It can be pretty pricey to buy a brand new car today, and with depreciation, it’s rarely worth the steep price. However, buying a used car is fraught with potential pitfalls, so knowing how to protect yourself is crucial. Try to stick with cars with mileages in the range of 100 to possibly 200k, depending on the warranty; you want to still be covered. You also should learn all you can about warranties and laws in your state, just in case. But if you do a thorough job before the sale, you should be in good shape down the road.

Learn all you can about the car’s history

It’s imperative when buying a used car that you learn about the car’s history, from repair records, accidents to overall reliability. Check out the Used Car Buying Guide from Consumer Reports, where you can see what kind of repair records the make and model of the car has. You can also check the NHTSA, or National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to see if any recalls affect the vehicle considered.

Ask to see any maintenance and repair records for the vehicle. A car that has an impeccable history or documented regular maintenance is a better bet than one that you don’t know if the previous owners ran it ragged or treated it like a baby. 

Another great source is vehiclehistory.com as well as vehiclehistory.gov to get information on the vehicle like title verification, odometer readings, and total loss or salvage history, plus brand information, so you don’t overpay.

Finally, check Kelley Blue Book to see what the car in its present condition is worth.

Fine print

You should also get the lowdown on the dealership you are working with if you aren’t going the private seller route. Checking the state’s attorney general website or even doing a Google search of the dealership + complaints, or + reviews should tell you about any red flags.

Read the window sticker without rushing. Note any special terms like “As Is,” and what the specific warranty covers, and for how long. Are there any exceptions? You need to know this info before proceeding with any sale.

Do a walkaround

Begin by simply and slowly, walking around the vehicle and noting any areas of concern. Look for chipped paint, areas of paint overspray that may indicate accident repair and the condition of the tires. You want them to look like they have even wear and plenty of tread left. 

Do the doors and windows seal properly without gaps? Are the lights in proper working order? Does anything appear to be hanging off the vehicle, or dragging? Are there any puddles or leaks under the vehicle?

Do the magnet test if you think any area of the body looks suspicious. If filler and covering have been done to repair after an accident, a magnet will no longer stick to the area. This isn’t foolproof, but it’s a help.

Checking out the interior

When buying a used car, look at the interior of the car, note the condition of the upholstery, carpet, and headliner. Are the seats in good condition, not sagging, and do the manual or power adjustments work on seats and windows? How about the switches and gauges, as well as the wipers? Any dashboard warning lights on?

Make sure other systems seem to be in good working condition too. You don’t want to get in your car on the first warm, or wintry day and discover the climate control system is a bust.

Giving the engine a good lookover

Of course, the real big concern is the engine and parts under the hood. If you aren’t a mechanic, you should definitely get the service of one to make a complete check of the vehicle.

Besides a mechanic, you can check certain things out yourself. Does the engine area look free of corrosion and grease for the most part? How do the belts look? If they look worn, frayed, or out of shape, that’s not a good sign.

Any wet spots under the hood could mean a costly leak needing repair, so be sure and check for those. Sootiness or melted appearing wires or lines may indicate a fire. 

Check the oil in a cool engine, and note the look of the oil as well as the level. If the car has low oil, you may be concerned about leaking or poor maintenance. If the oil looks like there are metal shavings, smells burnt or appears very dark, that could indicate a problem.

The transmission fluid level should be checked if it’s an automatic. If it’s manual, it’s best to leave that to a real mechanic, as it can be much more of a pain to do.

It’s critical that you take an actual test drive, noting how well the vehicle accelerates if you hear any unusual or excessive noises and if the brakes work well and without squeaking. Steering should be smooth, and the car shouldn’t list to one side or feel wonky on turns.

Take the car out on side streets, and on the highway to see how the car performs in real-world situations. Also, go over a bumpy area to see how well the suspension seems to be working.

Finally,  know your rights in your state regarding warranties, lemon laws, and keep track of all your paperwork. By doing your due diligence prior to purchasing the vehicle, you will go a long way towards protecting yourself from a real lemon.