Buying a Used Car? Check These 8 Things First.

Buying a “previously cared for” vehicle can be a great experience, or a huge headache and even a nightmare. There are so many unknowns, and a “gently used” car could be much more problematic than it initially appears.

Whether you’re buying from a car dealer or from an individual seller, be aware that some will be more than ok with selling you a little less car than you bargain for, or, they simply don’t know all the history or problems at the time of sale.

Check these eight critical things before you decide to buy a used car:

History Report

Ask for the car’s VIN and check the vehicle history report at sources like CARFAX, Autocheck, Kelley Blue Book, and others. While not perfect, they do offer history reports that include: accidents, insurance claims, if it has a salvage title, (meaning it’s been declared a total loss by the insurance company), ownership chronology, and even some service history (as long as incidents were reported). Also, the report will show if a vehicle’s odometer has been rolled back.

Review the vehicle’s title and service records to get the sense of how well the car has been cared for. Avoid buying a vehicle that has been involved in a serious accident or had major repairs such as an engine overhaul or transmission rebuild.

Check if the vehicle has been recalled by consulting the National Highway Traffic Administration’s database of recalls. If it was, don’t buy until the seller can prove the recall issue has been fixed.

Engine Operation

The engine should start and run smoothly, without any odd noises; the transmission should shift smoothly and without effort, lurching, hesitation or slipping.

Test Drive

Take the vehicle on an in-depth test drive; start with small roads you’re familiar with, and continue on to the highway to see how it performs on entrance ramps and at higher speeds. Listen for rattles or squeaks, and feel how the car runs and how comfortable (or not) it is.

Oil Dipstick

You can tell a lot about an engine and a car owner from this simple test: pull the dipstick out, wipe it off and put it back, then carefully pull it again, and note the oil level. If it’s overfull there may be gas in the oil, which is a bad sign; if it’s low, but not below the bottom line on the stick, it’s OK, and lower than that could be a problem. White foam on the dipstick is a sign of water or coolant in the oil, a very bad sign. Also, if the oil smells nasty and burnt, it has probably been in there too long. However, if the oil is pure, clear amber – then it has just been changed, which is more than ok providing this is the dealer’s’ policy on every car; but, if your car is the only one on the lot with crystal clean oil then something was wrong when it arrived and they had to freshen the oil. Ideally, it should be a good level, used but not burned up oil, without white or brownish foam in it.


Feel the area along door jambs, around the windshield and the trunk opening. Factory paint is smooth; body shop paint will be a little rough. Look for paint lines, especially at the edges of body panels or paint on the trim – robots at the factory paint around the body panel before the trim goes on, while a body shop paints from one direction, leaving a line at the edge and overspray on the trim. Look for body color and shine that doesn’t match up on the same or adjoining panels. If you see any of these signs – the vehicle has been in a wreck.

Dash Lights

Dash lights and warning messages let us know when something is wrong or has been neglected by the previous owner of the vehicle. If you see check engine light, anti-lock brake light or other warnings on the dash, chances are, the previous owner didn’t want or couldn’t fix whatever the issue was, and it could be a serious one (or more than one).


Uneven wear of tires suggests long miles without tire rotation or a bad wheel alignment. Low pressure or sagging sidewalls point to a leak. Cracking in the sidewalls indicates dry rot, which also means the tires/car could have been sitting for a long time. Bald tires show the previous owner didn’t care about safety or maintenance; if a dealer is selling that vehicle, chances are he doesn’t care much, either.


Airbags need to be replaced if deployed. Look for ill-fitting trim, steering wheel center covers, dash covers and other airbag areas like the sides of seats and over the doors – anything out of place is probably a sign that the car is worn-out. You may want to think twice about that purchase.

These are just some handy tips to help you spot the warning signs with a used vehicle, so you can avoid disaster and buy a less than a good condition car. Also, if you just don’t feel confident about it, trust your instinct and walk away. There are millions of used vehicles to choose from.

It’s always wise to have a mechanic perform a pre-purchase inspection – a professional check-up could save you from spending thousands on repairs down the line, not to mention the safety of everyone involved.

Our expert team at CNM Auto Repair is passionate about assisting our clients, so bring your Domestic, European, Japanese or Asian vehicle to our garage and we’ll ensure it’s performing optimally for years to come.

Contact our family owned and operated car repair shop in Lancaster, PA today for all your tune-up, alignment, and other car and light truck services – make an appointment with our expert auto mechanics today at (717) 397-1497.