A used vehicle can be a great decision if you want to save money. The biggest depreciation hit that a vehicle will take is in the first couple of years of it’s life, so why should you suffer it. That being said, there is a certain amount of risk involved when you take on a used vehicle. You do not have the full history on it so you have to do your best with the information that you can get on the vehicle. Here are some things that you need to find out.
1. Was the vehicle maintained?
Ideally, you would ask for the service records on the vehicle. If you are buying the vehicle from a very detailed private owner, they might have these available. If you are going to a dealer, you are far less likely to be able to get the records unless they used the dealership service department. Realistically, records will be hard to find with most used vehicles and you will need to examine the vehicle to determine if you think it was maintained.
Check the oil for any obvious sign that it has not been changed in a long time. Chances are that the oil will have been recently changed though because this is something that is cheap and easy to do right before a sale.
Your better indication of maintenance will be the other fluids like power steering, brake fluid and transmission fluid. Make sure that the levels are correct and that the fluid does not look or smell burnt. Transmission fluid in particular must be looked at. A burnt color or odor could indicate big transmission trouble in the near future. A transmission rebuild can easily top $2000.
Finally, be sure to give the vehicle a good once over from bumper to bumper. Check the fan belt for cracks, check CV joints for separation and check the tires for irregular wear.
Keep in mind that it is a used car and it will not look like new. Having said that, the more maintenance needs that you see, the riskier the vehicle becomes.
2. Does the vehicle have a good reputation?
Certain vehicles will just have a better track record than others. Do a search for the vehicle year and model that you are considering. Check forums and car review websites looking for known issues with the vehicle.
While you are at it, look up common repair prices. How much would it cost you to replace an alternator or a water pump for example. Repair prices can vary quite a bit. A Ford Explorer is cheaper to work on than a Range Rover and Toyota is generally going to cost less to maintain than an Audi.
The engine type is also something to consider. Research the engine for user reported problems. I’ll give you an example. Diesel engines are overall considered to be very reliable, fuel efficient and long lasting. Particular engines though, like the 6.0 Liter Ford Super Duty diesel have a very poor track record of reliability and should be avoided. Do your research so that you are not stuck with a lemon.
3. Is the mileage consistent?
Too little or too many miles on a vehicle could be a red flag. If a vehicle has very high mileage, what was it used for? Did the owner work for a courier service, for example. This is not necessarily a deal breaker but high mileage often means commercial use and in these cases, you should insist on maintenance records. If they used it commercially and they can not prove that it was maintained, you need to walk away.
Very low mileage vehicles can also be an issue. You might think that it is a dream to find a 5 year old vehicle with only 20,000 miles but this can be a problem. Short trips are hard on a vehicle because the engine never gets up to temperature. This can lead to fuel and water contamination in the oil because it never has time to burn off. Oil contamination can lead to engine bearing failure. In addition, if an exhaust never heats up, it can not burn off water vapor. That can lead to exhaust rust and emissions equipment failure.
4. Has the vehicle been in an accident?
This can be hard to tell if you do not have bodyshop experience but there are some signs. Look at body panels and see if they are aligned properly. Also check the color between panels to see if it is consistent. If the paint on a bumper looks newer than the paint on a door, this could indicate a potential former repair.
You can also run a Carfax on a vehicle and this might come up with accident history. They do not catch everything but they can give you some additional good information on the vehicle like the number of owners. A Carfax is not cheap but it might be worthwhile. You can pick up a package of five reports for a 100 dollar single charge.
Former bodywork does not mean that a car should not be purchased. As long as the work was done properly, it could have years of service left. Still, you want to know about prior incidents because it affects the value
5. Is the title good and clear?
Make sure that the owner has a clean title that is free of liens. If they have a lien holder, never pay the individual for the vehicle. You would need to make your payment to the bank so that they can then release the vehicle title to you. They would then pay off the note and give the remainder of the money to the seller. Dealing with a bank is a pain though, try to avoid it if possible.
Also check the paper that the title is printed on. Blue, pink or green, the meaning will vary from state to state so check out the meaning in yours. Different title colors will indicate whether the vehicle has a clear title or a salvage title. Salvage vehicles have been totaled or flooded and rebuilt, not a good choice if you are paying a premium price. If a used clear title vehicle is worth 8000 dollars, a salvage title one might only be worth 5000 dollars. Don’t get ripped off.