10 Things You Must Know Before Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car can be a smart financial decision. It often allows you to get more value for your money compared to purchasing a new vehicle. Understanding what to look for when buying a used car is crucial to ensure you make a good investment.

A used car surrounded by checklist items: mileage, maintenance records, vehicle history report, test drive, inspection, price negotiation, financing options, warranty, insurance, and final paperwork

You may find used cars in great condition and reasonably priced, but it's important to be cautious. By being informed about key factors, you can avoid potential pitfalls and make a more confident decision.

1. Check Maintenance Records

When buying a used car, checking the maintenance records is crucial. These records provide insights into how well the car has been cared for.

Look for regular oil changes, as these are essential for engine health. Frequent inspections and timely repairs can indicate a well-maintained car.

Pay attention to any major repairs noted in the records. Repeated issues could hint at underlying problems.

Make sure the car has had regular servicing according to the manufacturer's schedule. This includes things like brake checks and timing belt replacements.

Verify that the car has received periodic updates. Regular service updates from the dealership or a certified mechanic are a good sign.

Ask for documentation of all services performed. If the seller cannot provide these records, it may be a red flag.

Compare the maintenance records with the car's mileage. A car with high mileage should show more frequent maintenance activities.

You can find maintenance records in a Vehicle History Report. These reports can give you a clear picture of the car's past care.

Inspecting these records will help you make a more informed decision and potentially save you from future headaches.

2. Inspect for Rust

A car with visible rust on the exterior, particularly around the wheel wells and undercarriage. The rust may appear as orange or brown spots and could be flaking or bubbling

Checking for rust is essential when buying a used car to avoid future problems. Start by examining the car's exterior, especially areas like the wheel wells, panels beneath the doors, and door bottoms. These spots are prone to rust and can be easy to overlook.

Ask the seller if you can take the car to a mechanic. A professional can put it on a lift and inspect the underside. Pay close attention to the frame rails and the vehicle’s undercarriage, which are common areas for rust.

Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk. Look at the seams and edges where metal parts meet. Rust often begins in these areas and spreads, weakening the structure of the car. Check the condition of the paint for bubbling or peeling, as this can indicate rust underneath the surface.

Inspect the car’s exhaust system and suspension components. These parts are exposed to the elements and can rust over time. Ensuring they are rust-free will help you avoid expensive repairs down the line.

For additional tips and a more in-depth guide on how to spot rust, you can refer to the article on Autotrader.

3. Examine the Tires

When buying a used car, it's crucial to take a close look at the tires. Start by checking if all four tires match in type and size. Mismatched tires might indicate poor maintenance or potential past damage.


Look at the tread depth to make sure the tires have enough life left. Use a tread depth gauge or a simple penny test—insert a penny into the tread with Lincoln's head down. If you see all of Lincoln's head, the tread is too low.

Inspect the tires for any signs of dry rot, cracks, or bulges. These are indicators of aging and can be unsafe. Also, check for uneven wear, which might point to alignment issues or damaged suspension parts.

Consider the age of the tires. Tires have a manufacturing date printed on them, usually a four-digit number on the sidewall. The first two digits represent the week, while the last two digits show the year. Tires older than six years should generally be replaced.

By following these steps, you can ensure that the tires on the used car are safe and reliable. For more detailed advice, you can read about these tips in Kelley Blue Book and Consumer Reports.

Read more: How Long Will Tires Last With Cords Showing?

4. Verify VIN Number

Before purchasing a used car, verifying the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is crucial. Each car has a unique VIN that helps track its history.

You can check the VIN with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). This ensures the car isn’t stolen or associated with any crimes. It’s a very simple way to safeguard your purchase.

The VIN can also be checked through a Vehicle History Report from services like Kelley Blue Book. This report provides information about past accidents, repairs, and ownership.

Another good idea is to ask local police to verify if the VIN matches any stolen vehicle lists. They can confirm the car's legal status quickly.

