Buying a used car

Tips and tricks for avoiding hassles

When buying a used car, it’s hard to visualize or anticipate how many things there are to look out for. Cross-checking paperwork and knowing which documents you need and which questions are the best to ask can quickly become stressful and intimidating. Having dealt with the pressures, stresses and social expectations around used car-buying, I’ve compiled a few things to look out and prepare for when looking to spend a pretty penny on a new [to you] ride.

Seller Descriptions

With the implementation of online marketplaces, buying a car has been made a lot easier with a wider selection of vehicles within a bigger range to choose from. Depending on how a seller actually markets a car, whether they’re selling it themselves or for someone else, would deem it worth an in-person visit.

Most promising descriptions will provide a detailed rundown of why they’re selling the car, who they’re selling it for, how many miles the vehicle currently has, how many owners the car’s had beforehand, whether or not it will pass smog, if the car belonged to a smoker or not and what maintenance it’s had done or what it needs to have done.

A major bonus is the inclusion of the current title status (clean, no or missing title, salvaged, etc.), registration status and whether or not they have service records (receipts for work done at shops or dealerships). Providing this information is a solid clue to any buyer that the seller is serious about selling and has intentions to do good business.

If a seller is wise, there will be a plethora of good quality pictures with just as many angles as possible that a buyer can look at. You should be able to get a good idea of what condition the interior, carpets, seats and ceiling is in. Being able to peer into the backseat is a plus, especially if you plan on having passengers.

What you’re looking for is evidence that the car has been taken care of. Therefore, stains, burns, tears or other types of damage should be slim to none. However, the age of the car and the presence of children should also be taken into account, since children are well known for marking their territory with destruction.

Another thing to look for is a brief description of the chassis. What condition is the paint in? Have they routinely washed it? Are there any pictures displaying any imperfections (such as scratches, dents, faded/fading spots, or other types of damage)? Has it been in any accidents before? Since the objective is to get a good quality car for a decent price, most of these questions should yield a positive answer.

In-Person Meetings and Test Driving

Regardless of gender, height, stature or how much you can bench press, you should never meet a seller alone. If you know a thing or two about cars and what to look out for, that’s a major advantage. Otherwise, you should bring a friend, parent or relative who’s mechanically inclined to take a gander at the mechanical aspects of the car.

Before you decide to visit a seller in person, it’s important to try get the seller on the phone at least once, if possible. It helps to listen to how they relay any information they have on the car and it’s a good opportunity to listen for any red flags.

Also, it’s in your best interest to consult DMV’s web page about buying a used car to determine the essential paperwork, as well as what you need to bring and sign vs. what they need to have.

One of the first questions to ask is how soon the car has been smogged. If it’s been within 90 days, that’s a very good sign. If not, it’s cause for caution.

Red flags would include things like: missing paperwork, ignorance as to title or registration status, inconsistencies in their information and general demeanor. If this person comes across as someone who is going to make the process difficult by any stretch of the imagination, it’s better to look for another car.

Always ask about a pink slip- whether they have it, and if they themselves or the person they’re selling it for is available to sign it. If for any reason the person whose name is on the pink slip isn’t available to sign it over to you, it’s probably a better idea to look for a car that doesn’t come with any additional or unpredictable amount of paperwork and fees.

When getting down to business and meeting the seller, it’s important to assess whether you think the car is worth what the seller’s asking based off the information aforementioned. Look at the interior, the back seats, the tires and inside the engine bay (or if you’re not a car person, leave the engine to the friend you bring along).

This is where service records come in handy. A dealership or automotive shop will always declare any oil leaks, as well as any problems that would cause an oil leak. Keep track of what it was taken in for, as well as the frequency of visits. The more information you have access to concerning the mechanical history, the better.

If you can’t bring along someone to inspect the car’s engine, it wouldn’t hurt to ask the seller if they’re okay with having the vehicle inspected at a local auto shop. Costs vary from free to around $60, so I recommend calling and asking around. Shops will always tell you about any leaks, and they’ll check and inspect fluids, tires and brakes.

A seller’s reaction to this question will help reveal the car’s condition as well, since an honest seller won’t have anything to hide, so they should be okay with it. A hesitant and dodgy seller will try and sway you the other way, which could indicate dishonesty.

If it meets your expectations, the next step is test driving. While it’s awkward to bring along a stranger for a car ride, it’s a good way to test the health and functionality of both the engine and transmission. Take mental notes of things that feel and sound normal versus what doesn’t. A misbehaving engine or transmission could spell out major costs in the future. Any shaking or squeaking should be noted, but are generally not costly to have fixed after purchase.

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