13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

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, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

Choosing to buy a used car rather than a new one is a wise financial decision for most people, but there are several things to consider. A used car has a history, it may have been mistreated, or even crashed. It could have been broken into or stolen.

Don’t stress about it though, there is a lot you can do to make sure that a used car purchase is a good deal.

I also asked my Twitter followers what they look for when  buying a used car and have included some of their answers below.

Your top priority is to get the best car that you can for your money. Even a used car can be a significant expense, and you owe it to yourself to get the best deal you possibly can.

A used car can be an amazing addition to your life, or a complete nightmare. Keep reading and I’ll show you what to look for to make sure that the next used car you buy doesn’t turn out to be the latter.

Thirteen things to watch out for when buying a used car

Poor reviews

Before you even start looking at cars, it’s a good idea to do some Googling on the models you’re interested in. Consistent bad reviews are a sign that you might want to look for something else. Another great site to check out reviews is Carsurvey.

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

They have reviews for vehicles all over the world which is great because many manufacturers sell the same car in several markets.

No maintenance history

Every car comes with a maintenance schedule. It’s typically in a little booklet in the glove box. Certain types of services are recommended at mileage intervals. Ask the seller if they have a documented maintenance history for the vehicle. Some people keep a record right in that little booklet, others keep a separate record.

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

The most important thing to watch for is the the maintenance is completed within 1000 miles of the recommended mileage and that they’ve noted the date and mileage with each service. This is true even if the owner does their own service. You still have no way of knowing that it was actually completed unless there’s a written history.

If they don’t have the history documented, ask if their mechanic keeps a service history. Dealerships and larger shops sometimes document the service history on vehicles.

If the owner can not offer any type of verification that the recommended services have been completed, walk away!

Tip: Owners will sometimes try to sell a vehicle right before it needs a major service, such as a timing belt. Such jobs can run into the thousands of dollars. If there are any major services due soon, make sure to ask if they have been done and if they have been, to see proof. If the work still needs to be done, you can use this as a negotiating point on price.
You might also like: Why I Drive A $500 Car

Seller is cagey about why they’re selling

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

There are a lot of reasons that a person might sell their car. Their family may be expanding, perhaps their needs have changed, or maybe they just want some newer features. Sometimes though, a person will sell a car that has a hidden issue or is going to soon require a major maintenance or repair.

Ask the seller why they’re selling the vehicle. There is no reason for them to hide this info from you. If they refuse to answer or can’t give a good reason, that’s a good indication that you might want to keep looking. You don’t want to end up with somebody else’s problems on your hands.

Mismatched or unevenly worn tires

How tires wear can say a lot about a vehicle. If the tires are wearing unevenly, it can indicate major problems with the suspension or alignment. For example, if the outer edges of both front tires are worn, it could indicate that the alignment is off. Though not necessarily a deal-breaker, it could point to a pattern of neglect. Why has it not been repaired?

Also check that all four tires are the same brand and age. One tire may have been replaced due to a flat. No big deal there but generally if you’re replacing one tire, it should be replaced with the same size, brand and model as the others. If the car has 3 Michelins and 1 cheap, Chinese tire for example, it might indicate an owner who doesn’t want to spend the money to repair the vehicle properly.

You might also like: How To Buy A New Car (Without Getting Screwed)

New or mismatched paint

Hopefully, if the vehicle has been in any sort of collision, the owner will tell you. There are however, a few good indicators to look for. Inspect the car in a bright area and on a day that it’s not raining. Compare the paint color on all of the body panels. It’s fairly easy to tell if a car has had cheap body work. The paint color won’t match the existing paint exactly. Look for runs in the paint or inconsistent texture.

Note: I have no problem buying a vehicle that has been properly repaired by a licensed body shop. If the work was poorly done or the owner isn’t up front about it, I will walk every single time. If the car you’re looking at has been in a collision. Pay special attention to how it drives and whether it pulls to one side when driving or braking. Such issues can indicate irrepairable frame damage.

Misaligned body panels

Another indication of shoddy body work is misaligned body panels. Check the places where doors and body panels meet all over the car. If there are areas where the gap is inconsistent, it is likely an indication of body work that has not been done correctly. It’s best to avoid a vehicle in this case.

Steering issues

When you test drive a vehicle, pay special attention to how it steers. Are there odd noises when you turn the wheel, grinding or whining? These can indicate issues with the power steering system.

