There’s a lot to consider in used car
Q: Is there a way to tell for sure if a used car is a good one to buyâ¢ When I look at the used cars at several car dealerships, they all look so nice, but I wonder how they were taken care of or what problems may be concealed. Any suggestions you have would be appreciated.
— Myra Rollins
A: Buying a used car is always a bit of a gamble, but with the right inspection tools, the odds of buying a bad one can be reduced. A certified pre-owned vehicle found at a dealership seems a safe avenue, as these cars are closely inspected and carry a warranty. This added level of protection does come at a price, and when you compare the true cost of ownership, including financing rates and new-vehicle incentives, and the high resale value of some popular models, one may find it makes more sense to buy a new one. A 4- or 5-year-old certified pre-owned vehicle — near the age limit for most programs — that has incurred steeper price depreciation makes the most sense to me.
A CARFAX report detailing vehicle history and Kelley Blue Book value are good tools, if offered by the seller or undertaken by the buyer for a vehicle being considered. As remarkable as this report may be in uncovering past issues — such as sales transactions, insurance claims and odometer irregularities, as well as other history — it cannot be guaranteed to be 100 percent complete or accurate. I’d view this as a good way to discredit a bad vehicle, but only one of several methods needed to qualify a good vehicle.
A comprehensive vehicle inspection, such as that offered by AAA, or a diverse services repair shop is the next tool. A thorough inspection will verify many aspects of mechanical condition, trouble code and emissions monitor status, and hopefully a skilled eye for damage, abuse, and the level of wear and tear. I prefer to see a vehicle prior to it being professionally detailed, as one can get a better feel for the previous owner’s level of care. If vehicle maintenance records have been kept and are available, that’s a big plus.
Next is the visual/functional inspection and road test, preferably after a cold engine start. Is the engine quiet at all timesâ¢ Does the transmission shift smoothly, yet firmâ¢ Does the vehicle wander, clunk, rattle or squeak when driving across irregular pavementâ¢ Are the gauges within preferred ranges and indicators known to work, yet remain offâ¢ How do the doors open and close, and do the windows operate smoothlyâ¢ Are there odd odors or condition details pertaining to upholstery or paintâ¢ Any signs of body-part misalignment, repainting or repairs?
How are the under-hood fluids — are they clean and fully filledâ¢ Do they smell goodâ¢ How about fluid leakage from beneath the vehicle and at the passenger side floor, body rust, looseness of mechanisms such as the gear shift, doors, windowsâ¢ With greater age, one must accept a progression of minor faults — comparing one vehicle to the next is a good idea to determine what is acceptable versus irregular. If needed, bring a friend who has an eye for these things.
Two final checks: A clear title (not salvaged), and a tour of used car values at Kelley Blue Book’s website, kbb.com. I’d prefer a high-mileage car in excellent condition over a somewhat rougher one with lower mileage.