What to Look for Before Buying a Used Car? (Complete Guide)

Before buying a car, there are several steps you should take to ensure you buy a good car. Here are the things you should check before buying a car

What To Look For Before Buying A Used Car

When times are financially strained as they are for many in the pandemic-stricken world, the lure of a used car grows. Used cars cost less not just on the sticker price, but also in insurance costs. Furthermore, when you buy a used car, you don’t face as much depreciation as you do when you buy a new one.

It’s no wonder then that even as the automotive world face an overall downturn in car sales, the market for used cars boomed in 2020. In October 2020, CNBC reported on “the used car boom” as being both the “hottest” and “trickiest” markets for consumers. It’s hot because in the post-pandemic world, people prefer the idea of a private car for hygiene reasons. It’s tricky because the world of used cars is something of a minefield.

In today’s blog we are offering our comprehensive advice on the things to look for before buying a used car.

1. The Research Stage

The first things you should be looking at are available offers on new cars in your immediate area and beyond. We live in an exciting world of online car buying, and it’s therefore crucial that your research reflects all the options before you.

Cast a Wide Net: Look Further

When researching cars, no matter how much you think you want one specific brand or model of car, try to maintain enough of an open mind to look at more options first. You might surprise yourself as to what you’ll find in the incredibly rich and varied used car market place.

Not only could you start to question your brand choices, but you might even question the style of car that you want. For instance, some families who start out looking for used SUVs to use as a family car will turn on a dime and start to favor the minivan, a type of car they never previously considered. They discover, however, that minivans are more stylish than they thought, more varied, more comfortable, more family-friendly, and so on.

Reflect on Your Needs and Use Search Filters to Look for a Suitable Model

The range of used cars you can buy will always be wider than brand-new ones. There may be brands, models and trim levels that you couldn’t access in new cars but you can with used cars. This can make used car shopping all the more exciting, but you can’t let yourself get too bogged down in too many car options.

Focus mostly on your primary needs. Do you need power and acceleration, or utility? Perhaps a combination of both? Do you want an executive saloon to drive to work or with which to pick up clients and take them around town? Do you need a spacious and practical family car with lots of interior storage and comfortable seats for both driver and passenger? These are the questions you should ask, and use search filters to help narrow down the parameters. This will help you with the next task.

Build a Shortlist

From your initial far-reaching research, try to narrow your choices down to just a handful of models that you will then pursue in more detail. Your shortlist of choices shouldn’t feature any more than 5 cars maximum. Too many options will just make the final choice harder. The ideal number of cars to have on your shortlist is 3.

2. Testing and Inspection

Inspect Used Car

When it comes to used car, the top things to look out for are all related to this crucial second stage of testing and inspecting the car for defects. There are several important things to do and to look out for:

Look for a Thorough Test Driving:

A test drive of the car is a must. If you are buying a car online, then you should find the same or similar model at a dealership and try it out before you confirm any order. A test drive has to be more than just a simple ride around the block, too. You should try to do as much as possible with the car and see how it performs.

In your test drive, try to include all or as many of the following as you can:

  • Driving on different road types – quiet street, busy road, highway
  • Drive at different speeds
  • Testing of the brakes at different speeds
  • Pulling up to and moving off from intersections
  • Street parking and parking lot use
  • Test interior functions: heat, a/c, infotainment, radio, windshield wipers, horn, headlights, turn signals and the rest
  • Before or after your drive, sit in the rear seat and see how roomy (or tight) it is
  • A rainy day or post-rain conditions can be good for test driving because they’ll show you what the brakes, steering and overall performance are really like
  • Listen for any strange noises – knocking, grinding, squeaking or squealing
  • Pay attention to any odd smells – burning, sweet smell (could be leaking coolant), engine oil or fumes

One additional dimension you can add to your test drive is to pick the car you liked best of your shortlist of 3-5 vehicles and try to hire on for at least one full day, or possibly longer (3 days to a week is ideal) to see how the car fares when used in your daily routine. Test driving is a very “deliberate” method of driving. To really understand if a car is right for you, it’s better to put the car into your daily driving routine and see how it fares.

