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Used Car Checklist

Michelle Naranjo
by Michelle Naranjo
May 21, 2011

Used cars (and salesmen) have been the butt of jokes for many years.  Yet used cars make economic sense for many, and today’s crop of used cars is probably the best ever.  While you’ll still want to bring your used car buying checklist, many dealers also offer ‘certified pre-owned’ vehicles with various kinds of warranties. 

A visit to Autocheck might be a key item on your checklist for buying a used car.  Whether you buy from a dealer or a private party, services like Autocheck make it easy to check the car’s ownership, service record, mileage and if it’s been in an accident.  Autocheck can even tell you how much below retail book value the car is selling for—a number you should take with a pinch of salt.

But buying a used car has its pitfalls, so sticking to your used car buying checklist is key.

The first step on your used car buying checklist is to ask yourself some questions.

Why am I buying this car—and what is it for?

  • If it’s a family car (or minivan) easy access and carrying capacity are critical.  Struggling with multiple car seats in a mini car is no fun.  On the other hand, if the primary purpose is long-distance commuting, small is beautiful, if it comes with big gas mileage.  Towing toys like boats or ATVs takes a lot of power, so you’ll probably need a truck or high horsepower SUV.

Who is the car for?

  • If you plan to drive clients, you’ll want a pristine luxury car.  But if the car is for the young driver in your household, you’ll want something safe and relatively cheap. Face it; it’s going to get banged and scraped, so you may be better off with an old Taurus rather than a new Mercedes.

What is the most I’m willing to pay?

  • Check various web sites and your local newspaper to get a sense of the selling range of the model(s) you’re interested in. Expect the seller to be willing to negotiate, but don’t think you’re going to get a $10,000 car for five grand.   If the price stays over your budget, walk away; there’s plenty of cars out there.

How will you pay for it?

  • Used car financing can be both difficult to get and more expensive than new car financing.  There’s no low promotional rates offered by car manufacturers, either.  That said, as used cars have gone up in price, financing has become more available. Check your bank or credit union to see if you can get pre-approved.
  • Many lenders have restrictions that have little to do with your credit score.  For example, at some lenders, the minimum loan amount is $7,500, and the vehicle can only be up to 7 years old with less than 70,000 miles.  Many banks’ have financing rules that state a vehicle must be purchased from a franchised car dealer but not from an independent dealer, auto broker or another individual (e.g., private party seller).
  • Cash is still king when buying many used cars.  That may mean using your used car buying checklist to help you sell your current car before buying another. 

Why are you selling it?            _______________

How long have you owned it?  ____________

What kind of gas mileage are you getting?  _______________

Has it ever been hit or in an accident?_______________

What work does it need? ____________

How many miles does it have on it (more than 15,000 a year should ring alarm bells)? ______________

Do you have receipts, manuals and inspection records? (Check name on title, registration, driver’s license.) Yes___            No____

How much do you want for it? _______________

What’s the least you’re willing to take for it?  _______________________

Look at the car during the daylight, not at night or in the rain.

Any bangs, scrapes, dents, rust spots?  Dashboard or windshield cracks?  Yes___            No____

Is the paint an attractive color? Fresh and unfaded?  Yes___            No____

Look under the car; any corrosion or other damage?  Yes___            No____

Loose or missing parts?  Scrapes underneath? Yes___            No____

Is the frame straight?  Yes___            No____

Look under the car; any tell-tale oil or fluid leaks?  Yes___            No____

When you turn it on and run it awhile, is the car a ‘smoker’? Yes___            No____ 

Is the upholstery in good shape, or is the leather or fabric torn or scraped? Power seats work? Yes___            No____

Is there a cigarette smell?            Yes___            No____

Is the carpet clean and tear-free (pick up floor mats and check)? Yes___            No____

Windshield wipers work?  Yes___            No____

Are all the car’s lights, controls and gauges working?            Yes___            No____

Seats and seat belts in good shape?                        Yes___            No____

Do you and your family (and cargo) fit in OK?            Yes___            No____

Air conditioning, heater, defroster works?               Yes___            No____

All power options (locks, windows, antenna, etc) work? Yes___ No___

Stereo, speakers, CD player, navigation, GPS, MP3, etc. working?              Yes___No____

Mirrors, horn working?            Yes___            No____

Tires have plenty of tread?   Yes___            No____

All the same size? Yes___            No____

Is there a decent spare (and a jack and lug wrench)? Yes___            No____

Check oil, power steering, automatic transmission, etc, fluid levels.  Any leaks?   Yes___No____

Anything broken? Cables/hoses look frayed?  Yes___            No____

Start easily? Run smooth? Yes___            No____

Smoke or burning smells when running? Yes___            No____

Undue vibration? Yes___            No____

Does the car stall if you take foot off the accelerator? Yes___            No____

“Rev high” when idling? Yes___            No____

Check engine light or other lights appearing? Yes___            No____

Choose your own half hour route that will take you through city streets, winding hills and fast freeway driving. 

Does the car shift smoothly?  Yes___            No____

Or is the car slow to accelerate, or do you hear a ‘clunk’ or grinding (may show transmission problems? Yes___            No____

Enough power to climb hills and pass safely? Yes___            No____

Any noises or vibrations, rattles or squeaks? Yes___            No____

Do brakes work smoothly when going from 50mph to zero (‘panic stop’)? Yes___            No____

Does the car pull to one side when braking? Yes___            No____

When safe, take hands off the wheel.  Does the car pull sharply to one side?                     Yes___            No____   

Make a few slow, tight turns; any noise coming from front wheels (might indicate CV joint problems)?     Yes___            No____

When you do long and short turns, sudden swerves and smooth transitions, does the car provide good steering response?             Yes___            No____

Is it easy to parallel park?             Yes___            No____

Does the car pull, wander or shake?                         Yes___            No____   

Is the car quiet when the fan and heater or AC are on?  Yes___No____

Having a mechanic check out a car you’re serious about may be a good investment.  But there’s no substitute for vigilance on your part.  If you were buying a horse, you’d check his teeth.  As Yogi Berra once said, you can see a lot just by observing.


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