The Top 8 Tips for Buying a Used Car

By Michael Royce
Consumer advocate, former car salesman

Buying a used car can be tough. That's because you're never really quite sure what you're getting when you purchase a previously-owned vehicle. That cool slightly-used sports car you want to buy could be harboring a multitude of expensive problems. So what to do? No worries. Here are the top eight do-it-yourself tips for scrutinizing that used vehicle to be sure you're not getting a lemon:

1. Be sure that the vehicle's body is straight.
Stand behind the vehicle and check to see if the rear wheels line up squarely behind the front wheels. Be sure that the body is angled properly. If the car seems slightly off-center or even crooked, it's a sure sign that the car was in an accident and its frame is bent.

2. Examine the interior portions of the car's body.
Check out the vehicle's doorjambs and the underside of the hood and notice if there is any mismatching paint or even different-colored paint. If so, the car has probably been repainted. And that's a clue that, perhaps, this vehicle was in an accident.

3. Check for water and flood damage.
According to the American Automobile Association, there are thousands of used cars and trucks on the market that have been victims of floods and other types of water damage. To safeguard from buying one of these waterlogged vehicles, be sure to check for dried mud in cracks and crevices under the hood or behind trim panels inside the car. Notice any damp or musty odors in the vehicle. And look for any newly replaced carpeting or upholstery. These are all possible clues of water damage.

4. Look under the hood.
Even though you may not know anything about the mechanics of automobiles, you can get a general feel of how well a car has been maintained by checking out the vehicle's hoses and belts. Look for cracks or tears. And be sure to check for leaking or dripping fluids.

5. Look under the vehicle.
Check for any fluids that might have leaked out onto the pavement. If you see a small puddle or damp spot of oil, water or some other fluid, the car may have expensive-to-repair mechanical problems.

6. Check the odometer for the car's mileage.
The "normal” mileage allocation is 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year. If the car has unusually high mileage for its age, you may want to consider another vehicle. If the car has unusually low mileage, you may have reason to be suspicious. Odometer tampering is a widespread and difficult-to-prove crime.

7. Get a Vehicle History Report.
Write down the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and then get a detailed Vehicle History Report from a reliable online source such as CarFax. The report will reveal the vehicle's true history including any possible odometer tampering, accidents and salvage titles. Getting this valuable info may well be worth the small cost.

8. Have your mechanic inspect the vehicle before you buy it.
Your mechanic will be able to tell you what repair work the car needs now and what repair work it may need in the future.

Having your mechanic inspect the car before you buy it is one of the best things you can do to insure that you're not getting a "lemon."
And if you don't have a regular mechanic, simply ask any ASE-certified mechanic if he can do a “pre-purchase inspection” for you. Many will for a nominal fee. And by the way, if the seller won't allow your mechanic to look at the car, you may have good reason to be suspicious.

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