Look for a Competent Inspection:

When buying a used car, getting a proper inspection done on the vehicle is the only sure-fire way to catch things that are either wrong with the car now, or could potentially go wrong in the near future. The latter is the most important. For that, you need an independent and professional used-car inspector. These services are not expensive, and the seller might even be willing to pay for it if they are confident in the vehicle’s condition and they think it will seal the deal on a sale to you.

Some dealerships will perform their own 100-plus-point inspections on cars that are designed to guarantee quality. They are often named things like “Certified Pre-Owned.” If you feel you can have faith in the inspection that a dealership has carried out on the car, then you don’t need to schedule a specialist inspection, you can just look and ask for a few things yourself:

  • Dashboard and instrument cluster – Does the odometer read as it should? Are there any “check engine” or other warning lights illuminated?
  • Tires – Can the tire tread pass the penny test?
  • Oil – What is the apparent condition of the oil on the dipstick? Is it grainy or gritty? If so, it might need changing.
  • Ask the dealership mechanic about suspension/shocks, transmission fluid, brake fluid and brake pads, specifically when they were last changed.
  • Coolant – Is there enough? Check the reservoir level and make sure it’s between the minimum and maximum marked volume.
  • Filters and belts – ask when the air and oil filters were changed and when their next change would be; ask about the cam belt and timing belt, and check if and when they might need replacing.
  • Ask if the transmission showed up any problems during inspection.
  • Check the body for signs of paint chips, scratches, dents or abrasions
  • Make sure the headlights, taillights and turn signals are working; fog lights too if the car has them

3. Negotiation and Finance

Despite some people believing that only brand-new cars come with options to finance, there are in fact options for used cars, too. They may not be as common as with new cars, but they do exist. If anything, there is less risk involved on a used car, but the interest rate might be higher because you likely won’t need as long to pay it off and so the finance company has to find a way to maximize its profit.

Look for Sellers and Dealers who Will Negotiate

Private sellers are invariably more willing to negotiate than dealers. Private sellers are more motivated to sell quickly, and have no need to fill sales quotas or attain profit margins. They just want the car gone as soon as possible, whatever it takes. Negotiate that much harder with a private seller. They may resist at first but ultimately, they want the sale more.

Dealers are trickier. You have to watch out for them trying to upsell you with accessories, extended warranties and more. The more you try and get the price down, the more likely they are to work harder at making up the difference in other goods and services from them.

In the end, always negotiate hard and be ready to walk away if the seller appears obstinate or unmoving. There are plenty of other options out there, and if they aren’t willing to sell on or close to your terms, then there’s little point trying to convince further. If they want to sell, they will.

Look for More Financing Options

For financing, don’t just go for the dealership because it’s convenient. Ask at the bank or at a local credit union. They might offer you a better rate of interest. Better yet, if you get pre-approved for a loan of whatever amount, then you have a set budget that you know you cannot exceed, which helps you shop and negotiate with more confidence. If they’re over your budget, you may as well walk away and see if it brings them to their senses. If not, there’s nothing you could do because you know you couldn’t afford it.


In short, one should first look more deeply into the market to explore more options before building a shortlist of desired car models. Look for cars that suit your needs, and not just those that satisfy your baser desires (raw horsepower, sports car looks, etc.) Look for opportunities to both test and inspect the car thoroughly. Look for a rental model that you can drive for at least a full day to see how the car fits in.

Finally, you should look for sellers who can and will negotiate, and finance from a provider that won’t stiff you on interest or with too many additional terms and conditions outside of the norm. Follow these guidelines and your used car buying experience will be much better.

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Written by:

Magnus is the owner and main author of MechanicBase. He has been working as a mechanic for over 10 years, and the majority of them specialized in advanced diagnostics and troubleshooting. Certified Automotive Diagnostic Technician.