Make sure the VIN on the car matches the one on the title and registration. This helps avoid cars with altered or fake numbers.

Remember, verifying the VIN protects you from buying a problematic car. It’s a simple step but very important in the car-buying process.

5. Review the Title

When buying a used car, always review the title carefully. This document shows ownership history and can reveal if the car has any liens. Make sure the name on the title matches the seller's ID.

Check the odometer reading on the title against the car's odometer. Any discrepancies might suggest tampering. Verify the title is not labeled as "salvage" or "rebuilt" unless you’re aware of the previous damage.

It's also important to ensure there are no outstanding loans on the vehicle. If the previous owner fails to repay the debt, the lender can repossess the car with a lien. For added security, request a vehicle history report.

If the dealer can't produce the title, walk away from the deal. Never finalize a purchase without this crucial document in hand. Taking these steps can help you avoid future headaches and ensure you’re making a solid investment.

6. Examine the Interior

When you step into the car, the first thing to notice is the smell. A strong odor of smoke can be difficult and expensive to remove.

Check the seats for any signs of wear and tear. Look for tears, stains, or sagging upholstery.

Car interior
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Test all the controls on the dashboard. Make sure the air conditioning, heater, and stereo work properly.

Inspect the carpets and floor mats. Lift them to check for any signs of water damage or mold.

Tip: When checking the smell of a used car, be cautious if it has a strong deodorizer scent. Sellers might use these to mask unpleasant odors like mold, mildew, or smoke, which could indicate deeper issues. Take time to identify any underlying smells, as they can signal potential problems with the car's interior or past water damage.

Ensure all interior lights work, including the ones in the glove compartment and trunk.

Test the seatbelts to ensure they function correctly and are not frayed.

Look at the headliner (the material on the ceiling). Check if it's sagging or stained. This could indicate leaks.

Open and close all compartments. Make sure the glove box, center console, and other storage areas latch properly.

Test the windows to see if they roll up and down smoothly. Don't forget to check the sunroof if the car has one.

Finally, sit in the back seats and test those areas as well. Ensure they're as comfortable and functional as the front seats.

7. Look Under the Hood

When buying a used car, checking under the hood is crucial. Start by ensuring the engine is off, the transmission is in "Park," and the parking brake is applied. Look for leaks and signs of burnt oil or coolant.


Inspect the engine bay. A bit of dirt is normal, but a spotless engine bay might be a red flag. A recently cleaned engine could indicate attempts to hide issues.

Check the oil level and color. Fresh oil should be amber, not dark or gritty. Also, examine belts and hoses for cracks or wear. Worn belts can snap, and damaged hoses can leak.

Look for signs of shady repairs or lack of maintenance. Modifications, like aftermarket parts, can be a sign of racing. Unusual smells, especially of burnt oil, are warning signs.

Ask the seller if you can take the car to a mechanic before purchasing. If they refuse, it could indicate hidden problems. Reputable dealers should have no problem with this request.

Always trust your instincts. If something seems off, it’s better to walk away. Thorough inspection ensures you aren't buying trouble.

8. Check for Recalls

Before buying a used car, make sure to check for recalls. A recall means the car manufacturer has found a defect that could affect safety. Ignoring recalls could put you and your passengers at risk.

You can use the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) to check for recalls on various websites. One helpful resource is Autotrader.

Car in service area in dealership
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Don't just take the seller's word for it. Verify that any recall services have been completed. You can also ask a mechanic to double-check for any unresolved recalls.

Dealerships are required to fix recalled parts before selling a car. Still, it's smart to confirm this yourself. Checking for recalls only takes a few minutes but can save you from future problems.

You can learn more about recall checks from Consumer Reports. Following this step ensures you’re buying a safer car.

