- Check for any fault codes.
Everyone knows to look and see if a check engine light is on, but few people diagnose why it is on. To find out, simply plug in an OBD II scan tool (these can be picked up here and are well worth the investment) and it will pull out the fault codes. The fault code will give you the reason the check engine light was turned on. Depending on the quality of your scan tool, and the vehicle itself, it may give you a wealth of information or very little. At least by pulling these codes (which there may be some even if a check engine light isn’t on, so always scam before you buy!) you have a good idea where to start when diagnosing any potential issues.
- Do a VIN check.
Find the VIN (vehicle identification number) on the vehicle or have the owner send you a picture of the VIN. You will want a picture to be sure you have the correct number. The VIN is a unique number given to every vehicle. Whenever the vehicle has a major repair, maintenance, or is in an accident, it is recorded and referenceable by using the VIN. There are many websites that will do a history report on VINs for a small fee, and some that will do it for free. This is important to do when buying any vehicle, because you’ll definitely want to know what’s been fixed and if the vehicle has ever been wrecked. This is also the easiest way to verify if the car’s title is “clean” or not. As the VIN will also let you know if there are any liens (owed money) on the vehicle, or if the vehicle has been salvaged.
- Check the oil.
Go ahead and take out the dipstick and check the oil level, if it is exceptionally black or low, ask if the seller knows why that may be, and verify when the oil was last changed. I would be hesitant to buy any vehicle that has had its oil changes neglected. See if either the seller or a VIN report has records of how frequently the oil has been changed. This may be harder to do if the seller has been changing the oil himself. If the oil is low, be sure to check for any leaks or dark wet spots around the engine, a car running properly should not lose much oil between oil changes. If it has lost a large amount of oil and there are no signs of leaks, it may be burning oil. If you believe this may be the case, let the car run and check the exhaust for any bluish white smoke, and see if you can smell burning oil.
- Check the tires.
People often forget how valuable a new set of tires is, until they have to shell out $500 for a new set! A tread depth meter can be purchased for just a few bucks, and can tell you a lot about the car, not just the tires! Use the treat depth meter to check the tread on the inside and outside of all four tires, as well of the center. This will tell you several things:
The first and most obvious being how much life is left in the tires, anything under 3mm you’re going to want to plan for a new set in the near future.
The second being if the vehicle may be out of alignment. If one of the tire’s tread is significantly lower than the rest, this is a sign the vehicle may be out of alignment.
Third, if the center of the tire’s tread is lower than the edge, or vice-versa, this is a sign that the tires have been over inflated (if the center is lower) or under inflated (if the edge is low) for a significant amount of time, shortening the life and effectiveness of the tires.
Be sure to check the tire pressure in each tire as well, if one is significantly lower than the others (about 10 PSI or greater difference) this is a sign the tire may have a slow leak, and will need repaired or replaced in the near future.
- Make sure all the gauges work.
Something that is often overlooked when assessing used vehicles is making sure all of the gauges on the instrument cluster work as they should. Most vehicles will “cycle” all of their lights and gauges on start-up, the purpose of this is to show they are operating properly. Sure the car may not have a check engine light on, but who’s to say the check engine light is even working?
- Test drive, test drive, test drive.
Seriously, never offer to buy a vehicle without first test driving it. Make sure the radio works, the heater works, the A/C works, floor it (well, at least get into the high revs, to make sure it can), and brake hard. Stress test it as much as the seller will let you, if something is going to go wrong, you want it to go wrong during the test drive, before you buy it. Test turn signals, windshield wipers, anything you can. Maybe even bring a checklist of things to test during your test drive.
- Check for signs of minor accidents.
There is a chance that if the vehicle was in a small enough accident, that an insurance claimed was never filed, and the vehicle was never taken to any business to be repaired. This means there will be no record of the accident or repairs on the VIN report. Check for any mis-aligned pieces on the body, any miscolored areas where paint may have been repaired, and if one of the headlight or taillight housings seem newer than the others, it may have been replaced due to sustaining damage.
One of the best ways to check the condition of a vehicle is to simply listen. Listen when going over bumps for any rattles. Listen when you brake for any squeaking or rumbling. Listen when you start it up to see if it struggles to turn over. Listen to the exhaust for any excessive noise or rough idling. Listen when turning the steering wheel for any popping or creaking from the steering or suspension.
- Check the price.
This may go without saying, but make sure the seller is asking a fair price for their vehicle. Check Kelley Blue Book for a good ball-park range of what the vehicle is worth. But be sure to compare the asking price to other local listings for the same make and model of vehicle in similar condition. Every car is unique so there will be some variance, which is where you as a buyer must be discerning.
Be sure that the listings you compare to are in fact local, as some vehicles are worth more or less depending on location. This is because a 4-wheel drive SUV is going to be in higher demand in a snowy region while a sports car or convertible will be more sought after in milder climates.
Car prices also fluctuate seasonally, AWD cars tend to be bought for a higher price in fall and winter and RWD cars in spring and summer.
- Get on the ground and look under the car.
Here you are mostly checking for rust, leaks, and any dangling parts. If there is an excessive amount of rust, that can cause costly repairs down the road. When it comes to leaks, see if you can find the source and inquire with the seller about it. Keep in mind if the air conditioner was just running, there may be a wet spot under the car. Check and make sure it is just water, and if so, is most likely just condensation from the air conditioner.
- Find out where the vehicle has spent most of its life.
The vehicle you are purchasing may not have spent its entire life in the area it’ss currently in. The VIN (or the seller) should be able to tell you where the vehicle has been. This is important because in certain states, usually with harsher winters, they use salt on the roads to break down the snow and ice. This salt can cause a large amount of rust and corrosion on the underside of a vehicle. On the flip side, if it has spent most of its life in an arid state like Arizona, the chance of an abnormally large amount of rust is very slim.
- Just be smart.
Be shrewd, cautious, wary, “buyer beware”, whatever term you would like to use. Buying a vehicle is a huge investment and a large risk if you don’t do your due diligence and find out everything you can about a vehicle before buying. Take a minute to research common problems with the make, model, and year of the vehicle you are considering purchasing, and keep a keen eye out for those issues.
And there are a dozen things to help make you more confident in your car-buying decision. Best of luck!