Top Ten Things To Do When Looking for a Pre-owned Car

Buying a used automobile can be a successful and satisfying experience if you are armed with enough knowledge to determine whether the asking price on a particular car is a good deal. You want to avoid getting stuck with someone else’s problems and discover too late that the purchase price is only the “tip of the iceberg”, when you find that your “new” car needs $2000.00 worth of repair and maintenance to make it safe and reliable transportation. The newer generation cars are considerably “higher tech” than the older ones and as such are much less user friendly to the do-it-yourself owner than ever before. As always, it pays to KNOW BEFORE YOU OWE.

1. When you are talking with a seller, ask about the car’s current condition. Specifically, if there is anything that needs repair or is not working properly. Pay particular attention when he or she answers the following question: Have you maintained the car well? If the answer is “Yep, I’ve changed the oil every 3,000 miles” or “It’s been a great car, I haven’t had to spend a dime on this car”, BEWARE! This throws up a red flag. Do not buy this car without having a Specialist carefully inspect it before purchase. Changing the oil regularly does not in itself constitute good maintenance on any car. Ask the seller for maintenance records for the last year. Since people often defer maintenance when they plan to sell a car, a lack of a maintenance records is a red flag.

2. Try to start the engine cold. There should be no sputtering or hesitation. Pay particular attention to knocking or tapping noises coming from within the engine. A light tapping noise from the top of the engine is fairly common on multi-valve engines that have not been started for 2-3 days or more, but this raises a red flag to look closer and determine whether oil changes have been performed on schedule.

3. When raising the hood, look for obvious oil leaks on the engine, particularly fresh oily and greasy deposits on the valve cover around the oil filler cap, multi-valve engines should not leak oil at all and this indicates the flame trap system has not been serviced frequently enough to prevent clogging of the system. This is easily the most commonly overlooked single service item that we see. When a quick oil change facility changes your oil, they don’t know to check the condition of the flame trap and consequently it eventually becomes clogged thereby pressurizing the crankcase and either blowing front and rear seals completely out or wearing them out prematurely. For example, rear seal replacement on an Volvo 850 is expensive, at 13 hours labor this job is in excess of $1000.00.

4. Check for paintwork and previous accident damage. In front, check to see whether paint is chipped off of the bolts and washers attaching the front fenders to the body and hood to the hood hinges. In the rear, open the trunk and look at the rearmost upper corners of the rear quarter panels next to the trunk lid, you should clearly see a half-moon shaped factory seam in this area. Its absence signals the presence of body filler and indicates the car has probably had significant rear body damage.

5. Turn the ignition key on to the second key position and check that all warning lights come on, particularly the check engine, ABS/TRACS and SRS lights. These should go out after starting the engine. If they do not or you see a flashing arrow in the instrument cluster or flashing lights on the transmission mode switch, BEWARE, any of these are potentially expensive fixes. Have these checked out by a Specialist who has the Factory Diagnostic Tool to read the associated fault codes.

6. Check all functions of the power seats. Any malfunction can be fixed, sometimes as simply as resetting the seat computer with the Diagnostic Tool.

7. Drive the car. It should accelerate and stop smoothly. The presence of a pulsation felt in the steering wheel or through the seat while braking indicates brake rotor warpage. Take a look at the tires, if they are a inexpensive brand which you do not recognize, changes are the other maintenance was skimped on as well.

8. While driving with the A/C on, monitor airflow from the center vents while accelerating. If the airflow stops and then reappears when you take your foot off the accelerator this indicates a failure of one or more vacuum damper motors of the A/C system in the dash.
9. Does the transmission shift smoothly from a stop on up to freeway speeds? Any malfunction is potentially expensive.

10. Once the car has passed all of these inspections, schedule a time to have a detailed pre-buy inspection performed by a Specialist. Have the Specialist run a CarFax to check vehicle history, mileage and accident status. All cars need at least some repair and it is not unusual to see a $500.00 list on a well-maintained car. You want to avoid the car with a $2,500.00 list as this indicates a history of neglect and a poor life expectancy for the car.

There you have it, 10 steps to help you select a good used car. I personally go through all of these steps and more when evaluating a potential purchase for our inventory and it will help you weed out the good from the bad and the “don’t waste your time” cars you are likely to run into.