Used Car Buyer’s Guide | How to Buy a Pre-Owned Vehicle

how to buy a used car - used car buyer's guide

Car buying is like the start of any new relationship. It will require time, money, and effort. You have to know yourself and what you want, and use a healthy mixture of logic and emotion. The results can be either wonderful or horrifying.

But before committing, you want to make sure you have done all due diligence. There is a lot of work and preparation to be done for the first time used car buyer.

Used Car Buyer’s Guide

How to Buy a Used Car

1. Research

Before inspecting and buying a used car:

  • Set a budget and narrow your used car search down to a couple specific vehicles.
  • Look up the make/model of your desired vehicle for any recalls, consumer complaints, or safety-related defects.
  • If your research turns up any common issues with the car, keep this in mind during the inspection process.

Once you’ve chosen a car that meets your needs and price range, you will need to get a vehicle history report.

Get a CarFax vehicle history report to learn important information about the vehicle you are considering.

All you need is the 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN).

All Auto Simple pre-owned vehicles go through a rigorous 180-point inspection and come with a free CarFax report.

If the CarFax report comes back clean, with no flood damage history, accident indicators, or other red flags, it’s time to inspect the vehicle.

Whether or not you get the car inspected by a third-party mechanic, it’s a good idea to know first-hand the used car’s condition. Although a CarFax vehicle history report provides you with a lot of useful information, you will want to conduct a thorough inspection of the vehicle yourself.

2. Inspection

Minor damage and scratches are acceptable, but you’ll have to decide if the price reflects that. If the car is really cheap, you may expect some damage to the interior and/or exterior.

Minor accidents shouldn’t be a problem if a proper repair has been made. But be sure to make note of any defects you find as it will help you in the negotiation process.

Larger damage is more serious, such as big crashes. This is why you will want to see a full car history report. Although new welds, paints, and other signs can indicate a major crash, you may not be able to tell what the car has been through during its life.

Exterior

Walk around the outside of the car and look for any signs of damage.

  • Body Scratches, dents, and rust indicate how the car was treated by its previous owner. If body parts are not lining up properly or there are paint discrepancies, this is a sign that the vehicle was involved in an accident. You can also use a paint meter to ensure the vehicle history report is accurate.
  • Doors, Hood and Trunk – Test the doors, hood, trunk and any other moving parts. They should be easy to open and close. Make sure they all close fully and create a seal.
  • Tires  Examine the tires for wear and tear. Do they look nice and smooth? Are they all the same brand? How much tread is there? Do they have cracks or look dried out?  If you notice uneven wear on the tires, it may require an alignment. Ask the seller about the tires and if they have been regularly rotated. If you need tire replacements or alignments, use this during negotiations.
  • Lights – Test all of the lights including reverse lights, turn signals, and high beams. Inspect the housing for cracks or other moisture issues.
  • Underneath the Car – Get underneath the car if you can and look for any damage or rust.

Interior

Inspect the car’s interior and see if it has been well maintained.

  • Test All Electronics  Make sure everything works. Let the seller explain all the features and how to use them.
  • Check the Odometer – Compare any damage with the car’s mileage to see if it looks like normal wear and tear.
  • Check the Gaskets  If they are worn or damaged, you could get leaks.
  • Engine  The most important part of the car. Pop the hood and see if everything looks well maintained. Pay attention to any signs of rust, which can quickly spread.
  • Stripped Bolts  Look for marks on nuts and bolts for signs of repair work. If fenders have marks on the bolt, that means it has been repaired at some point.
  • Hoses – Look and feel around the hoses for cracks, holes, and fraying.
  • VIN Number – Look for the VIN or chassis number on the vehicle. It is normally located on the dashboard, driver’s side door, front engine block, or front end of frame. Make sure the number matches the numbers on the papers. If the chassis number has been filed off, don’t buy the car. It’s probably stolen.
  • Check Liquids  Check oil, transmission, power steering, and brake fluids. If the transmission fluid is brown or smells “burnt,” it could be on its last legs. Make sure the fluids are at proper levels. Look for oil leaks. If there is a leak, it’s important to investigate further.

3. The Test Drive 

This may be the best moment of the whole car buying process—driving a car that will potentially be “your baby.” It’s like a first date. And like any first date, first impressions are paramount.

