|Buying a Used Car? 8 tips to make sure it's not a money pit.|
1) Check the paint. Being a used car, it might have a few bumps, chips, and scratches, but look closer... If there are scratches in the color of the paint instead of the exterior clear coat of the vehicle, it has been repainted. The paint could have been unsightly and the previous/current owner chose to repaint it. OR the vehicle could have been in an accident at some point. Keep in mind, CarFax only shows accidents that have been reported. So if there was an accident where a claim wasn't filed or the DMV didn't know about it, you won't find it.
Another indication if the vehicle has been repainted is what's called "trash". When clear coating a vehicle, body shops can't guarantee a 100% dust free environment. Trash are specs that are embedded into the paint. You can easily tell these by lightly swiping your finger or hand across it.
2) Check for oil. Cars are typically well detailed before selling. Usually, there's a nice coat of shine on the plastics in the engine bay. However, if you look closer, you will still find signs of past or current oil leaks.
Look under the engine. Most people aren't going to spend the time to pressure wash and thoroughly clean the underside of a vehicle. If there is an oil issue (engine, steering, etc...), you should be able to notice it underneath. It will look like blob of caked on black soot. A giveaway is if you see a black, textured clump in certain areas and not others (typically on the section facing the front of the vehicle and not on rear), then it is from a past/current oil leak.
Bring a rag and pull the dipstick. Check the oil like your normally would (pull, wipe off, reinsert, and pull again.) Not only should the oil be present between the two indicator marks, the oil should not be clumpy.
3) Check the coolant. You can view the coolant in the coolant reservoir or the radiator. (DO NOT remove the radiator cap unless the engine is cool. Very slowly and cautiously is a good rule of thumb.) The coolant should be a light green or red. It should NEVER be brown. Brown coolant can be evidence of a rusty radiator or rust inside the motor.
4) Check bushings (this mainly applies to vehicles over 3 years old). Bushings are the rubber components
at two adjoining metal parts. Their purpose is to absorb vibrations of the engine and the road. They take quite a beating depending on the driver. Turn the wheel to the right, exposing the back side of the wheel. Glance behind the wheel to see if any of the rubber components are worn, show grease, or ripped apart. Turn the wheel to the left and repeat.
Also check the motor mounts. These are the rubber components that not only absorb the vibrations from the engine, but attach it to the car. You should find at least three. Here you're looking for the rubber to have completely separated from its metal housing. The heat of the engine will cause rubber to dry and crack. This is natural. But if the rubber has completely separated, that can be a cause for a chain reaction of repairs.
5) Check gaskets. This can be hard sometimes with other engine components in the way. Most vehicles have a separate gasket that prevents oil from getting into the spark plugs. Easiest way to check this is pull the spark plug wire. If there's oil on the end of the wire, the spark plug gasket needs to be replaced.
Head gaskets can't be checked visually. However, valve cover gaskets can. Some engines have a plastic cover. If possible, go ahead and remove it. The metal on the top of the motor is usually called the valve cover. (There are exceptions to this rule, and it's difficult to explain without going in depth on the other components.) If the valve cover gasket needs to be replaced, you will either notice oil or clumps of black soot but only on the motor below the valve cover. Most of the time a simple fix but go ahead and inquire about it while you're there.
6) Go over the electronics. We automatically assume everything works, but sometimes that's not always the case. Turn on the headlights, wipers (don't forget the rear if equipped), turn signals, flashers (go ahead and check this since it's on a different switch), interior lights, radio - change channels, etc..., defrost (if you can), air, a/c, and heater. If the vehicle is equipped, check the power seats, steering wheel adjustment, mirrors, windows (all of them), and 4WD.
7) Go over the tires. They should have a solid consistent appearance. Old, worn, or rotting tires will show cracks in the side of the rubber. If you decide to purchase the vehicle, keep in mind that tires showing this will have to be replaced soon. Better safe than to have a blow out while driving.
8) Of course, drive it! Yes, I know that you're going to test drive the vehicle. However, here's a few things you might not have thought to pay attention to.
While at idle (car isn't moving but in drive), watch the engine's temperature. If you find it rising, it has some cooling issues which could mean replacing the thermostat, replacing the radiator, or there is air in the coolant system. Left alone, this will completely destroy a motor.
Does the car drive straight without any force? If the car is wanting to drift to the right or left, it may need an alignment or there has been some significant suspension damage.
Of course, these aren't to be substituted for letting your trusted mechanic look over the vehicle before purchasing. But I hope it helps you to purchase a great vehicle versus a money pit.
- Bryan Lin | CEO, The Motorsports Authority, Inc. | MSAStore.com