Evaluating a Used Car before Buying


You should always be concerned about buying "someone else's problems." Make sure you get a detailed vehicle history report and service records from the person selling the vehicle. A vehicle history report can identify major problems including past accidents, flood damage, and odometer discrepancies. When you decide to buy a car, make sure you get it checked out by a trusted mechanic before you give the seller any money.

Test Driving Your Car

Most of us know it's a good idea to insist on test driving any car before buying. But what's the right way to test drive a car and for what should you be looking? You should first plan on spending as long as possible on your test drive. This will give you a chance to thoroughly examine the car and even have a mechanic check it out.

In addition to a mechanical inspection, you should:

  • Take a look. Make sure the body parts line up, the paint matches, doors open and close easily, and the tires are evenly worn.
  • Lift the Hood. Check under the hood for leaky hoses, worn belts, and dirty oil. Automatic transmission fluid should be clear and reddish, and not smell burned. Radiator water should have a light yellow or green color.
  • Take a seat. Turn the ignition key to accessory and make sure all of the warning lights and gauges work. Start the car and check all lights and accessories and make sure no warning lights remain lit on the dashboard. Pay close attention to the airbag indicator lights. If these lights fail to illuminate as you start the car, or stay lit after the car is running, it is a warning that the car's airbags are not functioning correctly.
  • Perform a Safety Check. Try on the seat belt and take a test drive to ensure that you are comfortable while driving the vehicle. Make sure head restraints, roof structures, and windshield designs do not interfere with your ability to see clearly. Test the vehicle at dusk or early evening to determine your comfort with the visibility provided by the headlamps. If you already have a child safety seat, install it to check for compatibility.
  • Hit the Road. Take the vehicle up to 35-40 MPH. Make sure shifting is smooth and steering is straight. When braking, a pull to the left or the right could indicate a brake problem. The steering wheel should not shimmy at high speeds and cornering should be smooth.
  • Check the Sources. Buying through the classifieds? Check the name on the title and match it to the name on the seller's driver's license. Many individuals disguised as private sellers are actually unlicensed, unregulated curbstoners, who may pass problem cars on to unsuspecting buyers.

Potential Problems/Warning Signs

The most sought after used cars are probably less than five years old and have less than 50,000 miles on the odometer. When you're looking for a used car, you'll probably want to find one that has been driven no more than 15,000 miles per year. But you can't assume that a low-mileage car is necessarily in great shape. 

One major concern is odometer tampering. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that consumers lose billions of dollars a year to odometer fraud. Odometer readings may be rolled back or documents can be forged. Making miles disappear helps increase the car's value to the seller, but can mean increased maintenance and repair costs to the buyer. 

In addition to odometer fraud, there are other significant events in a car's past that unscrupulous sellers may try to hide. Every state has laws designed to protect consumers from buying used cars that may not be road worthy. Consumers should be direct when asking sellers about a vehicle's past, and they should get a detailed vehicle history report. The person selling you a used car should provide a detailed vehicle history that answers questions to your satisfaction. 

If the seller cannot provide a detailed vehicle history report, you can use the 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) to secure a history from either the state or a private vehicle history company such as CARFAX. This company has compiled data from multiple sources to help you get a better picture of the car's past.

Other Problems

Other problems you may want to avoid include: 

  • Damage Disclosure, Salvage & Rebuilt Titles: These titles are issued by states when the vehicle has sustained damage as a result of one or more incidents. States issue salvage titles when an insurance company takes possession of a vehicle as a result of a claim. This generally occurs after a vehicle has been declared a total loss. A state may issue a rebuilt title if a vehicle sustained damage and was rebuilt or reconstructed, then placed back on the road. States issue junk titles to indicate that a vehicle is not road worthy and cannot be titled again in that state.
  • Lemon Laws (Manufacturer Buyback Titles): "Lemons" are sometimes resold to consumers as used cars. The lemon laws were enacted to protect consumers from having to keep a new car that has recurring problems. If someone buys a new car with major problems, and the manufacturer fails to repair the defect in a certain amount of time, the manufacturer may be required to refund the consumer's money by buying the vehicle back. Unfortunately, some of the vehicles that are bought back are subsequently resold as used cars.
  • Flood Damage Title: States issue flood titles when a vehicle has been in a flood or has received extensive water damage. 

A Note on Curbstoners

Most states limit the number of cars that an individual can sell without a dealer's license or only allow the selling of one's personal car. Curbstoners are people who ignore these laws and sell multiple cars that frequently have hidden problems in their pasts -- problems that can affect both the safety and the value of these vehicles. Before buying any used car, you should research both the vehicle and the seller. Be wary of sales conducted from the side of the curb or a vacant lot. Often these vehicles are sold by con men posing as private individual sellers.