What to Look for When Buying a Used Car: Smart Car-Buying Tips

By: // Updated: September 17, 2020

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Whether your car has reached the end of its lifetime or you’re seeking a vehicle that’s eligible for rideshare apps, you’re bound to make a car purchase at some point in your life. However, a brand new car will often exceed your budget by thousands of dollars, leading to more monthly payments than you’re looking for. If purchasing a pre-owned vehicle sounds like the best path for you, you’ll need to know what to look for when buying a used car to make the most informed decision possible.

The average cost of a used vehicle is just over $20,000, which is still no small investment for the average car buyer. This means you need to be confident that you’re purchasing the best type of car for your needs in the best possible condition you can afford.

This article will guide you through factors to consider when buying a used car and questions you should ask your seller.

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What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

What to look for when buying a used car

As soon as you have your budget in place for your vehicle, you can start browsing through used cars at your local dealership, online, or using your favorite car buying app. As you’re researching (and when you take a vehicle on a test drive for the first time), make sure to be aware of these four important factors that affect a vehicle’s condition:

1. Car Model

One of the most important steps in your research process is figuring out which vehicle is truly the right fit for your needs. You can use trusted resources like Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, or our Uber and Lyft car buying guide to learn about the features of car models you may be interested in.

A car’s model can also affect its longevity. Some car models, like the Toyota Camry (a rideshare driver favorite), are built to sustain more miles than the average sedan, while others may not even reach 200,000 miles. That said, your car model will affect the maximum mileage you should consider purchasing, how expensive repairs may be, and the types of rideshare services you qualify to drive for.

2. Mileage

While it’s hard to say how many miles a car can last, most drivers like to steer clear of vehicles that already have more than 100,000 miles. This isn’t 100% necessary if your budget doesn’t allow for low-mileage cars or if you find a particularly well-maintained vehicle. However, it does provide a good benchmark for less experienced car buyers. Regardless, you should still check your car’s odometer to make sure it’s not nearing the end of its potential lifespan.

3. Physical Condition

When you see a vehicle in person for the first time, it’s extremely important to assess the physical condition of the car. This can offer telling signs of poor maintenance as well as issues that may only be temporarily repaired. Here are a handful of the red flags to look out for when buying a used car:

  • Surface imperfections: Look out for dents, scratches, and rust spots, which you may need to repair later. You’ll also want to look for paint overspray on the body panels or frame, which is a sign of repainting after a past repair.
  • Broken lights: A burnt-out lightbulb should be an easy fix. If a car owner hasn’t fixed a light before putting a vehicle up for sale, despite a warning light being on, be wary. This can signal that there’s a bigger (more expensive) issue, like wiring problems, that the seller simply doesn’t want to fix.
  • Uneven tire wear: This is a sign of bad wheel alignment and should be avoided. To test for uneven wear, you can insert a penny in multiple tread grooves around the tire and look out for any differences in where the tread lands on Lincoln’s head.
  • Poorly maintained upholstery: While this won’t affect your drive, remember that rideshare companies are strict about cosmetic conditions and riders will be unhappy with dirty or damaged seats. Replacing upholstery can also be very costly.
  • Issues under the hood: This is the area that truly keeps your car running, so you’ll want to give this area a close look. Be wary of any rust, corrosion, cracks, or black spots. Also pull out the engine oil and transmission fluid dipsticks to ensure the fluids are at their suggested levels. They should be amber-colored and transparent red, respectively.

Remember that these are just specific aspects of the vehicle you should definitely check. You should be looking closely at the entirety of the car, including the trunk, windows, and more for signs of damage and wear.

4. Condition When Driving

One of the top reasons why drivers rarely complete their car purchases online is because a test drive is crucial for determining a vehicle’s true health. As you start your drive, make sure the brake pedal functions normally without vibrating or requiring a large amount of pressure.

