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If you're not a gear-head, it's easy to feel lost when buying a car
1. What is the maintenance history of the vehicle?
One of the most important things to know about a used vehicle is how well it has been taken care of and what long-term issues it might have. A car can look beautiful on the outside and handle decently in a test drive but still be a complete hunk of junk.
If the engine, transmission and cooling systems have not been properly maintained, it could mean major repairs down the line. This doesn't immediately eliminate a vehicle as a purchase, but it should definitely factor into the asking price and your negotiations.
To get a good idea of the history of the vehicle, ask for a vehicle history report — any reputable dealership will provide this document free of charge. It will give you a rundown of the regular maintenance performed on the vehicle, how many owners it's had and if it's been in any major accidents or had serious repairs. Some vehicles might also come with a maintenance log where previous owners have recorded a more detailed account of regular maintenance.
If the car has previously been totaled, has irregular maintenance logs or the owner refuses to supply this information, this might be a red flag.
2. What type of title does the vehicle have?
There are three basic types of car titles you might encounter when buying a used car: clear, salvage and rebuilt or reconstructed. There are plenty of other title types, but these are the ones you will be most likely to encounter.
If at all possible, choose a car with a clear title when buying a used car. A clear title means that the car has a clean history and has never been in a serious accident.
Cars with salvage and reconstructed titles have been seriously damaged in the past and likely deemed to be a "total loss," meaning the cost to repair the car is more than the estimated worth of the vehicle. Salvage cars can be harder to insure, as the real damage to the car is often unknown. Salvage titles are also almost impossible to resale, so if you are considering buying one, know that you will be driving it until the wheels fall off.
Rebuilt or reconstructed titles are a better bet. This means that the car was previously labeled salvage but has been repaired and professionally inspected for resale. If you are considering buying a car with this type of title, look for a sub tag that tells you how the car was originally totaled. Avoid buying cars that have been totaled by flood, as they might have a bigger chance of displaying damage further down the line that couldn't be detected at the time of inspection.
3. What is the Blue Book value of the vehicle?
It's easy to research the Kelley Blue Book value of the vehicle you want to purchase for free by visiting their website. This will help give you a better idea of the estimated resale value of the vehicle to compare to the list price of the dealership or private seller.
If there is a difference of more than a few hundred dollars, this could be cause for concern. Different makes and models are in higher demand in some regions, and the vehicle could also be equipped with after-market perks that add to its value. Either way, a large difference between the Blue Book value and the list price is a reason to ask more questions, and you can likely talk the seller into working with you on the price. To get a better deal, here are some negotiation and researching tips from The Art of Manliness that can prove useful for everyone.
4. Do the basic systems show red-flag problems?
While it's ideal to take your car to an experienced mechanic to get it checked out before purchase, sometimes a great deal presents itself and you have to act quickly. If you are at all handy, it's pretty easy to check the major systems of a used car for red-flag problems.
In general, the quickest things to check are the engine and transmission oil, brakes, engine power, air conditioning and coolant, frame, and exhaust.
A few things to keep in mind:
- If the engine or transmission oil is excessively dirty or has any flecks of metal present or if the car has any obvious leaks, DO NOT purchase the car, as it likely has a worn engine or transmission from poor maintenance.
- If the tail pipe gives off a steamy smoke with a sweet smell, DO NOT buy the car, as it may have a leaky or blown head gasket.
- If the car does not sit level on the ground, DO NOT buy it, as this could indicate structural damage.
- Does the engine lag excessively when you accelerate or make any strange noises? Are there worn or cracked belts under the hood? Are there any warning lights illuminated on the dash? Do the breaks squeak or take a long time to depress? These things could be cause for concern. To do a more thorough check, follow this 27-point checklist.
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