What to look for when buying a used car?

Things to check before buying a used car.

You may have seen dealers touting their Certified Pre-Owned cars. You can get more for your money than buying new. Still, you pay a premium price.

Certified Pre-Owned cars are typically low-mileage and often come with an extended warranty. They sell for $850-$1500 more than regular used cars.

They’ve undergone a multi-point inspection from a certified mechanic. Certified Pre-Owned gives the impression that you save money and have peace of mind, knowing that you’re buying a reliable car.

But you can get a better bargain with a non-certified car -- if you know what to look for.

Check the Car Model Track Record

Some used cars are known for reliability. Others are duds. Search “2019 Chevrolet Malibu (or whatever car you’re looking for) reliability” in Google.

The search results should bring up reviews from reliable sources such as US News, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and Consumer Reports.

You might find a forum where car owners discuss their own experience with the car model.

To see reliability ratings from some sources, such as Consumer Reports, you may have to sign up for a paid membership.
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Check the Market Price

Compare the seller's asking price with its market value. A lot of sellers price their cars slightly above market value. That’s because there’s a long-standing tradition of haggling over price in used car sales.

With a little negotiating, you can get it for a better price.

Several market conditions affect pricing:

What buyers are willing to pay.
How much sellers want to get.
The selling price of similar autos.
Value-added features. For example, a transferable extended warranty.
Economic conditions. Fuel prices, employment rates, tax rates, etc.

There are a few places online where you can find market pricing:

Kelley Blue Book bases its pricing on data from wholesale auctions, car dealers, automobile manufacturers, rental fleets, and other related sources.
Consumer Reports estimates a car’s value with data from Black Book, previously only available to auto dealers.
NADA Guides. J.D. Power now owns the National Automobile Dealer Association (NADA). It determines market value from dealership pricing by location.
Edmunds True Market Value (TMV) derives a car’s price from sales of similar cars in your region.

Check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

The vehicle identification number, or VIN, is a car’s ID. It’s a string of 17 numbers and letters that encodes info about the car.

Country where the car was built
Make and model
Manufacturing plant
Production number
Other info

The VIN is the key to the life of the car. It’s used to order parts for repair. It identifies the car for insurance purposes. It ties your car to state registration and the certificate of title.

You can find the VIN by looking through the windshield on the driver’s side. You’ll see it on a rectangular plate mounted far forward on the dashboard.

Most cars also have the VIN on the driver’s side doorpost.

You can find the VIN in other places as well.

Engine block
Radiator support frame

Check The Vehicle Description of the VIN

The VIN has a lot about the car encoded in it. It’s kind of complex. Fortunately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a free VIN decoder on their website.

It’ll bring up some basic info such as make, model, year, and engine type. You want to check that it matches the car you’re considering.

It won’t give every detail. For example, it may not tell you the color. We’ll look at how to get more detail about a VIN later.

Check For Open Recalls

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires automakers to issue a recall when safety defects are found.

You can check for recalls on the NHTSA website at https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls.

Repaired recalls won’t show up. If the car has none open you’ll receive the message, “0 Unrepaired recalls associated with this VIN.”

It won’t show recalls that aren’t safety-related. You won’t see recalls from more than 15 years ago either.

Check That the Car Isn’t Stolen or Declared a Total Loss

You can search the car’s VIN with the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) VINCheck® tool. It’s limited to 5 searches per IP address in 24 hours.

Check the VIN On the Car’s Title and Registration

You want to be sure that the seller isn’t scamming you with a title for a different car. Check that the VIN on the title and registration match the car.

Check the Car’s Condition

Arrange to meet with the seller using the PrivateAuto test drive scheduler. It lets you set up a meeting to check the car’s condition and take a test drive straight from the platform.

Inspect the outside of the vehicle. Look at the body condition. Check for dents, scratches, and rust.

Check the lines of the body panels and doors. If they look misaligned, it could mean that it was in an accident and not properly repaired.

Open and close all the doors. Make sure they don’t feel loose on the hinges. They should close properly without needing to slam them shut.

Inspect the interior. Look for rips and holes in the upholstery. Sit in each seat. Make sure the adjustment controls work.

Check the instrument panel. Turn the key to the “on” position without starting. Make sure all the warning lights come on.

Start the engine. Check the air conditioning and heat to see that they work properly. If the car has extras, like heated seats or a sunroof, ensure they are in working order.

Check the Tires

Look for uneven tire wear. It could mean the suspension has problems.

They should have a tread depth of more than 2/32 of an inch.

If you don’t have a tread depth tool, you can use the “penny test.”

1. Take a US one-cent coin and rotate it so that Honest Abe’s head is turned toward the tire.
2. Insert the penny into the tread groove.
3. If the top of Lincoln’s head goes into the groove, the tread depth is fine. If it doesn’t, the tires are too badly worn.

If it’s close (the head is barely in or out), you might ask the seller to adjust the price because you’ll have to replace the tires.

Check Mechanical Condition

Look inside the engine compartment. With the engine turned off, check the condition of belts and hoses.

Look for belts that seem worn or frayed.
Check the hoses for leaks. They should be firm and flexible. If they are hard, dry, or have cracks, it’s time to replace them.

Check the engine block for cracks and leaking gaskets.

Take it for a test drive. This is the best way to tell if the car is a good fit for you.

Get a mechanical inspection. The PrivateAuto app also includes a handy inspection scheduler. It will help you find an ASE Certified mechanic nearby.

Check the Car’s History

A vehicle history report can reveal a lot about a car’s past.

Maintenance and repair records
Reported stolen
Flood, fire, or storm damage
Total loss in an insurance claim
Rebuilt from salvage
Odometer readings
Emissions records

PrivateAuto now partners with AutoCheck, the best value for the money. It’s backed by data from Experian. You get a complete picture of the car’s past.

The report draws on data from many sources.

State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
Auto auctions
Salvage auctions
Collision repair shops
Maintenance facilities
State inspection stations
Other sources

Plus, you get the Experian AutoCheck Score®. It tells you how likely the car will still be on the road in 5 years.
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Final Thoughts

Buying a used car from a private seller can save you a lot of money compared to a dealer Certified Pre-Owned car.

You pay a premium price for Certified Pre-owned.
Dealer pricing is higher than private sales.

With a little bit of effort, you can find a reliable used car that’s as good as certified. You could save thousands of dollars.

When you shop for a used car in the private seller market, know how much the car you’re looking for is worth. It just takes a few minutes on the Kelley Blue Book or other pricing guide websites.

The vehicle identification number (VIN) encodes a lot of information about a car. It’s used in almost any transaction related to the car.

After you’ve researched the car’s history, make arrangements to meet the seller.

Check out PrivateAuto's new online application which simplifies the private sale from negotiation to payment. You get dealer-like services in the palm of your hand without the cost.

Free test drive and inspection scheduling.
Bill of Sale and state forms right in the app.
Electronic signatures.
Secure electronic payments between buyer and seller
Fraud prevention tools