Things to Consider When Buying a Used Car

When you need a reliable vehicle on a budget, a used car is your best bet. Used cars provide many of the features found in new vehicles and offer more value in the long term. However, opting for used requires careful evaluation before making a final purchase.

Consider what you’re looking for in a vehicle to fulfill your needs. In some cases, buying used may not be the best option. There are certain features and perks to buying new cars that aren’t available to used models. However, if you’re clear on exactly what you need and know which bells and whistles you can do without, these guidelines can help you locate the best used car for your lifestyle.

Vehicle History Report

Used cars can be hiding shady histories, so the first thing you should do when considering a preowned vehicle is get a full background check. These reports should include:

  • Salvage information
  • Prior accidents and accident damage
  • Previous thefts
  • Water damage
  • Frame damage
  • The number of previous owners
  • Previous usage, including police or taxi service
  • Maintenance records
  • Recall information
  • Odometer fraud, including damage, exceeding of limits or “suspect mileage”

Carfax and AutoCheck are two of the most common services through which you can obtain this information. Reports cost somewhere between $25 and $55. If you’re shopping through a dealership, you should be able to get a report for free. Some government sources, such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), offer limited reports at no cost.


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VIN Search

Searching the vehicle identification number (VIN) of a used car gives you similar information to what you’d get from a background check with a few additional details. For example, you not only discover the number of people who owned the car in the past but also the odometer readings each time the car was sold. This can help you determine whether a seller is being transparent about total mileage and will raise a red flag if the current odometer reading doesn’t match the report.

Doing a VIN search also provides title and accident history, shows any current liens and tells you if Virginia’s laws identify the vehicle as a lemon. Use these details to distinguish true used car deals from too-good-to-be-true offers.

As with a history report, you can check a vehicle’s VIN through the NICB. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVITIS), a government service, is another option. Some private companies will run the check for you for a fee and may provide a buyback guarantee to minimize the risk associated with purchasing a used vehicle.

Condition of the Engine

An unreliable or outright bad engine can pose a danger to you and other motorists. Since the engine is the lifeblood of a car, you want to be sure it’s in top condition.

Pop the hood and do a thorough inspection when assessing any used car. Check for strange smells, rust, dirt, grime or slime, and measure all fluid levels. Look under the car for evidence of spills or leaks. Red fluid is a sign of a transmission leak. Black indicates oil leakage and may be accompanied by a burning smell.

Low fluid level along with a telltale puddle on the ground is a red flag for potential engine trouble. Even if you don’t find any leaks, have a mechanic put the car on a lift and inspect the underside to ensure nothing is missed.

Condition of the Drivetrain

Replacing the transmission on any car is usually too expensive to be worth the trouble. Avoid problems by taking used cars for comprehensive test drives. Whether the vehicle is manual or automatic, test it out on several different types of terrain. Pay attention to how it shifts, looking for signs of wear:

  • Difficulty moving the shifter
  • Slips or thumps when changing gears
  • Grinding, banging or other sounds of distress
  • Delays in switching gears
  • Tachometer climbing without acceleration
  • Problems with clutch movement

If you discover any transmission trouble, move on to another vehicle. No matter how good the price, a car with faulty transmission will wind up costing you more in the long run.

Condition of the Vehicle Body

Body problems can make or break a used car deal. Thoroughly inspect the outside and inside for rust, holes, gouges, dents and loose parts. Look for signs showing the car has been repaired, including excessive use of body fillers or a hasty paint job in one area. Check any damage against the vehicle’s history. Poor repair work may indicate a prior accident.

The car’s frame should be solid with no bends, breaks or obvious repairs. A mechanic can inspect this for you when performing the check for engine problems. Also ask him or her to take a look at the exhaust system and look for leaks or loose pipes.

Don’t forget to check the trunk and the tires. The trunk should be clean and free of rust, and all four tires should match and be filled to the proper pressure level.

Pros and Cons

If you shop with a reputable dealer or from private sellers whom you trust, chances are good you’ll find a used car you like. Before making a final decision, consider the overall advantages and disadvantages to buying used.


Buying used can benefit you by:

  • Reducing the total cost of buying a vehicle
  • Lowering registration and insurance costs
  • Giving you access to most of the same features found on new vehicles
  • Providing wiggle room to negotiate on pricing

Used cars also suffer much less deprecation after making your initial purchase. Whereas the value of a new car can drop as much as 19 percent in its first year, a used car several years past its initial release date will have already passed through this period of accelerated loss, meaning its value is more stable over time.


Some technology and safety features are so new, you can’t find them in used cars. When you want the latest and greatest to protect yourself and your family, you may be better off looking at new models. The same holds true for warranty coverage. Although you may be able to obtain the remainder of an initial warranty or get extended coverage from a used car dealer, you won’t have the same assurance offered with new vehicles.

Buying a used car also requires a great deal more homework. The potential for problems is higher, and the only way to avoid getting a lemon is to take the time to do a thorough investigation.

As long as the necessary features are available and everything checks out, a used car can be a better investment than buying Do your research and weigh all the variables to determine whether the used car you’re looking at is as good a value as it seems.

Your final decision should be based on your needs, how well the car will serve you and how long it will run without costing more than it’s worth to maintain. By focusing on reliability, longevity and functionality, you can find a used car just as good as any new model.