Another quick check is to hold the wheel lightly while driving on a level, straight stretch of road, the car should not pull left or right. If the car wants to pull to one side of the road it can indicate problems with the steering, suspension or alignment.

Engine is too clean

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

This could be the result of some thoughtful detailing, or it could be an attempt to hide leaks or other issues. If the engine has not been cleaned in a while it’s plain to see if there are any leaks. A thorough powerwashing can make it look new even if there are leaks

Car warmed up when you arrive

You should always cold-start a vehicle that you’re considering purchasing. There is good reason for this, some problems are much more evident when the vehicle is cold. Slow-cranking could indicate a battery issue. Rough idle could be many different things. The bottom line is that cars tend to be at their worst when they’re cold and if the owner insists on warming it up, they could be hiding something.

You might also like: 15 Car Maintenance Tips To Save You Money

Pushy sales people

I’ve always been of the opinion that you don’t need to push somebody to buy something that they need or want if it’s a great deal. If you’re feeling pressure to make a purchase, just walk away and think it over for a couple of days.

Salespeople, especially those at car lots, have a way of trying to make you feel like this is the last good deal available. Let me say this: There is ALWAYS another deal just around the corner. Don’t buy something because you’re being pressured. It’s your money, and you’re in control. If a salesperson is trying to pressure you and control the situation, sometimes it’s just best to walk away.

Terribly written ad or bad photos

In my experience, the people who take care to post great pictures and write a thorough ad tend to be the type who take care of their things as well. There are exceptions of course, but if the ad is sloppy or there aren’t enough good-quality photos of the car, there’s a higher chance that you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t take the best care of their things.

Lots of owners

The more owners a vehicle has had, the more complicated it becomes to establish what services have been done, and how the vehicle has been driven and treated. If a car has had more than three previous owners, I’m not going to bother with it.

Dirty or worn out interior

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

How an owner cares for the inside of their car can be a decent indication of how they care for their car mechanically. If the vehicle is dirty or if the interior shows obvious signs of neglect, you might want to keep looking.

Seller is reluctant to let you test drive

This should go without saying, but you should never ever purchase a car that you can not drive first. I have seen a few different versions of this. In some cases, the seller might say that they’ve transferred the insurance to their new vehicle so they can’t let you drive it on the road. Another is a seller who says they will let you test drive the car if you put down a deposit.

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

You need to test drive a car if you’re planning to purchase it, and test drives should never require a deposit.

Here are a few additional tips to help you avoid buying a car that will cause you problems down the road.

Check vehicle history

For a few bucks, you can pull a vehicle history report that will tell you if the car has ever been used as a taxi, a rental or has been in any major collisions. It should also tell you if the car has a rebuilt title. A couple of services that offer such reports are:

Check maintenance history

Check the documented maintenance history against what the manufacturer recommends. This will show you if the owner has skipped services or if everything has been done as it should.

Have the vehicle inspected by a reputable mechanic

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

Take the vehicle to a mechanic that you trust. If you don’t have one, ask a friend for a recommendation. A pre-purchase inspection might cost you $50-100, but it can save you thousands.

Final thoughts on buying a used car

A used car purchase is usually still a huge expenditure, and you owe it to yourself to do your diligence. Taking the time to ensure that you’re getting the best deal you possibly can for your money will save you hassle and cash down the road.

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

What do you look for when purchasing a used car?

, 13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal

Care to share?

4 thoughts on “13 Simple Ways To Tell If A Used Car Is A Terrible Deal”

  1. This is a great post. Buying a used car is super stressful for people. I’ve helped lots of friends and family search for used cars, it’s never easy, and there’s no formula that works every time. More info the better. I’ll be getting around to doing some DIY repairs and similar used cars posts over in the figarage soon.

  2. We bought used earlier but no longer, simply b/c of the overall cost/ benefit. New car deals these days come with great financing and warranty packages. I know conventional wisdom is never to finance a depreciating asset (like a car) but at 0-1% financing for five years, I value the liquidity enough to finance. That said, we still only buy a car after driving the previous one for a long time. We recently bought a Prius and will hopefully keep this car for 10+ years.

    • Meh, conventional wisdom might say that (though I’d argue that it’s more Dave Ramsey fans…) but a used car isn’t the best choice for everybody. It’s the best choice for most of us, but if you’ve got a long-term financial plan and can afford the car then why not? Prius is consistently on most reliable vehicles lists, and I’m sure it will last you a long time.


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