Buying a used car is always a gamble. It can give you an opportunity to own an extremely reliable car via a clean deal or can be a painful experience buying an overpriced troublesome machine which later eats a lot out of your pocket.
However if you properly examine a used car before buying, you may end up getting your hands on a clean well maintained ride that will serve you well for years to come. Here are some useful tips to help you find the right used car:
Is Mileage an Important Factor to Consider?
It is a general perception that cars with higher mileage on the odometer tend to give problems so most people look for cars with low mileage, and that’s where the problem comes. It actually doesn’t matter how much the vehicle is driven, in fact in what way it has been driven matters a lot.
Odometer tampering is a common practice, particularly because of this very perception that every car with a low mileage is trouble-free. In fact a carefully driven car with plenty of miles can give you a trouble-free ownership experience than an abused/ tampered car with low mileage.
If you are getting a car that has high mileage on the odo, but is carefully maintained with service history etc, then surely you must consider it over a low mileage car with no history.
Exterior is the first impression; it has to be right in all ways. Ask the seller to park the car on a flat surface where you can thoroughly examine it from everywhere. The car should have a proper standing stance; it should not be leaning towards any side. Examine the body panels, bumpers and rubbers closely and see if they look fine.
Examine the gap between fenders and tires, and see if they are even on all tires. Look around the corners for rust or any damage. The dents and paint irregularities can best be identified in proper daylight so it’s better to avoid checking any car at night unless you are a real pro. Sunlight can help differentiate between the colors, especially when a panel is repainted.
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Check the fitting of head lights, tail lights and indicators, try looking at the car from a distance as it may reveal slight irregularities that are not visible when standing too closely.
Get the odometer reading of the car and see if the condition of the car justifies the mileage shown. Car with bad paint job and worn out tires generally have high mileage on them, but if you come across a car that is newly repainted and have very less numbers on the odometer, yet the tires seems to be new which are (in most cases) retreated/ refurbished then you might want to look for another car.
Examine the underbody, and suspension components which shouldn’t have any signs of damage or leaks. Also check the condition of exhaust pipe and other underbody components.
Also see if all four tires are of same make or not. Try looking for the date stamp to know how old the tires actually are. Examine the tire tread pattern, as this will give you an idea of how the car has been used.
Shaved tires with no signs of treads tells you the exact story of the driving style. There are people who specially mention “newly installed tires” to attract buyers, while in real world not everyone would spend Rs. 25,000/- just to let the new owner enjoy!
Most people just put used/ refurbished tires before selling their cars so do try to look for the date stamp. To know more about how to read tire walls click here.
The exterior of a car takes a lot of beating from the atmosphere, sunlight, scratches, dents and accidents etc, and its surprisingly easier to get fixed too. You will find pro denters in almost every area of major cities and if you notice, accidental new cars can be found being repaired in such a way they are hard to be identified as repaired. So it’s a common practice to get the exterior makeover spending a few thousands before selling the car.. but it’s actually the interior which tells the true story how the vehicle has been kept.
In a process of buying a used car, I have come across several cars with glistering exterior having abused interior with broken air-vents etc which makes me walk away from the car in no time.
If you care about your car, you’ll care about its interior as much as its exterior because that’s the place you spend most of the time when traveling. So a clean & well maintained interior should matter a lot to you.
Get the odometer reading of the car and see if the condition of the interior justifies its mileage. Owner of a well-kept vehicle will always show you his car in original state. If you come across a car that has been fitted with new sear covers, new steering wheel cover and other cosmetic add-ons that serves the purpose of camouflaging the flaws rather than to beautify, then there is something fishy.
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Genuine cars are in their original state from the inside, i.e. no seat covers, no steering cover etc.. this way you can see the actual fabric & seat condition of the car. Specially examining the driving seat gives you the idea of the mileage as its the seat that’s always in use while driving. So a 10 year old car with under 50k kms and a poor driving seat cushion should also be able to alarm you! Also inspect the gear knob (manual transmission), usually cars this old have lost the gear information on them up to some extent.
A seller who claims his car with low mileage while still having a shaved gear knob is something alarming as well. Similarly examine the steering wheel specially where the horn is pressed, other areas like door trims and door locks also show how much & in what manner they have been used.
Examine the pedal covers, the condition of rubber on the clutch & brake pedal also tells you the mileage. And if seller have deliberately installed fancy pedal covers & gear knob, then in most cases something is fishy since these aftermarket gadgetry is never comfortable to live with!
Turn on the Switch:
Before you start the car, just turn on the ignition key and notice the dashboard lights. Normally when you turn the ignition key to “ON” position, you should see all the warning lights lit up, this is to let you know if the signal/ bulb is working properly or not. Once you start the engine, these warning lights go off and only those related to any malfunction, or a device that is engaged, such as handbrake, remains lit up.
If you see a car with a ‘Check Engine’ light on the dashboard, then it means there is something serious about the engine or sensors. But if you are getting your hands on an old (non efi) car, and its warning lights doesn’t even come up when the ignition is on, then you should look for another car.
Examine the Engine:
Examining the condition of the engine is another important element. You should also take help of a qualified & trusted mechanic who can assist you in identifying a good healthy engine. Better still, u can examine the idling of the car yourself, note if it’s not unnecessarily shaking & that if there are any strange noises.
