Q: I’ve had my car for a long time and it needs a lot of work to be as reliable as I need it to be. I can’t afford to buy a brand-new car, but I’m thinking it would be good to buy a newer used car. What should I do to make sure I find a car that is not going to need as much work as my current car?
A: The best thing to do is to take the car you are interested in to your trusted repair shop and have it checked out.
But first, so that you don’t end up paying for multiple vehicle inspections, you can do some inspecting yourself.
It is usually better to buy a vehicle from a private party than from a car lot, especially if the original owner is selling the car and he or she has records of the vehicle services that have been done. Vehicles that sit on used-car lots generally were purchased at auction and will not have their service history with them.
Buying the vehicle from the owner allows you to observe how that person may have taken care of the vehicle. For example, if the car is at a personal residence when you look at it, how is the upkeep there? Where is the residence? Near the beach? Possible hidden corrosion. In the hills? Possible extra wear and tear on the drivetrain and brakes.
Service paperwork is valuable to determine that the important services were performed at the appropriate intervals. This is the most reliable way to judge the likelihood of the vehicle lasting many more miles for the least amount of dollars. Poorly maintained cars cost more over their lifetime. Without the service history, you have no way of knowing, for example, when the oil was last changed.
Inspect the exterior of the vehicle. If the tire tread is worn unevenly, suspension repairs may be needed. Inspect the body from different angles in the sun and shade. If the shade of paint looks different on the fender versus the door, it could indicate accident repair.
Look under the hood. In the engine compartment, a battery with corrosion, white or green on the terminals may indicate the need for a new battery.
Check the vehicle fluids – transmission, power steering and brake system. Dark or black in color is not good. The engine coolant should not be rusty.
Finally, drive the vehicle around town at slow speeds and on the freeway at higher speeds. Any vibrations or noises could mean that something is worn out. If you feel vibrations when applying the brakes, then the brakes need attention.
If the vehicle passes your inspection, then it is a good candidate for a more thorough and complete inspection by a professional.