  • Choose a cold day. Pay attention to how the engine sounds when you start the car and let it idle. Turn on the heat and see how warm and fast it is. Once the car warms up, quickly shift over the the A/C.
  • Pre-plan your route. Take the car on smooth and bumpy roads, hills and flat land, city streets and the highway.
  • Test all electronics. This includes windshield wipers, lights, radio, heating and air conditioning.
  • Test shifting gears. Is there smooth shifting? Does the steering wheel vibrate? If you feel odd vibrations or hear clunking or grinding noises, this could indicate a bad transmission. Feel the car at all the different gear settings, but there’s no need to take it to its top speed.
  • Check the brakes. This is not the time to be gentle. Get the car up to about 40-60 mph and then brake hard. Make sure it stops straight and the steering wheel isn’t shaking. This could indicate warper rotors, worn brake pads, or a loose brake caliper. A good healthy brake system will stop straight.
  • Check tire alignment. Make sure your steering wheel is completely straight and then take your hands off for a few seconds to see if the car veers to the right or left. If the tires are aligned, the car should continue in a straight line.
  • Listen carefully. Are there metallic sounds? If you hear clicking, rattling, clunking, and any other unusual sounds, further investigation is needed. Odd sounds and vibrations foretell repairs ahead.

For more information on inspecting a used car, read this Consumer Reports guide.

General Car Buying Tips

Increase your chances for success with a few extra precautions:

  • Never go alone. Always have someone accompany you. They will help you think through your options in a rational way. When you choose the person who will be going with you, try to pick someone with intelligence and experience, someone with a level head on their shoulders. They will help you ask critical questions.
  • Control your emotions. When looking for a new used car, try not to pay too much attention to aesthetics like colors and body work. If you feel yourself falling in love with a car, take a step back and reassess your emotions. To get the best car for your buck, use reason, not emotion. Pick a neutral color if you are thinking about reselling the car.
  • Make sure there are at least two keys. If one is missing consider the cost of getting a backup. It depends on the key, but newer keys with chips in them will set you back a couple hundred dollars. If it’s just a normal key, it won’t cost you that much.
  • Get a CarFax Report! CarFax is a comprehensive and trustworthy report on the vehicle’s history. With more than 93,000 data sources at their disposal, CarFax reports may include:
    • Title information, including salvaged or junked titles
    • Flood damage history
    • Total loss accident history
    • Odometer readings
    • Lemon history
    • Number of owners
    • Accident indicators, such as airbag deployments
    • State emissions inspection results
    • Service records
    • Vehicle use (taxi, rental, lease, etc.)

To ease your worries about purchasing a preowned vehicle, all Auto Simple cars go through a 180-point inspection and come with a free CarFax report. We do our best to bring the vehicle back to like-new conditions, including touching up paint and removing dents.

Plus, we offer a 6 Month/6,000 Mile Powertrain Warranty on all of our Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles. If for any reason you are unsatisfied with your purchase, you can return the vehicle within 48 hours—no questions asked.

Used Car Buyer's Checklist - How to Buy a Used Car (mini infographic)

Finalizing the Purchase

If you are buying from a dealership, the payment and purchase should be very easy. After all questions are answered and the paperwork is signed, you will receive the keys and copies of all the documents. It’s that easy.

In fact, you can leave the Auto Simple lot with a new pre-owned vehicle for as low as $500 Down!


Auto Simple wants to find you a car you love at a price you can afford. We carry a large selection of hand-picked, Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles, all of which come with a free CarFax report and a 6 month/6,000-mile powertrain warranty. We also own a private track for test driving!

With locations in Cleveland, Chattanooga, Dayton, and a new store in Dalton, GA, we make it easy to walk away with your dream car.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to speak with one of our Online Specialists or give us a call:

Chattanooga, TN – (423) 551-3600

Cleveland, TN – (423) 476-4600

Dayton, TN – (423) 775-4600

Dalton, GA – (706) 217-CARS (2277)

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*Preferred Customer program and free conventional oil changes every ninety (90) days are contingent upon the customer electing to make recurring payments to via ACH or debit card. Additionally, to continue in the Preferred Customer program and receive free oil changes, the customer’s loan must remain in good standing, and the customer may not cancel the recurring payment election. See store for further details. Other restrictions may apply.