6 Top Tips For Buying a Used Car

Buy used car

When you’re buying a used car, you’re obviously looking to save money on the sticker price. While that’s a great way to save, you’ll also want to make sure that the car doesn’t end up costing you a lot in repairs. There’s a real balance between value and risk that you have to think about.

When buying a used car, there are some other things you can expect (both good and bad):

  • Newer model used cars seem to be much more reliable than their older counterparts. Consumer Reports found in 2012 that five-year-old vehicles they’d looked at that year had fewer problems than 2002 models they examined in 2007.
  • Repairs are a factor. Not only should you expect bigger and more expensive problems over time, but you might have to take care of parts that have worn out when you buy the car, such as tires, brakes and batteries. 
  • Consider warranties, too. If you buy an older used car, it may be outside of the period covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Newer cars will probably still be comprehensibly covered. 
  • You don’t have to worry about the rapid depreciation of the value of your vehicle as you would when buying a new car. 
  • If you buy a used car from a dealership, you might pay more on a loan’s interest rate.
  • Insurance will usually be less on a used vehicle compared to a new car of the same model. 
  • Used cars may not offer the same high-tech safety features, such as advanced front air bag systems, that a new car of the same model would. 
  • You’ll get a bigger selection of cars to choose from in your price range, which may mean that some luxury or sport cars may suddenly become affordable.

So what should you look for? We offer the following tips on how to buy a used car to help you make a wise purchase and not end up with a lemon.

1. Set a Budget

When you’re looking for a used car, think about how much you’d be willing to spend. The general rule of thumb is to not spend more than 20 percent of your income on a car. Factor into that all of the other costs of owning a car, such as:

  • HST.
  • Licensing fees.
  • License plates.

There are other things you’ll want to consider beyond the costs of buying a car once you own it, as well:

  • How much the car will depreciate, as some cars are worth more as they age than others.
  • How much fuel economy the car offers, which will affect your gas costs.
  • How much insurance you’ll pay. This will depend on your age, driving experience and the vehicle you end up buying.
  • How much you are going to spend on repairing and maintaining the car. Some models offer greater reliability and are less expensive to repair.

2. Do Your Homework and Look Around

Don’t be afraid to do some reading when you're choosing what make and model. There are a ton of automobile websites out there. Research them for reviews of older vehicles related to the model you want to buy. Check out online forums, too, as owners will post about their experiences with their vehicle and tell you how reliable the car is.

When you’re shopping around, you might also want to look at less popular brands that don’t sell as well. You might be able to find a fantastic vehicle at a bargain price.

Also don’t be afraid of telling friends and family about your decision to buy a used car. You might find a really good deal from, say, a relative who wants to upgrade to this year’s model.

This can cut both ways, though. They may be sentimentally attached to the car and end up not selling it, or offer a higher price than what you could get for the same car elsewhere because they don’t know what it’s actually worth.

3. Consider Private Versus Dealership Sales

There are pros and cons to buying from a dealer or a private owner, so you should be aware of them and be comfortable with whatever route you take.

When you buy a used car privately from an owner, there are these advantages:

  • You might find a really good deal.
  • Negotiating on price should be easier, as you’ll be less likely to encounter people up-selling you on extra features that you probably don’t need.

The downsides?

  • You might run into cagey sellers who could be difficult to deal with.
  • Your car probably won’t be covered by additional warranties and consumer protection laws, such as Ontario’s Motor Vehicles Dealers Act. You could run into a real Edsel.

Want to buy from a dealer? Consider these pros:

  • Your car will be covered by a warranty beyond the original factory warranty and by consumer protection laws.
  • You could get extra services thrown in, such as a free oil change and discounts on service visits.
  • You can trade in your current car to lower the price of the used car.
  • You can take out financing to make the purchase.

The sad news?

  • Used cars are often more expensive at dealers as opposed to private sales.
  • You may encounter high-pressure salesmen who want to talk you into buying something. 
  • Dealers could give you add-ons you don’t need that will increase the car’s sale price. 
  • You might be forced into financing the cost of your new used car, which increases the price of the car.

You’ll have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages to both approaches and figure out what’s best for you.

4. Kick the Tires

Each car is different, so you’ll have to really look at a car carefully when you have one in mind. This YouTube video gives some pointers as to what to look for when buying a used car:

You might want to get a friend who knows a lot about cars to examine it with you if you don’t know much about cars. When you do your inspection, do it during a really sunny day. Floodlit car lots, if you’re buying from a dealer, can hide body defects. Make sure the car has been parked on a flat surface and hasn’t been driven for at least one hour before checking it.

Things you will want to watch out for include:

  • Paint overspray on door seals, mufflers, and wheel-well liners. This tells you that the car has been in an accident. 
  • Shattered glass fragments under the seats.
  • The smell of mildew -- this means there’s a water leak. Look under the floor mats for wet spots on the carpet. Also sniff for other odors while you’re at it. Mould or smoke smells can be hard to get rid of. If you smell air freshener, it might be masking something unpleasant. 
  • Fresh undercoating covering up major structural repairs. 
  • Lit warning lamps on the dashboard, which may mean you’ll have expensive engine repairs ahead of you. 
  • Motor oil that is very thick, which could mean the car has a blown head gasket. 
  • Transmission fluid that is not bright red or reddish brown. If it’s darker, there may be issues with the transmission. 
  • Rust underneath the car. You’ll have an expensive repair to the underframe if you find rust there. Rust can also take years off the life of a car.

