If you trust a mechanic. give the seller a deposit and take the car to him. Make sure he at least takes the wheels off.
Be suspicious of good deals if you are shopping for Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, etc and other cars that retain value well. These cars retain their value well because they are generally reliable and it’s OK if they don’t disappear overnight. If someone wants to get rid of one, they have an agenda, which means there’s probably something wrong with it.
I buy cars that have had collision repairs done and major engine work because I call the seller on their BS and get a deal. I’m not afraid to deal with the consequences because I know how to fix them. Don’t risk it. There are other cars out there that will cause you less headache later down the line.
What to look for when buying a used car
First thing’s first. Here are some inspection points. Take it to a dealership and pay $100 or whatever . They see a lot of those cars and know everything that commonly goes wrong with them. They want you to trust them if anything does go wrong with it because they want your future business.
If you’re going to do an inspection yourself (which I’d recommend anyways), do this on a bright day. Never buy a car when it’s overcast. Park it in the middle of a lot and walk around the car from about 8-10 meters away. Does everything look straight and symmetrical? If not, you’re looking at a collision repair. Open up all the doors, trunk and hood. Any evidence of a paint job? If so, rust/collision evidence.
Look inside the wheel wells and on the inside of the wheels for oil/grease. If you can get a good look under the car, inspect for things that look wet on a dry day. Some water will drip out the passenger side near the door hinge from the air conditioning, even if the AC hasn’t been turned on lately.
Inside the driver side door opening on the chassis, there’s a sticker with vehicle info. Does it match the one on the nose of the car under the hood opening? How about the VIN plate under the windshield (driver side corner) as well.
Inspect the paint job near where panels meet and look for inconsistency. This is indication of some repair which would be a yellow flag, but if the seller seems they might be trying to cover something up, I’d walk.
Look for rust around the fuel filler neck if you think it may have been flood damaged. These cars will have never ending electrical problems. Same thing goes with cars where some idiot installed an alarm or stereo and didn’t know what they were doing; stick your head under the steering column and look up in front of the pedals to see if there’s monkey business going on. If it looks “slapped on,” walk off.
Check the lower panels just in front of the rear wheels with your hand. This is a common area for rust to destroy a car.
Engine. Does it sound smooth? Does it look filthy or freshly detail-cleaned? A common trick is to put a new 3 chamber muffler on a little car before sale to make engine sounds quieter, so this is a yellow flag. If you watch the engine idle, it shouldn’t buck or shake. It should vibrate, but it isn’t supposed to jump around. There should be a light, even ticking at idle that disappears if you rev the engine slightly. You can rev the engine from inside the hood by moving the throttle plate directly. Follow the air tube from the filter to where it goes into the engine and there will be a lever there with a cable (like a bicycle brake cable) on it. Give it a twist. Usually, the main wiring harness comes into the engine bay by the rear passenger side corner. Follow every wire around the engine bay look for evidence of shitty repair work. Any sounds that appear only once your rev the engine in neutral are red flags.
On some cars you cannot rev the engine from under the hood because of how the electronic throttle control is hooked up. In that case, remove the air cleaner (they normally have a couple clips you just unhook) and rev the engine with the driver’s window down and the hood open. Opening the air cleaner allows you to hear any engine sounds muchbetter.
Look for yellow/white whiteout looking paint. That’s evidence of used parts from a wrecker – another yellow flag. Check all the fluid levels (the owner’s manual will describe this process). Never buy a car that has been neglected.
Feel the engine oil with your fingers. If it feels greasy or gritty they have put gear oil in the engine to cover up worn bearings. If it smells rank, same thing. If your paper towel takes on a pinkish hue hear the edges of where the oil wicks out, they have used transmission fluid to clear up carbon buildup and it may be about to have bearing failure.
Hopefully you parked the car on a clean surface and when you go for your test drive, you will be able to notice drips. AC condensate drilling off the evaporator core is fine., anything from the wheel area is not. A little engine oil is fine as long as it’s coming from the pan gasket itself. Coolant is not fine.
Bounce all four corners and listen for clicking sounds that indicate worn bushings and ball joints. Check all the lights and horn for function before you test drive.
*Edit: Some hipster below has pointed out that you should avoid buying cars with burned out lights, which I totally second. A seller should have taken the time to check that.
Take it for a rip and drive it hard. Take corners hard and nail some potholes or speed bumps. If something’s broken in the suspension, now’s the time to find out. Do that first with the windows down and then with the windows up. Clicks, Clunks, and other aberrant sounds mean repairs will be in order. Driving wide open throttle will trigger an emissions system check in the computer as well.
If you’ve never driven automatics, avoid automatics. That would mean you know how to hill start and you probably don’t have an idea how an automatic is supposed to shift. Or get a tranny shop to check it out for you. Manuals are hard to find in north america.
Here’s how to test an automatic transmission. Basically, it should never seem to slip. You need to test out low throttle, part throttle, medium throttle and full throttle shifting between all gears (up and down), as well as the lockout speeds for manual gear selection. The transmission should not downshift into a lower gear if the car is going too fast and itshould allow you to bounce off the rev limiter (this is hard on the engine and transmission if you do it too much). With the brakes to the floor, put the car in both drive and reverse and rev the engine make sure nothing slips. **Don’t do this for more than a couple seconds ** The engine should rev to about 1500-2500 RPM and hold there. The exact speed is specific to each car. If RPMs start climbing gradually, let off immediately; that’s bad.
Here’s how to check a manual transmission. Get going about 20mph and hold in the clutch. Hold the clutch to the boards and engage and disengage every gear several times and feel for looseness and inconsistency. For each gear in turn, get up to the lower speed range for that gear, let out the clutch in gear. The car should begin decellerating (engine braking) apply a little pressure on the gear shifter (your thumb on the base of the stick works well) and apply just enough throttle to pop the transmission back into neutral. None should stick.
Anyway, there’s some stuff to consider. There’s a lot more you can get just by interacting with the owner. I’d suggest bringing an american friend with you if you can, since you’re new. If the seller seems like a cheapskate or appears to be nervous or hiding something, just don’t buy his car. If he’s having to make up excuse after excuse, it’s probably also not worth sticking around. Same thing goes if the guy is seems like a car salesman or mechanic. Used car dealerships sometimes sell their problem cars under the table.