How to Buy a Used Car

Remember when buying a used car ranked right up there with a trip to the dentist? Fear not, for times have changed and buying a used car is not what it used to be. Today's consumer has so much information as to render the experience of buying a used car far less stressful and even, dare we say, enjoyable. This secret transformation will only occur, however, if you obey the first rule taught to every first grade student: DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

What Can You Afford to Spend?
Before considering the purchase of a used car, it is wise to establish the amount you are willing to spend or, if taking a loan, calculate the monthly payment. Don't forget that after negotiating the final price of the car, you will need to allow some extra cash to cover tax, title and sticker. Once you've established a price limit, steer clear of vehicles that barely squeeze under it. Leave yourself some wiggle room and shop for a less flashy vehicle with lower mileage or one in tip-top shape.

What's the Right Car?
Figuring out the how much you want to spend was the easy part; now you have to find the vehicle that's right for you. The problem is you're not really sure what's out there or even what you want. Here is what we suggest.

Overfilled Trunk

Be certain the car you desire can accommodate your daily needs.

First, make a list of all the things you need your vehicle to do (haul kids, go off road, get good gas mileage) and then make a second list of all the things you admire in a vehicle (body style, colors, luxury options). Cross-reference the two. You should end up with a list of qualities from which to eliminate models that won't work for you (can't haul kids in 2-seat sports car or run a full size SUV on a shoe string fuel budget)

Still not sure? No problem. We've developed a couple of decision guides to help refine your search. Just answer a few quick questions (like desired Price Range and Body Style), and the Recommendation Tool will produce a list of suggested vehicles which meet your criteria! The Side by Side Comparison will put up to four new or used vehicles side by side for you to compare!

You Know What You Want, Now What?
OK, if you made it this far, we are assuming you have a year, make and model in mind. Now let's go shopping. If you haven't already done so, it's time to empower yourself by visiting the book Used Car Retail Values. Here you can find out how much your desired model is likely to cost at the dealership. We provide the 'Book Suggested Retail Value' of models dating as far back as 1980. While you're there, take the opportunity to get a 'Book Trade-In Value' for your own car. You will see how various options, mileage and overall condition will affect the value of your vehicle.

If you need help assessing the condition of your car, we can help you "rate it" with the Virtual Walk around. By filling out a series of questions, we help you determine whether the car is in excellent, good, fair or poor condition.

The car of your dreams is almost within reach, but how to find it? You can start by searching the Internet to buy a used car. We have partnered with companies that can help you in this process. They even feature listings for vehicles from all over the nation.


Utilize all resources when shopping around

You'll also want to check your local classifieds and shop the local dealerships. You can use our Web site to search for a list of dealer Web sites or to seek out an individual dealer in your area. If you are contacting a private party, be sure the first question you ask is, "Why are you selling the vehicle?" Ask them to describe the condition of the car and how it was used (e.g., second car, daily driver, college kid's car, etc.). Ask them if they have all the mechanical records for the vehicle and if they would have any objection to you taking the car to a private mechanic for an inspection. This is extremely important as private party sales are usually "AS IS" and once you've bought the car, it's yours; no ifs, ands or buts. If your AREA requires a EMISSION TEST, insist the car pass inspection before you go to view it. EMISSION TEST should be the seller's responsibility; don't allow yourself to get to the point of falling in love with a car only to find that it fails EMISSION TEST. Also the current owner should get the transfer package, and you will also see the RETAIL & WHOLESALE VALUE.

If the seller says all the right things, set up an appointment to see the vehicle. Always try to view the vehicle while there is still daylight and bring a friend along. If you have to go alone and are feeling a bit uneasy, ask the owner to bring the car to a convenient location, a local shopping center parking lot or the INSPECTION STATION for instance. One last word on private party sales. A private party in this context refers to an individual selling his or her personal car. You must be very alert to private party ads placed by professionals. These are individuals that purchase used cars, usually in poor shape or salvage titled and then sell them cheap without disclosing their past problems. Also referred to as "Curbstoners," these shady characters can often be found with a few vehicles parked in a shopping center parking lot or in front of their business. Do not confuse them with a reputable dealer. They cannot provide the warranty, inspection and accountability of an established used car dealer.