Also be sure to:

  • Check the insides of the car and the odometer. If the mileage on the odometer is low but the inside is a mess, you may have a problem car.
  • Examine the tire wear to see if it’s even. If it isn’t, the wheels or suspension aren’t aligned properly
  • Grab the top of each front tire and give it a tug. If there’s any give in it or you hear a clunking or ticking sound, that a sign that the suspension joints or wheel bearings need replacing. 
  • Look under the hood. If the nuts and bolt heads are stripped, someone might have done a poor repair job on the engine. If the spark plugs look new, however, that’s a good sign that the car has had regular maintenance and a recent tune-up. 
  • Examine the vehicle glass for cracks and large, pocked areas. A small chip might not be a dealbreaker for you -- though try to bring the price of the car down because of it. Cracks in the windshield, however, will grow and need to be repaired, which can be expensive.
  • Walk around the car to make sure it sits on a level. Bounce each corner up and down. The car should rebound just once if the shock absorbers are in great shape. 
  • Smell and look for water entry in the trunk. Examine the spare-tire well and see if there’s water or rust.

Do a check on the past ownership of the vehicle while you’re at it. You can get CarFax, CarProof and AutoCheck history reports on the car. This will cost you a little bit of money, but it will tell you if the car has been rebuilt or salvaged. (That is, of course, unless the prior owner didn’t go through their insurance company to make repairs.)

Get the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and search provincial records. Get your insurer, if you have one, to do a history search, too. The more you know about the car, the more likely you are to spot potential problems that could mean expensive repairs.

5. Take a Test Drive

Take the car out for at least 45 minutes to an hour and see how it performs. If the dealer or owner doesn’t like you taking so long with the car, walk away from any potential deal.

You should use roads and parking lots that you frequent, and try to get in a good mix of freeway and highway, as well as bumpy country roads. Don’t wear kid gloves -- drive the car as though it’s already yours.

Know what to look for when test driving a used car. When you turn the key, check to see that the car easily starts up. Listen for strange sounds from the engine. In fact, don’t listen to any music or the radio during most of your test drive. Instead, keep the windows down and listen for unusual sounds.

If the car has air conditioning, test it. If there’s a noticeable drop in how the engine performs when you turn the AC on, you have a problem. Also check that the wipers, lights and radio/CD player work.

Transmission Issues

You can test the transmission (if it’s automatic) by listening for loud clunking sounds and seeing if there’s any pauses between shifting gears.

If it’s a manual transmission, you shouldn’t hear any grinding noises when changing gears. You can check the clutch by driving up a hill in third or fourth gear. If the clutch works, the revolutions per minute will decrease and the vehicle will almost stall. If the clutch doesn’t work, the engine will rev but the car will come to a stop.

Other Issues

Also try the following things to let you know what to look for in a used car:

  • Find a quiet road and go up to 80 km/h, then do an emergency brake test: press the brakes as hard as you can. If the car pulls to the sides, you may have a loose brake caliper or not enough hydraulic fluid in the brakes. The brakes could be warped if you feel a shuddering when you try the brake pedal, too. Make sure that the pedal feels firm when you press it. If it doesn’t, you may be facing a master cylinder repair. Watch out for “mushy” brake action as well - this is a sign the brake fluid hasn’t been replaced every few years.
  • Go to a parking lot that isn’t busy and take your hands off the steering wheel for a second. See if the car pulls in any direction. If it does, the car’s alignment is off. 
  • Bring a friend with you. When driving at a high speed, take your foot off the accelerator for a few seconds and then accelerate. If your friend sees blue smoke coming out of the exhaust, the car probably has expensive engine problems. 
  • Take the car out on a bumpy road. If you really feel the bumps, the shocks are gone. 
  • If you’re driving a front or all-wheel drive car, take it to an empty parking lot or a dead end street. Roll the windows down so you can hear and make tight, slow circles by fully turning the steering wheel each way. If you hear any whining or clicking noises, you have constant velocity joints that are failing -- an expensive problem. 
  • Accelerate from a stopped position. If you again hear odd noises as the car speeds up, you may be about to buy someone else’s problem.

6. Get a Safety Check

If you decide to buy the used car, know that whenever it is transferred over to you, you have to get a Safety Standard Certificate. Bemac offers this service, so think about us when it comes to getting your car checked out.

Regardless of the legalities, getting a safety check will give you a sound mind. It’s not always easy to tell when a vehicle has been repaired after an accident. We can tell if there’s creases in the car’s bodywork and chassis, and if there’s paint overspray -- two telltale signs that a car has been in a collision, which may signal future problems with the car.

Bemac can help you with all your needs surrounding your new used car, so be sure to contact us to schedule your check-up.

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