Finding the Right Used Car

There has never been a better time to buy a used vehicle than right now. Previously owned vehicles are built better, last longer and deliver more reliable service than ever before. At the same time, many used vehicles can now be purchased with warranty and roadside assistance coverage, something that was unheard of in the day of buying a used vehicle “as is.” But, while used-vehicle bargains are out there in vast numbers, choosing the right one for you is still fraught with challenges. Making a bad buy can haunt you -- and perhaps your credit -- for years. Before purchasing a used vehicle, it’s essential to find out as much as you can about the vehicle’s maintenance history and any mechanical problems it might have.

“A rigorous test drive and a thorough inspection done by an ASE-certified automotive technician are the best ways to make sure the used vehicle you are considering buying is in good condition,” says Bob Arlotta, NAPA’s 2008 Technician of the Year.

According to Arlotta, inspections typically cost around $90, but if the technician discovers a major defect, you have saved yourself a big headache and potentially thousands of dollars. When inspecting a used vehicle, experienced technicians traditionally check the following areas for existing problems and possible warning signs:

  • Body
    Floor wells, doors and rocker panels should be checked for red stains and dimpled or bubbled paint, which can be signs of impending rust. The vehicle’s panel surfaces should also be inspected for hail damage and overall fit, since loose side panels may indicate past accident damage.
  • Under the hood
    The overall appearance of the vehicle’s engine bay is important because any buildup of dirt or oil can indicate mechanical problems. Dirty and/or thick engine oil and noticeable sludge in the engine may indicate a lack of routine maintenance by the previous owners. Also, grey or milky engine oil may signify the presence of water, which can cause serious engine malfunctions. Any rattling noises heard while the engine is idle can mean incorrect tuning or excessive wear.

When inspecting the transmission, technicians test for smooth gear changes and listen for any rattles or knocking noises. On front-wheel drive vehicles, these noises can indicate worn constant-velocity joints. Radiator coolant should be clean and bright-colored. Oil in the coolant may indicate a cracked cylinder head or a leaking gasket. Radiator cooler fins and core tubes should also be checked for corrosion or damage. Additionally, check the vehicle’s battery for corrosion and remaining life.

  • Underneath the vehicle
    Tires must be checked for uneven wear, which may indicate worn or misaligned steering or suspension. At the same time, the engine, transmission, axles, brakes, power steering and shock absorbers should be assessed for oil leaks. The exhaust system should be tested for fumes or excessive noise, which can indicate holes or rust in the pipes or muffler.
  • Road test
    During a test drive, technicians are trained to look for excessive body lean or wandering on straight roads, which can be a sign of worn suspension or misaligned steering. A properly operating vehicle should stop smoothly and in a straight line. The pedal should not sink to the floor or feel spongy, and the steering wheel should not vibrate.

“Unless you have experience repairing vehicles, it’s probably a good idea to have the vehicle inspected by your regular automotive technician,” says Arlotta. “Spending a little bit of money to learn about a vehicle’s history and find out its current mechanical state will help you make an educated decision about your used-vehicle purchase.”