6 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Red flags to watch out for. Questions to ask yourself.

large number of cars at parking lot
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The chip shortage and other supply chain issues have reduced new car inventory. That’s driving many buyers to the used market and driving up the prices to record highs — though that may be tailing off a bit. Buying a used car can feel a bit fraught with peril; a car has been out of a manufacturer's hands for years and you're never quite sure what you're going to get.

Here are six questions to ask yourself when you're buying a used car.

Do you need to buy a car right now?

That is the first question to ask. Do you want a car? Or do you need a car? Inventory is super low right now. Prices are sky high for whatever you’re going to buy. Now is not going to be the time to score a deal. Not buying a car is going to be the best deal you can get, if you can manage it. If your lease is expiring, buy the car out for an agreed residual value (often far less than it is currently worth). That will buy you time and potentially let you turn a profit later by flipping it.

What's the mileage (and the context)?

speedometer in dashboard
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Generally, high mileage creates wear and tear on the vehicle, and it’s better to score a car with lower mileage. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Engines work better when used regularly. A super-low mileage car that has barely been driven may develop issues with components becoming inflexible. And yes, the car matters. 125,000 miles on the odometer may not matter so much for a Toyota Land Cruiser. It may matter a lot if you’re buying a Range Rover.

What's the vehicle's history?

It’s worth obtaining a vehicle history report when buying a new car. You can get one yourself through pay services like Autocheck and Carfax. A dealer will be able to obtain that info for free. Private sellers may provide that info as well. Doing so can tell you pertinent info like how many owners the car has had (the fewer the better) and its service history. You can also check the VIN number for free.

Can you see any damage?

rear car bumper with damaged paint
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Inspecting a vehicle on site is preferable if you’re not buying a meticulously documented and photographed classic on Bring a Trailer. You want to give the exterior and interior a thorough going over looking for wear and tear, rust, water damage, etc. A test drive can reveal noises. Idling for a bit and then moving the car can be a good way to check for leaks. If the car has a funky smell — as Seinfeld fans will know you’re probably not going to be able to get rid of it.

Has it been exposed to lots of road salt?

Salt acts as a corrosion agent that can promote rust on metal surfaces. Rust can be particularly bad in areas like the Midwest and Northeast where road salt is used to melt snow and ice. Ditto for more temperate coastal areas where there’s a lot of salt in the air. Areas that are warmer and dryer tend to be a better bet for older cars. Though garage-kept is always better than not.

What's the price you're willing to pay?

It’s an extreme seller’s market right now. That is jacking up the prices of new cars and used cars to record highs. Expect to pay a premium right now. Odds are you’re not going to land a used car for the precise Kelley Blue Book value. But knowing how much you should be paying gives you a firm grounding to know when you’re getting ripped off and should — maybe even literally — just walk away.

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