SharpMan's Guide to Buying Used Cars

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • How to narrow down your buying options.
  • How to give your car a thorough check.
  • Why it's important to have a good mechanic.

Buying a car is never easy. And a used car? Perhaps more than all other major purchases, buying a used car requires better-than-average time, patience and thought. Is it an exact science? No way. Are there a few SharpToys tips that can help you along? Absolutely:

Step One: Setting Your Budget.

Before you hit the market, set your own purchase parameters by deciding on a price range, thinking about how and how much you’ll use the car, and considering your driving habits and record. Of course, the nicer the car and the worse your driving record, the higher the insurance is likely to be. Be sure to factor in a higher insurance premium into the overall cost of the car; this will help you set a more realistic budget. Another important consideration? Maintenance. The sticker price on an aging sports car may be within your budget, but are the maintenance costs? Remember, maintenance costs are a bigger consideration for the used car owner. You won’t have a dealer’s warranty to fall back on, and engine parts and labor costs differ greatly between a Honda and a Porsche.

Step Two: Pricing Out Models.

Starting to get a more realistic picture of your "needs" vs. "wants?" Great; time to price out your used dream car. What’s the going rate for various used models in your region? Study local classified ads to become familiar with what private sellers and dealerships are asking for the models of your choice.

Next, compare these prices to those in a uniform used car price guide, like the Kelley Blue Book. Guides like "Kelley’s" can tell you the fair market value of a car, by model and model year, in addition to the current retail value. Of course, prices always differ based on condition (such as dents and rust), mileage and purchase region, but the guides should give you a fairly good indication of whether a potential seller is barking up the right price tree.

Step Three: Research.

Once you've narrowed your choices and picked a price range, take another hour to research the performance records of each make, model and model year on your list. Consumer reports sources can provide you with the average repair and maintenance costs for the cars on your list, helping you avoid lemon years or lemon models — a great way to further narrow your choices. For maintenance information, visit sites like Additionally, check the U.S. Department of Transportation's Auto Safety Hotline (1-800-424-9393) for information on recalls.

Step Four: Check It Out.

Having narrowed your choices to those makes, models and years that are most reliable (and suited to you), it’s time to more thoroughly examine individual cars for these same characteristics. When answering classified ads and visiting used car lots, it’s critical that you give every car a through check . Philip Powell, a veteran auto writer and former race driver, offers these tips from Your About Cars Guide:

The Exterior

  • Perform a slow walk around, checking for rust or obvious signs of body damage.
  • Look down the sides in strong light. Slight waves in the metal indicate previous damage.
  • Take along a magnet and press it against areas where you suspect repairs. Magnets won't stick to plastic filler.
  • You may feel silly doing this, but bounce the four corners of the car to check the shocks. They should immediately return to a still position.

The Interior

  • Open the hood, check for loose wires or belts and general "under-hood" condition.
  • Pull the dipstick and check the color of the oil. Is it translucent or black? Ask when the oil was last changed.
  • Sit in the driver’s seat. Does it sag when you sit on it? Sagging seats are a sign of excessive wear in older cars.
  • Look at the brake pedal. Is it worn? Wear on the brake pedal is another indication of hard mileage.
  • Start the engine, gun it, and watch for puffs of white or blue smoke. If you see either, expensive engine repair is a probability. Blue means worn rings or valve guides. White suggests cracked head or block and blown head gasket.

The Test Drive

  • Take it for a test drive. Check for steering response, brake reaction, tracking, shimmy, excessive rattles.
  • Be aware of clunkiness or slippage during gear changes in an automatic.
  • Watch for a slipping clutch, grinding or clunking when changing gears with a manual gearbox.
  • Accelerate quickly to judge power response. Again, watch for smoke from the exhaust.
  • After the drive, perform another walk around. Do it slowly, with a worried look. Make the seller feel nervous.

Step Five: Have a Good Mechanic Check It Out.

Like what you see? Don’t put down that cash! Most experts recommend having a trustworthy mechanic check out your vehicle of choice prior to purchase. Pre-sale checks are common, and should be invited by any honest seller. If your seller claims that the car is likely to sell before your mechanic arrives, take that chance. They don’t call them "used-car salesmen" for nothing.

As for the mechanic’s work, expect to pay $50 to $100 for your pre-sale check. Consider it cheap insurance in the expensive game of used car repairs. You’ll find that a good mechanic is a used-car owner’s best friend.

Don’t have one? Ask around. Talk to people you know, or stop strangers and neighbors on the street. If they drive an older version of the car you’re looking at, chances are good that they’ll have a mechanic they can recommend.

Happy hunting!

Other Used Car Links and Resources

What is a "Buyer's Guide?"

According to the Federal Trade Commission, a "buyer’s guide" must be placed in the window of every used car a dealership offers for sale. This includes light-duty vans, light-duty trucks, demonstrators and program cars. (Demonstrators are new cars that have not been owned, leased, or used as rentals, but have been driven by dealer staff. Program cars are low-mileage, current-model-year vehicles returned from short-term leases or rentals.) Buyer’s guides are not required on motorcycles, most recreational vehicles, or in private sales or from dealers who sell fewer than six cars a year.

What does a buyer’s guide tell you?

  • Whether the vehicle is being sold "as is" or with a warranty.
  • What percentage of the repair costs a dealer will pay under the warranty.
  • That verbal or spoken promises are difficult to enforce. Get all promises in writing.
  • That you should keep the buyer’s guide for reference after the sale.
  • What the major mechanical and electrical systems are, including the major problems you should look out for.
  • That you should ask to have the car inspected by an independent mechanic before you buy.
This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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