Is there a way to know whether a used car is all the sales dude says it is?

Quick Notes

– Quality used cars can be purchased for decent prices.

– A thorough inspection should be made.

– Diligence must be taken when inspecting a used car you’re interested in buying.

Listen, buying a used car is tough. The salesperson wants to meet their numbers and all too often that means helping themselves, not you. How do you know whether or not you’re about to drive a lemon off the lot?

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re in the market for a used car so you can actually get what you pay for.

Where and how you buy a used car matters

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Certified pre-used cars at car dealerships

Certified pre-used cars are sold having been inspected and passed safety certification. These are predominantly purchased through car dealerships but can also be done by private sale. Cars sold certified pre-owned or pre-used usually come with an extended warranty if sold through the dealership but usually without warranty if sold through private sale.

Regardless of where it was purchased, the car should still be thoroughly inspected before you finalize the purchase of the car or immediately afterward.

Uncertified cars purchased from dealerships

Uncertified cars purchased from dealerships are often off-brand of the dealership, which is why they are not certified. It may not be cost-effective for the dealership to sell the car as certified. These cars were likely trade-ins and will require some work, even if minor or maintenance.

If a car is being sold uncertified from the same branded dealership, it may be because the car requires numerous or extensive repairs which make it not profitable for the dealership to sell the car certified.

Uncertified cars purchased in private sales

Seeking uncertified cars via privates sale can be a great way to purchase a better car for less, but you will not have any assurances. An inspection prior to purchase is necessary to ensure you aren’t purchasing something that requires extensive, expensive repairs to be considered roadworthy.

Inspecting the car

Personally inspect the car, and obtain a professional inspection if possible. If purchasing the car certified, ensure the warranty and paperwork properly outline what is covered and for how long. If there are any minor repairs or issues, note them and try to have the dealership repair them as part of your purchase agreement.

If purchasing the car certified, ensure the warranty and paperwork properly outline what is covered and for how long.

What you should look for in an inspection

Bring a flashlight and camera to highlight and record anything requiring further inspection or notation.

1. Outside – Look for rust and holes in the frame and underbody. Bumper lines, hood, corner panels, etc… should all line up. Misalignments can mean other underlying issues that may need to be reviewed. Blistered paint or rust can be signs for concern, especially around wheel well bolts, flares, or fenders. Check for rust under around door panels, under the doors, and door bottoms.

Open and close each door and hood. Check for any looseness in the hinges, tearing in rubber or other seals.

Check the inside of the door panel and bolts in the carpet for signs of rust. Dirt lines ringed around the car upholstery may be signs of flood or water damage.

Check windows for cracks and uneven window rolling mechanics.

2. Interior and exterior accessories check – Test all interior and exterior accessories. Test lights and signals.

3. Tires – Check tires for baldness and signs of uneven wear which can be a sign of alignment or a more serious problem.

4. Suspension – Ensure the car is level on even ground. Creaking sounds of metal or other may be an indication there is something wrong with the suspension.

5. Check the CarFax – Carfax shows all reported accidents, registrations, and maintenance. There may be unreported damage, so an inspection should still be completed.

6. Odor – Odors in the interior can be a sign of flood or other water damage.

7. Roof and headliner – Check for smoke damage, fabric stains, and sagging headliner which possibly indicate leakage through the sunroof. Check that the sunroof moves properly and fully when buttons are appropriately pressed.

8. Pedals – Ensure rubber pedals don’t show unnatural signs of wear. They shouldn’t creak or make other weird noises when depressed.

9. Trunk – Check visible metal for rust. Note weird smells or warped carpet. Check spare tire for rust or water in the well.

10. Hoses and Belts – Hoses should be soft and pliable. No cracking or mushiness. Drive belts should be inspected for any sign of fraying or concerning wear.

11. Fluids – Fluids should all be their appropriate color. Oil shouldn’t be gritty. Milky oil may signify a cracked engine block or blown head gasket, both costly to repair. Transmission fluid should be pink and smell like oil. Fluid having a burnt smell signifies a problem requiring further inspection. Check power steering and brake fluid levels.

12. Radiator – Check through the plastic reservoir that coolant is green or orange, not milky nor rusty. Coolant stains outside of the radiator can be an indication of small leaks.

13. Battery – Check the liquid level of the battery, and signs of any crust or leaks. A battery problem can signify possible alternator, starter, fuse, relay, or electrical issues which, while not necessarily costly, can be frustrating to deal with.

If you are interested in a specific vehicle or year, or vintage or another specialty car, you may find yourself in some less-than-reputable used car dealerships who will use your lack of flexibility against you. Best to be prepared and check everything.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

How to buy a dependable used car | Autos101

Finding a peach instead of a lemon!

Do you know when is the best time to buy a car? Finance101

Is there a better time to buy a new car than when your current one dies?