Once you’re on the road, pay attention to how steady your speed is, whether or not your air conditioning and turn signals work, and how smoothly you can steer. If you’re hearing any strange sounds — including squeaking, grinding, and rattling — this can be a telling sign that something’s wrong with the car. You’ll also want to test out a car on the freeway to ensure the engine doesn’t rattle at high speeds. Of course, any warning lights that turn on should warn you not to make the purchase.

More generally, you should make sure that you’re comfortable riding in the car, since you’ll be doing so for hours. Think about whether the car is as quiet as you’d like and if the seats are comfortable to you.

Important Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Car

What to look for when buying a used car: Dealership employee talking to man

Sometimes, the factors that affect a car’s functionality aren’t available online or noticeable during a test drive. In addition to looking out for the features we listed in the previous section, we recommend asking your seller these six questions when buying a used car:

  1. Can I see a vehicle history report? These third-party reports will tell you about a car’s service history, previous owners, true mileage, and more helpful information. Many dealers will provide this, while trustworthy private sellers will at least offer a vehicle identification number (VIN), so you can get a report from providers like CARFAX.
  2. Does this car have a salvage title? Your vehicle history report will show if a car has a salvage title. If a report isn’t provided, asking this question can help you learn more about the car’s repair history. You can also verify your seller’s answer by plugging in the car’s VIN to a free online salvage check tool.
  3. Why are you selling the car? If you’re purchasing from a private seller, knowing why they’re selling can help you determine if they’re trustworthy and if you can get a lower price (for example, if they’re moving and need to sell soon).
  4. How long have you had the car? If a private seller has only owned a vehicle for a short period of time, this can be a sign of immediate issues. On the flip side, if a dealership has had a vehicle for long, there may be a reason it’s not selling.
  5. Has this vehicle been damaged in the past? Damages often don’t require an insurance claim, so it’s a good idea to learn about any unreported past repairs and potentially ongoing issues.
  6. Can the issues be fixed before my purchase? If you discover any issues during your personal inspection, make sure to ask about them. A seller may take care of it for you or offer a drastically lower price.

Frequently Asked Questions

BMWs lined up at dealership

Used cars may be more affordable than new cars, but the process to find the right one comes with a handful of extra steps. To help you navigate your used car shopping, here are our answers to some common questions:

1. What are certified used cars?

When you’re used car shopping, you’ll likely come across a special “certified used” or “certified pre-owned” category in the midst of a full car selection. These tend to be the best used car selections available in a dealership, typically newer models with no major repair history and extra buyer protection.

Certified pre-owned programs vary from dealership to dealership, but they come with a higher priced tag than standard used cars. They’re great options for people who aren’t confident in their car shopping, but if you know what to look for when buying a used car, you can often find more affordable, well-maintained cars without the certified used label.

2. Should I get an independent vehicle inspection before purchasing a used car?

Most dealerships will already perform their own complete inspections before putting a vehicle up for sale. However, getting an inspection from a third-party professional can help you get an unbiased picture of a vehicle’s functionality.

That said, getting an independent vehicle inspection is recommended if you’re buying from a private seller or if you have the budget to do so. Otherwise, you can simply research and buy from reputable car dealers in your area with good reviews.

3. Where can I apply for a car loan for my purchase?

Car loans are offered by a wide variety of sources, with banks and credit unions being two of the most common sources. You can also look at financing options that your car dealership directly offers, which can even help you save time by streamlining the car buying process.

Find the Perfect Vehicle

Just because a brand new car is out of your budget doesn’t mean peace of mind is out of reach. Used car shopping can lead you to plenty of well-maintained vehicle options that will last you for years to come. When you learn what to look for when buying a used car, you’ll be able to make a one-time investment that pays for itself through your driving career.

Of course, a vehicle doesn’t stay in great condition all on its own. Vehicle upkeep is a huge part of keeping your investment healthy for the entirety of its potential lifespan. You can use our suggested car maintenance schedule for rideshare and delivery drivers to ensure you’re giving your well-used vehicle extra care.

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