Guide to Buying A Used Car

The process of buying a used car can be one of two things- either a nightmare, or a great way to get behind the wheel of your dream car if you cannot afford a new model of your favorite car. However, buying a used car is a process that is often fraught with potential mistakes, miscommunication with the seller, or even police involvement when you unknowingly buy a car that is still the subject of a prior agreement with a financial institution.

Buying a used car can also be nerve racking experience, even if all turns out well in the end, so to help you make the process as painless as possible, we have compiled a list of what to do, what to look out for, and when to avoid a used car when you are shopping for your dream car.

Set A Budget

It is easy to forget about the charges, fees, and taxes that go with buying a car. Once you have decided how much you are willing to pay for a car, add the relevant fees, taxes, inspection/registration fees, but also do not forget that there is no such thing as a perfect used car.
Used cars that are covered by the balance of the original warranty may not present much of a problem, but for cars that are not covered by warranties, the situation is slightly different. It is very likely that older cars will not pass emission and other inspections, which means that you need to add an amount to the purchase price to cover the costs of repairs.
However, it is foolish to budget more than about 7- to 10% of the car’s purchase price for repairs, so before you sign anything, insists that the car is tested and that all relevant certificates and permits are issued before you hand over any money. Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to have ready money available to pay for minor repairs after purchasing the car, provided that the repairs never require more than 10% of the car’s value.

Confirm Ownership

Do full researches into car’s history even before you take it for a test drive? Check to see that the current registration documents reflect the sellers details, that there is no money outstanding on it, and that it is not the subject of any type of legal proceeding.
Also check that the car had not been involved in accidents, and that it was not rebuilt from two, or even three other cars- which is a common practice the word over. Rebuilt cars can never have the structural strength of unaltered cars, which means that should you be involved in an accident, you and your passengers could be fatally injured because the car will not be able to absorb the impact forces in the same way an unaltered car would have. Avoid the car if there is evidence of structural alterations because it is a danger to you, and everyone else on the road.

Check The Service & Maintenance Records

A vehicle without a service record is the same as a person without a birth certificate, since it could be anything the seller wants it to be. Without a service record, you have no way of telling if the car had received all of its prescribed services- regardless of the claims of the seller to this effect.

If however, you are presented with service records, carefully check that all invoices, work orders, or other documentation are in fact in respect of the car you are interested in. Unscrupulous dealers or private sellers will often “bulk up” a service record by including irrelevant invoices and work orders, so make sure that the car’s details (license number, VIN number, description, etc.) appear on all invoices and work orders. Avoid the car if you discover irrelevant or incorrect documents.

Check All Accessible Fluid Levels

Check the engine oil, and confirm that the level is up to the mark. However, check that the oil does not appear dark, “tarry”, or has a burnt smell that could indicate recent overheating. If any of these signs are present, avoid the car because it either has not received proper care and attention, or it has overheated- in which case the repairs could cost more than what the car is worth. One sure sign of overheating is the presence of a milky white residue on the underside of the oil filer cap, so remove the cap to check this.
Check the coolant to see that it is up to the mark, and clear of rust, oil, or sediment of any kind or colour. Coolant that is not clear is a bad sign, and could indicate lack of maintenance, or worse, overheating.

Also check the brake fluid to see that the reservoir is full, and that the fluid is not dark, or even black in colour. Fresh brake fluid is amber in colour, and a dark colour is a sure sign that the brake fluid is old, and has not been changed in several years. Approach the vehicle with some circumspection from this point on.

Check The Tyre’s

Check, and confirm that all the tyres, including the spare, are of the same make, size, and construction. Differences in the tyres more often than not indicate a rush to sell the car. Many dealers or sellers often fit any tyre on car to hide defects in the steering and/or suspension that cause incorrect wheel alignment. If the tyres are different, ask for an explanation, and if the seller appears uncomfortable or insincere, avoid the car because he is trying to hide something.

Check the Electrics

So far so good. All the paper work checked out, and by this time you will have noticed that there are no broken lights, widows, or external mirrors. Now is the time to turn on everything that works with electricity. Check that the power windows open close properly without any sign of jerkiness. Also check that the headlights, indicators, interior lights, and fog lights work, and that the alarm/security, and central locking system works on all the doors, hood, and trunk.  Also check the operation of the wipers, and seat adjustments if they are electrically operated.

Start the Engine

The engine should start immediately, without excessive cranking, and certainly without strange noises, or any smoke emerging from the tail pipe. Smoke on start-up is a bad sign, and the car is best avoided if there is blue, black, or white smoke on a gasoline engine. Diesels will sometimes emit a little black or white smoke on start-up, but if it does not clear in a few seconds, avoid the vehicle and search for your dream car elsewhere.

Let the engine warm up, and confirm that all the warning lights on the dashboard are extinguished. Allow the temperature gauge to reach “normal”, and check that the radiator fan switches on, and rotates at high speed. If it does not, avoid the vehicle since there is a big likelihood that the engine had overheated because the fan does not work as it should.

The engine should also idle at a constant speed, without any fluctuations, especially when the lights and/or A/C are turned on.  Check the A/C for correct operation, and listen out for any strange noises when the system is in operation. All you should hear is a faint “clicking” sound as the system cycles.

Test Drive The Car

Never test drive a car unless you had arranged suitable insurance, so with insurance in place, drive the car for at least 30 minutes over a variety of road surfaces, and at different speeds. Check that the transmission works perfectly, that there are no knocking, or thudding noises from any part of the car, and that there is no free play in the steering.
The steering should feel crisp and precise and the car should not tend to wander across the road, or pull to one side.  This is a bad sign, and the 10% of the price of the car you budgeted for repairs may not be enough to cover the type of repairs that could be required to correct this.
The brake pedal should feel firm, and not tend to sag towards the floor when you apply the brakes. There should also be no pulling to one side, vibrations on the steering wheel, or any kind of noise when you apply the brakes. Any or all of these are bad signs, and again, the repairs might run to more than you have budgeted for. At this point, it might be a good idea to end all negotiations, and to look for your dream car elsewhere.

Have The Car Inspected

Even though the test drive may not have shown up any serious issues, insist that the seller allow you to have the car inspected by a mechanic of your choice. This is important, since many faults such as serious oil leaks, damaged CV-joint boots, or the thickness (or lack of thickness) of the brake pads, and many others will not necessarily manifest during a test drive.

The cost of the inspection will of course be for your account, but considering the fact that to repair some oil leaks an engine or transmission must sometimes be partially, or in some cases even completely dismantled, the inspection could save you a ton of money in the long run.

No one can force you into buying anything, and the most valuable tip in any guide of this sort is to remember that you do not have to buy a car if you are not perfectly happy with it. If you are not knowledgeable about cars, do not hesitate to ask a professional mechanic to inspect the car on your behalf. If the seller has any objection to this, he is trying to hide serious faults and/or defects, and you are better off looking for your dream car elsewhere.