Used Car Checklist: How to Buy Without Getting Burned 

Buying a used car is one of the biggest financial decisions you are likely to make, and if you come unprepared, it could end up costing you much more in maintenance and repair costs. Thankfully, there are a few simple steps you can take to significantly reduce your odds of buying a lemon, even if you have no prior car-shopping experience or mechanical expertise. Below are the steps you should always take any time you are in the market for a used car.

Do Your Research

Before heading to the dealership, take the time to do a little research on any of the makes and models that you are considering. By looking at both industry and consumer reviews, you can make sure that the vehicle will suit your specific needs, as well as potentially uncover any common issues that you need to be aware of. Manufacturers aren’t always consistent when it comes to build quality, and you might be surprised to find that models from certain years can be much more prone to costly problems than an identical model built only one or two years later. Doing your research beforehand could save you major headaches and major cash, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

Ask the Right Questions

One of the most important questions you can ask when considering a used car is whether or not the owner has maintenance records available. If they don’t, it’s a good indicator that the vehicle wasn’t properly maintained, which could lead to expensive repairs down the line. In some cases, the owner may have serviced the vehicle themselves, in which case they should still be able to tell when the last time the oil was changed and the tires were rotated, or whether the battery has ever been replaced. You should also be sure to ask about the ownership history, whether the car has ever been involved in an accident, and whether the owner has the car’s title on hand. Finally, if you are serious about potentially buying the vehicle, don’t be afraid to ask whether you can take it to a mechanic for a check-up. If the seller seems hesitant, that may indicate a problem that you aren’t being told about.

Check the History

Every car has a vehicle identification number, or VIN, that can be used to obtain a detailed vehicle history report to show you where the car has been, who has owned it, and if any major damage has been reported through an insurance company. A limited history report can be obtained for free through the National Insurance Crime Bureau, but paid services such as CarFax and AutoCheck can provide much more detail. Be particularly careful to look for whether or not the car has been flagged as salvaged or branded, which indicates that it was heavily damaged in an accident, flooding, or fire. A history report will also tell you if the car has been recalled or if it was purchased back by the manufacturer under lemon law.

Take a Test Drive

The test drive is one of the most important parts of the used car buying process. Pay close attention to the major red flags, such as strange engine noises, vibrations or rattling in the steering column or under the hood, and any grinding or squealing noises when depressing the brake. Also be sure to check the windows, radio or CD player, and air conditioning system, and make sure there are no warning lights present on the dashboard. Trust your gut–if anything feels wrong, don’t be afraid to ask questions or to have a mechanic inspect the issue.

Perform a Leak Test

Once you are done with your test drive, take a moment to pull over onto an empty, clean section of road or parking lot, and let the car run for a full minute. Then move the car, get out, and inspect the ground to see if the car is leaking any fluids. In some cases, you might find a clear, odorless wet patch, which is likely just water from the air conditioning system. However, if the fluid is black, it may be an oil leak, while green fluid means an anti-freeze leak and pink fluid indicates leaking transmission fluid. Leaking fluids are often a sign of a major issue, which also means a major repair bill, and it is very likely in your best interest to look for another car.


Buying a used car can be a stressful experience, especially if you don’t know what warning signs to look for. By following the checklist above, you can ensure that you’ve covered the likeliest and most expensive issues, allowing you to make an informed decision that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars down the road.

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