Before buying a used car, follow this 4-step inspection program to determine the vehicle's reliability, condition and value. It'll help you negotiate a fair price and avoid expensive repairs after the purchase.
It's a great vehicle, but only if you can afford the repair parts. Don't be surprised by sky-high parts costs after you've bought the vehicle. Get all that information up front at rockauto.com.
Family and friends used to ask me if a certain vehicle was “a good one” only after they'd bought it. Hello? What am I supposed to say then?
Buying a dependable used car takes a little bit of homework. Here's a four-step plan that you can follow to have the best shot at getting a car that won't turn into a money pit. This step-by-step inspection program works whether you're buying from a car lot or a private party. It's not rocket science, just simple logic.
This story isn't about cosmetic issues like rust, body dents or dirty carpets. Plus, I'm assuming you're buying a vehicle that's out of the factory warranty period.
Once you decide on a few vehicle models you're interested in, it's time to begin your research in online forums such as edmunds.com and automotiveforums.com. These are two Web sites where you can read comments and ask questions of a pool of thousands of people who actually own that vehicle. Review the owners' comments and ask about their ownership experience. Find out if there are any recurring problems with that year, make and model and how much the owners have shelled out in repairs. Then ask whether they'd buy the same vehicle again. They'll give you the straight dope. Some forum members respond immediately, but be patient; it might take a few days to get plenty of responses.
Meanwhile, check out rockauto.com's “Repair Index” to compare repair parts costs (Photo 1). You may find, for example, that a certain European sedan's alternator replacement could cost upward of $800, whereas the same item for a similar domestic model is relatively cheap at $150. When you're buying a used vehicle, parts cost is a major concern.
System lights should come on, then turn off, when starting the engine.
Measure the remaining tread depth to determine how much tread is left. New tread depth (for cars) is usually 11/32 in., and tires must be replaced when they're at 2/32 in.
Turn the wheels fully left or right and crawl under the fender. Shine your flashlight on the pleats of the rubber CV boots. Look for tears or grease.
Shine your flashlight into the oil filler opening and check the color of the metal engine parts. They should be shiny. Then swipe your finger around the inside of the oil filler opening to check for sludge buildup.
Yank the transmission dipstick and place a few drops on a white cloth. If it's dark brown and smells burnt, walk away from the car.
Check the tires. If you see cracks in the tread or sidewall areas, or notice any steel wires sticking out, you'll need new tires immediately. So deduct at least $450 from the seller's asking price (more for truck or SUV tires).
Next, use a tread depth gauge (less than $5 at any auto parts store) to check the tread at the edges and center of the tire (Photo 2).
Tread wear that's worse on one edge of the tire indicates an alignment problem (minimum $100). Irregular tread depth around the tire (cupping) indicates worn struts or worn suspension components (strut replacement runs about $450 for parts and labor).
Check the fluids. Fresh brake fluid is honey-colored. But dark brown brake fluid may still be good. Your best bet is to buy brake fluid test strips at an auto parts store. Count on $65 for a brake fluid flush.
Engine coolant comes in many different colors, but one color is the kiss of death—rust. If you see that, run, don't walk, away from this vehicle. You'll have nothing but costly repairs (radiator, heater core, water pump, etc.) down the road. Flushing the coolant at this point won't help because the damage has already been done.
Fresh transmission fluid is bright red (Photo 5). If it's light brown, it's due for a change (figure about $175 for a complete change-out with the manufacturer's fluid). If the vehicle doesn't have a dipstick, have your mechanic check it at final inspection.
Rick Muscoplat, an automotive expert at The Family Handyman, will show you how to measure tire tread on your vehicle so you will know when you need to replace your tires.
Make several stops to heat up the brakes. Then accelerate to 30 mph and slow to a stop. You shouldn't feel any pulsation. If you do, negotiate a lower price.
Accelerate to 50 to 60 mph on a straight, level section of highway and let go of the wheel (keep your hands close). Note any left/right wobble or vibration. The vehicle should drive straight with minimal input from you.
This isn't a “once around the block,” 10-minute drive. You need to really put the vehicle through its paces on city streets and on the highway. Here's what to look for.
Negotiate a price based on your findings. But make it contingent on a clean bill of health from a professional inspection.
Most mechanics charge about $100 for a used-vehicle inspection, and it's the best money you'll ever spend. But before you commit to the inspection, negotiate the best price based on any problems you've already discovered (Photo 1). Then make the final purchase contingent on a clean bill of health from your mechanic. Make sure the final inspection includes a scan tool check for “readiness monitors” and “pending codes.” I'm warning you—don't skip the final inspection step just to save $100.
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
You'll need a tread depth gauge.
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.