be worn. Check the shocks and struts by pushing down on the bumper and releasing. The car should bounce no more than once. If it bounces twice or more, the shocks or struts are likely worn.
  • Check the engine visually. Ensure the oil level is full. If it is not, it may indicate a leak or that the engine burns oil. The oil color should not be black, as this would indicate an overdue oil change. If there is an oil change sticker present on the windshield, consult the service due date and mileage to see how overdue the oil change might be. Also look for any fluid leaks under the hood and on the pavement below.

Start your engines!

  • Start the engine and listen for unusual noises, vibrations, or anything else out of the ordinary. Ensure there is no smoke coming from the tailpipe. Let the engine warm up and race the engine a bit, again, listening and feeling for unusual sounds or vibrations.
  • Test-drive the vehicle. Pay attention to how the car sounds and feels. Does it shake or rattle? Are there vibrations? Does the car pull to the left or the right? These are all signs that some repairs or maintenance are in order.
  • As an extra precaution, you may wish to bring the car to a trusted mechanic of your choosing to be inspected.

Is that car still looking good? Great! Before you make your final decision...

  • Check the cost of insurance with your agent. Insurance costs vary widely due to many factors. As a significant cost of driving, it should be checked out in advance.
  • Read reviews and consumer publications that evaluate reliability, repair records, and cost of parts for the specific make, model, and year of the vehicle you are considering.
  • Call the U.S. Department of Transportation's Auto Safety Hotline (1-800-424-9393) to get information on recalls.

Everything checks out! Close the deal.

  • Consult with your local Department of Motor Vehicles, Secretary of State, or other government agency responsible for vehicle titles and registration to get the proper procedures and paperwork in advance of the purchase.
  • Enjoy your new car and rest easy that you have eliminated a number of common pitfalls involved in many used car purchases.
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