What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car can be a risk if the car has many mechanical issues. For the sake of your budget you want to make sure you are not buying a money pit that needs thousands of dollars in repairs. 

This post contains an overview of what you need to watch for. Our used car buying checklist has even more details to consider beforehand.

General Criteria 

This is the bare minimum you need to check for in a used car. You will not need any tools or assistance to know these elementary things about the vehicle. 

  • Mileage - the lower the better for a used car, and also factors into possible upcoming maintenance.
  • General outer appearance, dings, scratches, signs of damage etc.
  • Test drive, how does the car drive, is it smooth and in a straight line, does it stutter, is it noisy, etc.
  • Get a carfax report so you know the title status and if it had any wrecks, flood damage, prior theft, etc. A carfax report will often include maintenance history as well.
    • Hopefully the seller can provide you with a report. If not, and you are serious about the car it is worth it to run one on your own.
    • Cars with branded titles (rebuilt, flood damage, etc) are not covered by insurance in most situations. Depending on the quality of the work it could be unsafe to drive. 
    • In general, it is best to avoid a car that has title brands. 
    • Beware of shady dealers who try to sell a branded car at a price equal to one with a clean title.

Other Factors to Pay Attention To With a Used Car

Apart from general assessment, many technical features need to be checked properly before buying a used vehicle. Don't worry, you don't need to be a mechanic to do this.


  • Check if any fluids are leaking from the engine compartment. See if the oil levels are good and if the engine compartment is clean and has coolant, brake fluid, etc. 
  • When driving it make sure the transmission shifts smoothly and can go into reverse.
  • Check if the pedals are comfortable to use. You must also check if the brake pedal is spongy or not.
  • Check that the tires are in good shape, aligned, and have a matching set. If they aren't of good quality, you will be risking your safety on the road..
  • Check that the heater and the AC are both working.
  • Check that all exterior and interior lights work (headlights, high beams, fog lights, and turn signals, dome light, etc). 
  • Ask the seller if they have at least 2 keys for the car. This is important if you misplace your primary key.
  • If the check engine light is on, or any other warning lights get it checked out by a mechanic.


  • Check if the battery can power all the windows and the car's door locks correctly. A lag or slow-moving window could signify a problem.
  • The battery should have a sticker on it indicating when it was made, if it is older than 3 years consider getting it tested.
  • For electric vehicles the drive battery age and health is super important since replacements are very expensive. 
  • Check if all the lights within the car work and if the stereo plays music correctly. You can test a few different songs to check the audio quality and the bass of the music system. 
  • Check if the cameras used for parking work correctly and if the car is equipped with sensors too.


  • Check for scratches on the car's surface, look for any dents or chips in the paint too. You should also assess all the headlights and the mirrors.
  • Look at the glass to see if there are any cracks - windshield being the most common place for a crack.
  • Check if the interior is clean and free of scratches. See if the seats are comfortable and if they can easily be adjusted. Assess the seatbelts too. 

Things to Review Before Buying

  • Have it checked out by an independent mechanic: For a nominal amount of money you can have a mechanic assess the vehicle’s overall mechanical status. This will be a more detailed check than you will be able to perform and is highly recommended. If the seller is against this idea that is a red flag.
  • Review service history: Go through the car's service history to ensure the previous owner conducted regular maintenance. Sometimes this information is available on the carfax report.
  • Review the maintenance schedule. The car may be for sale because a major service is almost due (timing belts are big ones, 80k service, 100k service, etc). Make sure any maintenance that is due soon (or especially over due) gets factored into the price you pay.
  • Check online for common problems of that make/model and year: Some vehicles are notorious for “blowing up” at a certain mileage or needing an expensive repair at a certain age. Researching problems related to the vehicle will give you an idea of what you might run into if you do buy it.
  • Review any remaining warranty: Don't forget to check if the car is still under warranty and if there is an option for prolonging the warranty on specific features of the vehicle. 
  • Safety ratings: check out the safety ratings at IIHS.org and NHAST
  • Open recalls: using the VIN# check for any open recalls using the NHTSA website or manufacturer website.

To Conclude:

Car inspections are a crucial step in the process of buying a used car. You will thank yourself later if you are careful and patient when it comes to making such a large investment. 

You can bring a copy of the car buying checklist when you assess the vehicle. If it looks good and you want to move forward it makes sense to get it reviewed by a mechanic for ultimate peace of mind. A thorough check is the only way to ensure you are getting your money's worth!

The post What to Look for When Buying a Used Car is part of a series on personal finances and financial literacy published at Wealth Meta. This entry was posted in Personal Finance, Risk Reduction
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