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What to Know About A Used Car Before You Buy

Buying a used vehicle can be a smart move financially. If you choose wisely, you can get a vehicle that looks and drives like a brand-new model at a fraction of the price. Buying on impulse, however, without proper knowledge about the vehicle could transfer someone else's costly repair problem to you.

Whether you're purchasing from a private seller or going to a dealership, there are a few things you should know about buying a used car. Below are some tips to help you make a smart choice you won't regret later.

Do A Visual Inspection

When you see a car, truck or SUV you like, look closely for any signs that it has been in a recent accident, has undergone major repairs or has been improperly maintained. Warning signs include:
  • The body panels on one side of the car have a wider space between them than the panels on the other side. This is a potential sign of serious frame damage.
  • Musty odor inside the car. This may be caused by prolonged exposure to water (e.g., flooding).
  • Caked-on mud in places that are hard to clean, such as under the glove compartment or around the seat tracks. This is another potential sign that the car was immersed in water.
  • Paint that doesn't match the color or texture on other parts of the car. These are usually signs that components have been quickly replaced or just to cover rust.
  • A fresh application of rubberized undercoat on the car's underbelly. While this spray is intended to protect a car from salt, dirt, and other contaminants, it is also applied when a component has recently been replaced.
  • Mismatched headlights. If one lamp looks new and the other is hazed-over, it may be a sign that the vehicle was in a crash. Pop the hood and look underneath for signs of damage.
  • While you are under the hood, look at the maintenance engine components, oil and air filters, fluid levels, battery to verify regular service. Seeing dust, oily dirt, leaves or pine needles should raise questions about the care of the vehicle. It's also good to check the condition of the trunk and spare tire compartment for rust and moisture.

Perform A VIN Check

Each car's VIN is typically found inside the driver's door jamb and windshield. Running a check will reveal important facts about the car you are interested in, such as:
  • Year
  • Make
  • Model
  • Where the vehicle was manufactured
  • Past owners
  • Whether the title to the car is clear
  • Whether the car has been in accidents in the past

While a VIN check does not always provide all the important information you need, and it is always possible that some accidents did not make it into the report, this background check is a great way to discover many red flags.

Take A Test Drive

A successful road test is one of the most important criteria for buying a used car. Drive the vehicle in several different situations, including highways, up and down hills, and on imperfectly paved rural roads. Put it through the standard motions, including:
  • Braking
  • Turning sharp corners
  • Accelerating
  • Bump, rough roads
  • Parking
  • Merging and changing lanes

In addition, be sure to check things like the radio, lights, signals, heat and air conditioning. If, after a 30-minute or so test drive, anything seems off or uncomfortable to you, don't be afraid to walk away to look for other options or ask pointed questions about repairing and inspecting the vehicle afterward before making a deal.

Get the Car Inspected

While you can, and should, do a basic visual check of the car's frame and engine yourself, a thorough inspection by a mechanic is essential in detecting both existing conditions and potential repair issues.

Even if the seller claims there are no major issues or mechanical defects, have a mechanic go inspect the vehicle (especially your particular concerns) before you seal the deal. While most sellers simply want to sell a used car because that's their business or they want to upgrade to a newer model, others may be selling it for reasons they'd rather not disclose.

Investigate the Warranty

If the vehicle is advertised as a 'certified' used car, it generally means that it is covered by a manufacturer's certified warranty. For the complete meaning of certified pre-owned read the feature, What Does Certified Pre-Owned Mean? Some vehicles, however, are listed as certified when they are actually covered by a third-party or a dealer warranty. If a car is more than three or four years old, chances are that it is no longer covered by the manufacturer's warranty and an extended service warranty should be considered.

If you spot an "as is" sign in the car window, it means that the seller will not cover anything once you take possession of the vehicle. If this is the case, it is particularly important to have the vehicle professionally inspected before you buy. A professional inspection form completed by a Ford or Lincoln dealer, with any fixed repairs noted, can also be used for buying a Ford|Lincoln Protect ESP.

Whenever you consider buying a used car, always be prepared to walk away if necessary. Being too eager to buy could result in you settling for a vehicle that can cause major problems down the road. Even if you're being offered a great deal, be prepared to shop around so you don't buy a vehicle that won't meet your quality expectations, vehicle usage and budget.

Learn more about our full range of Ford Protect Extended Warranty plans at Zeigler Ford ESP to protect your used vehicle purchase.


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