Used vehicles can actually be a better investment than new ones because the new car buyer takes that enormous financial hit as the car drives off the dealer’s lot the first time. It immediately becomes a used vehicle, and loses value. But getting a good deal is all about knowing what to look for and things to avoid.

Whom Are You Dealing With?

Abandon car

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The safest way to buy a new car is from a reputable dealer not an individual. Dealers have a reputation to maintain, which usually means they’re willing to do what it takes to satisfy customers. If you’ve never dealt with this dealer, ask around and check their customer reviews online. Look for one who’s proven their commitment to customer service.

What Questions Do You Have?


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Take a checklist along with you. Once you meet with the seller and start talking, it’s impossible to remember everything you’re supposed to check. If the seller can’t answer your questions, it may be a warning sign. Here are a few important things to check:

  • Fluids
  • Funny noises
  • Leaks under the vehicle
  • Whether the car is sitting level
  • Fresh paint (might be concealing rust)
  • Identical tire tread and tire wear
  • Corrosion around battery connections
  • Owner’s manual
  • Other tell-tale signs of problems

Don’t hurry. If the seller isn’t willing to let you take your time, move on.

What Do the Fluids Look Like?

Check fluids

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If the fluids in the engine and transmission look dirty or are low, this is a warning sign that the car has a leak or hasn’t been properly maintained. However, perfectly clean fluids are also warning signs. Sometimes sellers refill or change fluids to hide problems. If the car is poorly maintained in other areas, but the fluids are bright, clear and full, move on. One such trick is putting in a heavy oil to hide a smoking engine.

How Does It Drive in Varying Conditions?

Driving conditions

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When you test drive, be sure to test all possible driving conditions. How does it handle on a bumpy road or steep grade? How does it break? Does the transmission slip? Keep the radio off so you can hear noises. Test out the windshield wipers, lights, heater and air conditioner. Again, take your time and think through the conditions you’ll experience throughout the year. Test each one methodically.

How Well Have the Interior and Exterior Been Cared for?

Vehicle care

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If the previous owner didn’t take care of the upholstery, windows, doors and paint, they probably didn’t pay much more attention to oil changes, tire rotations and other maintenance. Though there are perfectly running used cars with some faded paint from sitting in the sun, general lack of care for the vehicle’s appearance is often a sign of abuse or neglect.

Can the Owner Provide a Vehicle History Report?

Vehicle History report

Image via Flickr by .Martin.

A vehicle history report is your last line of defense. It doesn’t guarantee there is or isn’t a problem, but it can make you aware of potential ones. It’s cheap, fast and great peace of mind for buyers who can’t afford to make costly repairs if the car turns out to be a lemon.

The most important thing is to pay attention and heed your instincts. If you have a bad feeling about the seller or the vehicle, there are plenty more to choose from.