This is by no means a comprehensive used-car buying guide. It’s just a few quick thoughts on the topic, some from the School of Hard Knocks!
Keep in mind that the various used-vehicle history reports that are available are only as good as the information that goes into the database. There are many scenarios that result in vehicle damage either not getting reported or erased from the record of a car’s VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number. For example, let’s say Bob crashes his Bulgemobile into a light pole in a parking lot. His buddy Bill “fixes” it in his garage over the next couple of weekends with the help of a few brewskis. This unreported incident will never make it to the database. Another way to clean a car’s history is by salvaging a totaled car and running it through a dealer’s salvage auction and getting a rebuilt title. Rebuilt titles are sometimes also used to sell stolen cars whose VINs have been altered.
Make sure that all the VINs you can find on the car match each other and the one on the title. Since 1981, all cars sold in the US have had 17 digit VINs. The tenth digit represents the year. None of the vehicle history reporting places have data for pre-1981 VINs. If the car you’re looking at belongs to an individual, not a dealer, ask for his or her driver’s license to confirm that they’re the person to whom the car is titled. And check the title for liens. These must be released before you can buy the car. While we’re talking about titles, remember that cars with salvage/rebuilt titles aren’t covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Also, your bank will not finance them, and you won’t be able to get an aftermarket warranty for them.
This is as good a place as any to have a little chat about the extended warranties sold by aftermarket companies both to buyers of cars sold by private sellers and through used car dealers. I’m not sure if our experience at the shop is a good gauge, but I have a very bad overall impression of these warranties. For what they cost versus what they cover, I don’t think most of them fall too short of being a scam. They almost never cover diagnostic labor, they frequently have a large deductible, and often what little they do cover almost never fails. Be very careful and read the fine print. The most common type of extended warranty that can be worthwhile is the factory warranty, issued and serviced by the manufacturer’s dealer. Just be very sure of what you’re buying. Get someone knowledgeable to look it over if you have any questions.
When you go to look at the car, make sure that the engine is cold and the hood is down. If the battery is bad or the car is hard to start when cold, you need to know about it. Check the fluids for level and condition. Make sure that the check engine light and the airbag warning lights work, and turn on for a few seconds when you start the car, then go off. Don’t even think about buying a used car from someone who won’t let you take it to your mechanic to check out. On your way to your mechanic, be alert to any warning signs, such as noises, drivability issues, or brake or steering pull so you can mention it to him. Most shops will do a pre-purchase inspection for a hundred or a hundred-fifty bucks that’s money well spent. Make sure they check for pending codes and monitor readiness. This is to make sure that the computer wasn’t recently reset. Most good shops will also be able to spot body and structural repairs. These aren’t necessarily a deal killer, as long as the repairs were done correctly, and you know about them. The shop will give you a list of everything they find amiss, from minor to major. If you’re still interested in the car, this list can be useful for haggling purposes if that’s your style. On the way back from the shop, it’s a good idea to swing by a high-pressure car wash to make sure that there are no leaks. Check around the windows, doors, sunroof, and windshield, and check the carpet under the dash and by the doors. Don’t forget to look in the trunk.
Don’t sign as “As Is” paper if you’re buying the car from a dealer. This means that they’re not responsible for anything that’s wrong with the car, even if they’ve told you that there’s a warranty or guarantee. And don’t forget that Lemon Laws don’t apply to used cars.