9. Test Drive at Different Speeds

When you take a used car for a test drive, make sure to drive at different speeds. This will help you understand how the car handles in various situations. Start by driving at a low speed. Listen for any unusual noises and pay attention to how smoothly the car accelerates.

woman test driving a car
Photo credit: Shutterstock

After you are comfortable, increase to a moderate speed. Notice how the vehicle shifts gears and responds to your inputs. Check the handling, and ensure the car remains stable. If possible, take the car out on a highway to test at higher speeds.

On the highway, observe how the engine performs under stress. Check for any vibrations or strange noises when driving fast. Ensure the braking system works effectively when slowing down from higher speeds. Testing at different speeds gives a clearer picture of the car's overall condition.

Remember to also consider other factors like wind noise and cabin comfort. Each speed can reveal unique aspects of the car's performance. This way, you can make a more informed decision.

For more tips on test-driving cars, you can refer to Edmunds or CARFAX.

10. Test All Lights

Check that all the lights on the car are working correctly. This includes headlights, taillights, brake lights, and turn signals. Turn on the headlights and make sure they both come on and are bright.

Switch the headlights between low and high beams to ensure both settings work. Don't forget to test the fog lights if the car has them.

Check the taillights and brake lights. Have someone press the brake pedal while you stand behind the car to see if the brake lights turn on. Make sure the turn signals flash properly on both sides.

Car light
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Inspect the reverse lights by putting the car in reverse with the engine running (be careful to secure the vehicle). The reverse lights should illuminate when the gear is engaged.

Lastly, check the interior lights. These include overhead lights, dashboard lights, and lights in the glovebox. Ensuring all these lights work is crucial for your safety and to avoid any inconvenient repairs later.

Consider a Professional Inspection

Before buying a used car, it’s smart to have a professional inspection done. Even if you feel confident in your car knowledge, an expert can spot issues you might miss.

Benefits of a Professional Inspection:

  • Unbiased Opinion: Mechanics provide an objective view.
  • Thorough Check: They examine parts like the engine, transmission, and brakes.
  • Future Savings: Identifying problems now can save you repair costs later.

What to Expect During an Inspection:

Typically, the mechanic will -

  • Check under the hood for fluid levels, leaks, and worn parts.
  • Inspect the car’s exterior for rust, dents, and paint consistency.
  • Test drive the vehicle to check acceleration, braking, and handling.

Common Issues Found:

Issue Possible Concern
Oil Grit Excessive engine wear
Unusual Noises Problems with engine or suspension
Rust on Panels Potential structural weaknesses

Financing and Paperwork

A desk cluttered with car loan documents, credit reports, and insurance forms. A calculator, pen, and notepad sit nearby. A stack of car history reports and maintenance records is on the side

When buying a used car, it's crucial to understand your loan options and the necessary documentation needed to complete the sale. Learning these steps will help you make informed decisions and ensure a smooth transaction.

Understanding Loan Options

Start by checking your credit score when considering financing. Your credit history can impact the interest rate you qualify for.

Aim to secure a low-interest loan for more manageable monthly payments. Compare offers from banks, credit unions, and dealerships to find the best rates.

Consider pre-approval for a loan. This shows sellers you are serious and gives you a clear budget. Be wary of dealership financing; sometimes it's convenient, but can have higher rates. Reading the fine print, and understanding the terms and conditions, is essential.

Having a down payment can lower the amount you need to borrow, reducing your overall cost. Aim for at least 20% if possible. Remember, a higher credit score and a substantial down payment often lead to better loan terms.

Essential Documentation

Having the right paperwork is crucial for buying a used car. Start with a Bill of Sale. This document lists the terms of the sale, including the price, condition of the car, and any warranties. Both buyer and seller need to sign it.

Ensure the title is clear and transferred to your name. If the seller still owes money on the car, the title might be held by a lender. Verify there are no liens on the vehicle.

Don't forget a Vehicle History Report. This report will give you insights into the car's past, including accidents or major repairs. It's an essential document that can prevent future headaches.

Also, have proof of insurance before you drive away. Most states require it, and your lender will too. Talk to your insurance company to ensure you're covered as soon as you take ownership.

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