How to buy a used car: What to look for

Congratulations! You’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a used car. It’s an exciting time, but let’s be honest, it can also feel a little overwhelming. There are so many factors to consider, and you definitely don’t want to end up with a car that turns out to be a money pit.

Fear not, fellow car shopper! This guide is here to equip you with the knowledge and confidence to navigate the used car market like a pro. We’ll cover everything from setting a budget and choosing the right car to inspecting it like a seasoned mechanic (well, almost!).

By the end, you’ll be ready to find that perfect used car that fits your needs and budget.

Do Your Research Before You Look

Before you jump headfirst into browsing car listings, taking a step back to do some research can save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run. Here are two key areas to focus on:

1. Know Your Budget:

Buying a car is more than just the sticker price. Be realistic about the total cost of ownership. This includes:

  • The car itself: Set a clear budget for the car purchase, keeping wiggle room for potential negotiations.
  • Registration fees and taxes: These vary depending on your location, so factor them into your overall budget.
  • Insurance: Get quotes from different insurance companies to find the best rate for your chosen car.
  • Maintenance and repairs: Even the most reliable used car will need occasional repairs. Set aside some money for unexpected issues.

2. Choose the Right Car:

Don’t just fall in love with the first car that catches your eye. Consider your practical needs:

  • Size and style: Do you need a compact car for city driving or a spacious SUV for the family?
  • Fuel efficiency: Think about your typical driving habits and prioritize fuel economy if you commute long distances.
  • Safety ratings: Safety is paramount. Research safety ratings for different models to ensure you’re getting a car with a good track record.
  • Features: Do you need a sunroof, navigation system, or heated seats? Prioritize features that are important to you, but don’t let them inflate your budget unnecessarily.

Pro Tip: Utilize online resources like Kelley Blue Book (KBB) and Edmunds to research used car prices, reliability ratings, and common features for different models.

Inspecting the Car Like a Pro

Now that you’ve identified a few potential cars that fit the bill, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty: inspecting the car itself. Here’s what you need to look for:

1. Get a Vehicle History Report:

This is a crucial first step. A vehicle history report provides valuable information about the car’s past, including:

  • Accident history: You want to avoid cars with major accidents in their past.
  • Ownership history: A clean ownership history with regular maintenance is a good sign.
  • Service records: See if the car has been properly maintained according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

There are several companies that offer vehicle history reports, some for free (with limited information) and others for a fee (with more comprehensive details).

2. Exterior Inspection:

First impressions matter, and the car’s exterior condition can tell you a lot. Here’s what to check:

  • Body: Look for dents, scratches, rust spots, and misaligned panels. These could be signs of past accidents or poor repairs.
  • Tires: Check the tread depth (consult your owner’s manual for the recommended minimum) and overall condition of the tires. Look for any signs of dry rot or uneven wear. Don’t forget to check the spare tire too!
  • Lights and Signals: Turn on all the lights (headlights, taillights, turn signals, brake lights) and ensure they function properly. A faulty light could be a safety hazard and a potential bargaining chip.

3. Interior Inspection:

Now, move on to the inside of the car. Pay attention to these details:

  • Seats and Upholstery: Check for rips, tears, excessive wear and tear, or signs of water damage.
  • Dashboard and Electronics: Turn on the ignition and test all the buttons, knobs, gauges, and infotainment system. Make sure everything functions properly.
  • Check for Leaks: Pop the hood and look for any signs of leaks, especially around the engine and radiator. You might also want to check under the car for leaks of oil, coolant, or other fluids.

Test Drive Essentials

The test drive is your chance to get a feel for the car and identify any potential problems. Here’s what to focus on:

  • Find familiar roads: Choose a route that includes city streets, highways, and maybe even a bumpy road to assess the car’s handling in different conditions.
  • Listen for unusual noises: Be attentive to any clunking, grinding, or rattling sounds that could indicate potential issues.
  • Responsiveness: Test the steering, brakes, and acceleration. The car should feel responsive and handle predictably.
  • Comfort and features: Pay attention to how comfortable the seats are and how easy it is to use the car’s features. Make sure everything feels intuitive and within reach.
  • Air conditioning and heating: Don’t forget to check if the air conditioning and heating systems are working properly.

Pro Tip: Bring a friend or family member along on the test drive for a second opinion and to help you take notes or record any concerns.

Don’t Forget the Paperwork

The paperwork might not be the most exciting part of buying a used car, but it’s crucial to ensure a smooth and legal transaction.

Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Review the vehicle title and registration: Make sure the information on the title matches the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and that the registration is up to date.
  • Get a pre-purchase inspection: This is highly recommended, especially for older cars or those with higher mileage. A mechanic can thoroughly inspect the car and identify any potential problems you might have missed.
  • Negotiation tips: Armed with your research (remember step 1?) and any issues identified during the inspection, you’re now in a better position to negotiate a fair price for the car.


Buying a used car requires some preparation and due diligence, but it can be a rewarding experience. By following these steps and staying informed, you’ll increase your chances of finding a reliable and enjoyable car that fits your needs and budget.

Remember, the key is to be prepared, thorough, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Happy car shopping!