Never get impressed by a shiny washed engine. Normally sellers get the car serviced before selling so this practice is also used in a negative manner in order to hide any leaking lubricant in the engine bay. Seller of a car with a perfect engine won’t mind u showing the engine in its original state.
Start the Engine:
Start the car and keep it idle and notice the vibrations or rattling sound that may occur from here n there. Notice the silencer for any smoke. If the vehicle is installed with tachometer (rpm) see if it’s around 850 rpm at idling. Do note the behavior of rpm if its stable or fluctuating, particularly when you switch on the a/c. Look for oil stains or dripping oil underneath (if any).
Notice the engine components, the belts, hoses, fans and the way they run. A healthy engine can easily be identified leaving it idle for a couple of minutes rather than revving the engine for a few seconds before coming to a decision.
Take a Ride:
Once everything else is satisfying, the last thing would be to take out the ride for a test. Drive it on plain roads to see if the car goes straight or drifts to a certain end, this indicates a steering component/ alignment problem with the car.
Notice unwanted sounds, on bumpy roads as well as smooth surfaces to make sure everything is spic & span. Drive with & without a/c, to see if the car behaves differently. Try to feel if the steering wheel is unnecessarily vibrating, is it too firm? Is it too lose, or is there an unusual play?
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Check the braking on en empty road where you are sure there is no incoming traffic from behind. Check if the brakes squeals, are they effective or the pedal feels spongy?
You might also need to check the indicators, headlights or tail lights if they are well illuminated and working properly. So it’s best to pay multiple visits before finalizing a used car. Inspect the car in day light, but test driving can be scheduled in evening hours when its dark enough to notice the illuminations, of both interior (cabin & dashboard) and exterior lights.
Things to Remember:
Also consider these factors before making a car buying decision:
- Car shouldn’t be involved in a major accident. Now in daily routine driving it’s really hard to prevent your car from getting hit, so minor accidents are acceptable, particularly when you are looking for a 10+ year old car. You should be able to classify between major & minor accidents. I will say major accidents are those which affects the structural integrity of a car such as damaging pillars/ chassis/ suspension/ or engine components etc. Those hits which affects bumpers/ lights and outer body parts should be considered minor. A good denter can easily identify repainted parts so if u have someone you trust, you can safely have his opinion.
- Back in 2007 I went to xxx Autos (suspension specialist) to get the front suspension of my car checked. After inspection, first thing the person asked was “do you want to keep this car with you are about to sell it?” I asked “why?” for which he told me that if I want to sell this car the cost of repair will be minimal since the repair will only work for a few weeks but if I want to keep this car then the job will be different & expensive too and it will last longer as well.
- It was then when I came to know that people who claim ‘new suspension’ while selling their cars cannot be fully trusted as most of the times the suspension will only be good for a short while, and if something happens after this period the new buyer will have to bear all the suspension repair cost and in most cases it’s a job which will cost a fortune! So beware of a new suspension!
- Consider buying a car from someone who is actually the true owner of that car. Avoid buying cars on open letter, or those newly transferred on their names. Always prepare yourself to come across these sort of excuses, “gari behnoi ke naam pe hay”, “merey achay dost thay Dubai jate hoay mujhay baich gaey”, “apnay liay khareedi thi but office se doosri gaari mil gai, khari karnay ki jaga nahi”, “Canada ja raha hoo aaj hi baichni hai..”
- Check for documentation, taxes and see if the car is clear from CPLC/ ACLC etc. These days verification can also be done online so consider this before finalizing the deal.
- Original condition means, the car despite being used is as good as the one standing in the showroom. Original condition should never mean a car that was once red and now grey, torn seats, bald tires, cracked & broken dashboard, faulty wiring, dents all over the place but the seller emphasize you that it’s the very beauty of originality. You should shake hands and congratulate that seller, and go on to look for another car.
- Consider narrowing your decisions wisely, don’t follow the herd. Let’s assume you are looking to buy a sedan for occasional family use, and you are looking for a 10th generation Corolla 2010/11. You will definitely be looking for a 1.3 XLi or GLi, but since your usage is occasional you will get a 1.8 Altis in good condition in a much reasonable price. This way you can get a better deal, an altogether better vehicle while still saving decent money with you which you can spend later on the car itself.
- One of my relative bought an 9th gen 2004 Corolla SE Saloon in such an extra-ordinary condition that the car seemed brand new even after 11 years. He still has that Corolla which is going absolutely trouble-free, compared to a friend of mine who bought an 11th gen 2008 Corolla 1.3 for a similar amount of money, and had to spend nearly a hundred thousand more on its unnecessary maintenance before selling it off within 2 years.
Buy a car for yourself, not for the one who is going to use it after you. While resale is an important factor which one cannot deny, still a wise decision can save you good amount of money and will give you an enjoyable ownership experience in return.
Remember used-car purchasing can be a painstaking process and it can take several days & even months to strike a good deal. Never rush with your decision, and look for all possible options before going for your next used-car. Good Luck!
A computer animation professional with over 23 years of industry experience having served in leading organizations, TV channels & production facilities in Pakistan. An avid car enthusiast and petrolhead with an affection to deliver quality content to help shape opinions. Formerly written for PakWheels as well as major publications including Dawn. Founder of CarSpiritPK.com