In the event that the car or truck you desire is on a dealer's lot, there will be no way to ask many of these questions, in which case you will have to let the car do the talking.

First, write down the Vehicle Identification Number (a 17-digit code usually located on the dash at the base of the windshield). With the VIN in hand, you can take full advantage of the services provided by the Ministry of Transportation (for a small fee), such as the vehicle history report which will provide information such as the number of owners and whether the title is clean.


The VIN # is located at the base of the dash and/or inside the drivers side door.

Walk Around:
A physical assessment of the vehicle is absolutely paramount before the purchase. Take your time and be thorough with your examination .While a private party may let you take the car to your own mechanic, a dealer may not be so obliging, insisting that his own mechanic perform the inspection. Don't let this stop you from doing some inspecting of your own. Again, if the seller objects or tries to belittle you for your effort, walk away. An honest dealer should stand behind every used car he sells, and there are plenty of good dealers out there: A1 AUTOMOTIVE CONNECTION can help you in your search.

Here are a few checks you can do with relative ease.

Door Alignment

Stand away from the vehicle and look at its seams. Do they all line up? Now walk around the vehicle. Are all the body parts the same color? Check the tires for wear. Uneven tire wear - balding on the sides or in the middle - could indicate the need for a front-end alignment or a more costly repair to a suspension component.

Tire Tread A Tire Tread B Tire Tread C

Bring along a small refrigerator magnet and place it gently (as not to scratch the paint) along various body panels (lower door, front fender, etc.). If there is any plastic body filler the magnet will not stay in place, indicating the vehicle has been involved in an accident or repairs have been done in that area.

Open the trunk, hood and doors. Look for paint specs or over spray, a telltale sign all or part of the vehicle has been repainted.

Paint Inspection

Check the radiator fluid. If it is foamy or has oil droplets in it, there is a good chance the car has a defective head gasket (coolant and oil are mixing together) / or worse, a cracked block or head.

Radiator Cap
Reach up under the car and feel around the top of the gas tank. If you find mud or leaves up there, chances are, the vehicle was involved in a flood or, in the case of an SUV, taken off road with some frequency. You can perform the same test inside the car by carefully reaching up under the dash.

Under Dash

Off road or flood inspection
Check the inside of the car. Look in the ashtrays and under the seats. Listen to the radio. If the buttons are all set to stations in another area, you know the car is not local. Likewise if all the stations are set to heavy metal vs. classical, you'll have some indication of who the previous owners were (or at least what the car jockeys are listening to when they move the cars around the lot).

Look at the condition of each foot pedal (gas, brake and clutch). Do the rubber foot pads show heavy wear? Likewise, if the steering wheel is leather, does it show excessive wear? These patterns on a low mileage car may indicate that the vehicle has seen more mileage than the odometer indicates. Trust your sixth sense on this one. If you feel the odometer has been tampered with, politely tell the seller you have another car to look at and beat it out of there. If everything checks out and you feel you have a good deal before you, do yourself one more favor. Contact the manufacturer. If the car you are buying is a late model vehicle, find out what the warranty stipulations are. VW, for example, offered a 10-year/100,000 K.M. warranty on its cars after 1994, but only to the original owner. If you buy a VW used, the warranty is reduced to 5-year/50,000 K.M. If the lack of a warranty is holding you back from buying a used vehicle you will want to visit our Warranties page for additional information.

The Test-Drive:
It looks hot, it sounds great and everyone stares as you drive by. But is it comfortable? Enter the all important test drive. The test-drive not only affords the opportunity to gauge a vehicle's driving characteristics but also minimizes the chance that buyers remorse will rear its ugly head.

Most people take only a few minutes to test-drive a car; this is a big mistake that often comes back to haunt them. Spend as much time as you can inside the car. Ask to sit in it for a while, say 20 minutes. If 20 minutes seems an eternity to you (you know who you are) bring along a CD or Tape.

Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty
Feel the seat, and we mean really feel it. Is it too hard or too soft? Does it hold you firmly with good lateral and thigh support? Do your legs start to cramp? Does your lower back feel like it needs more support? Take a good long time to sit, because really, the seat is one of the most important parts of the car. It's the one feature you use constantly from the minute you climb into the car until you reach your destination. Imagine shelling out $15,000 for a car only to find after the first hour on the road your back (and backside) is in agony. So sit there a while and play around inside.

What about the steering wheel? Is it too high up or too close to the dash? When adjusted comfortably, does it cut off your view of any or all of the gauges? Look at the layout of the radio and heater controls. Can they be easily adjusted without taking your eyes off the road? Look over your shoulder, are there any blind spots that you cannot compensate for by using your mirrors? Climb into all the seats and check the head and legroom for future passengers. Do the headrests come up far enough? Do they touch your head or are they raked back at an angle away from you?

Does the seatbelt have an adjustable anchor or does it cut into your neck? Are there child seat anchors? Check to see how far the rear windows roll down. Some models have windows that only go down a few inches or are sealed in place and don't roll down at all. Take your time to explore all these areas. Then take it for a drive.

Seat Rest A Seat Rest B

Are head restraints angled or too far back?

Before starting the car, turn the key to the Accessory position (the last position before the starter motor is engaged). All the dash warning lights should light up.

Be sure both the "check engine" and, if equipped with anti-lock brakes, the "abs" lights illuminate. If they do not, the problem could be as minor as a burned out bulb or as serious as tampering to disguise a problem. In either case, insist the problem be corrected or inspected before proceeding.

Upon first turning the engine over, listen for any tapping or ticking sounds. A prolonged tapping could be valves needing adjustment or a bad hydraulic lifter. If equipped with power steering, turn the wheel from side to side, and listen for belt squeal (you'll know it, everyone on the lot will know it!). Pump the brake pedal a few times and then press hard with your foot. If it slowly sinks all the way to the floor, there is either a leak in the line or the master cylinder/brake booster is dying. Shift into gear. If the car is an automatic, the transmission should engage immediately and shifts should be crisp and quick. There should be no grinding or groaning sound of any kind from the transmission when you select gears. With your foot firmly on the brake, shift from drive to reverse; clunks or grinding noises could indicate worn or broken engine transmission mounts, bad u-joints or differential wear.

As you drive along, does the steering wheel shake or vibrate? It shouldn't. Vibration in the steering wheel can mean anything from an unbalanced tire to a loose steering rack. If the steering wheel shakes but only when you are braking, this could indicate a warped rotor or sticking caliper.

Cars with ABS (anti-lock brakes) will have a slight pulsating action in the pedal when the brake is applied with great force (panic stops for example). Cars without ABS should not have pulsating brake pedals under any circumstances. The car should also continue in a straight line when the brakes are applied. If the car pulls noticeably to the left or right, it could indicate a problem with the front brake calipers, suspension or steering gear.

If the car fails on any of these points, take it to a mechanic to evaluate repairs. It is then your call whether you want to walk away or re-negotiate the price based on the repair estimate.

We recommend that you contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Ask them what forms are required to transfer the title as well as any other information you need to provide them. Examples: Bill of Sale/Emission Test/Safety Certificate etc.

Lastly, what ever you do, get everything in WRITING. This means if you settle with a private party, write up a contract stating what you are paying for the vehicle and under what terms it is to be delivered. Likewise with a dealer, any work they promise to do or options they intend to add, get it in writing before you close the deal.

Dealer vs. Private Party
A word about buying from a dealer vs. a private party. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. With a dealer, you get a warranty (usually 30 days) and some dealerships now offer a certification program for their late model cars that extends the warranty. The advantages with a private party are the vehicle can cost less, you will have all the repair records and you know the previous owner, should any questions come up later.

*Thank you for choosing A1 Automotive Connection for all your automotive needs.

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