Smart people buy used cars. That is a pithy piece of financial advice that has gained currency through the past several years. It’s a concept we at Driving Today have accepted and shared for several years now, but things are a bit different today than they were in past years. Previously owned vehicles are built better, last longer and deliver more reliable service than ever before, and thanks to the strong sales years the auto industry enjoyed recently, used cars are now available in abundance. But the overall increase in new car prices has boosted used-car values. This doesn’t mean a used car isn’t a good move, but it does raise the stakes on the individual used car you choose. It also implies that you should be even more thorough in your inspection of a prospective purchase before you buy.
One good first step is a vehicle inspection by a professional mechanic. Finding the right mechanic might be a bit of a daunting task, but it could well be worth the effort. A thorough inspection might cost $50 to $100, but if the technician discovers a major defect, it will pay for itself immediately. Here’s what a good used-vehicle inspection should entail:
Spend Time Under the Hood
It is hard to get a good look at various vehicle components in a typical late-model vehicle’s engine bay these days, but making the effort is important because any buildup of dirt or oil can indicate mechanical problems. Dirty or thick engine oil and sludge in the engine may indicate a lack of routine maintenance by the previous owners. Rattling noises heard while the engine is at idle can mean incorrect tuning or excessive wear.
Check Major Systems
The transmission and driveline, cooling system and brakes are three systems of vital importance. When inspecting the transmission, technicians test for smooth gear changes and listen for any rattles or knocking noises. These noises can indicate worn constant-velocity joints — expensive. Radiator coolant should be clean and brightly colored. Oil in the coolant may indicate a cracked cylinder head or a leaking gasket. A properly operating vehicle should stop smoothly and in a straight line when the brakes are applied, and the pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy.
Don’t Forget to Road Test
During a test drive, technicians look for excessive body lean or wandering on straight roads, which can be a sign of worn suspension or misaligned steering. Vibrations in the steering can have a number of causes, but none of them is good. Stops should be sure and drama-free.
Look Closely at the Body
The vehicle’s panel surfaces should be inspected for overall fit and possible damage, since loose side panels may indicate a past accident. Floor wells, doors and rocker panels should be checked for red stains and dimpled or bubbled paint, which can be signs of rust.
Since you probably don’t have experience repairing vehicles, it’s a good idea to have the vehicle inspected by your trusted mechanic. If you don’t have one, you should find one — for help in the purchase of a used car and for repairs and maintenance later in your ownership period.