Smart SpendingSmart Spending

7 steps to buying a reliable used car

That shiny used car you're eyeing may not be such a good deal after all. Here's what to look for before you buy.

By MSN Money Partner Oct 11, 2013 12:12PM

This post comes from Angela Colley at partner site Money Talks News.

MoneyTalksNews on MSN recently compared the cost of buying a new 2013 Honda Accord EX, leasing the car, or buying a used 2010 Accord EX. After factoring in the true market value of both cars, leasing charges, and current loan terms and rates, they found the total out-of-pocket cost after six years came to:

  • Leasing -- $24,768.
  • Buying new -- $28,830.
  • Buying used -- $20,960.

When you're considering what will cost less to drive, buying used wins, but only if you can keep the car on the road. If you buy a lemon, getting it used doesn't seem like such a good deal.

Here are the steps to take when you're shopping for a used car.

1. Order the title history

Reports like a Carfax history can help you pick between a lemon and a gem, but saying "Show me the Carfax" might not be enough.

ABC News met with a driver who had bought a used truck with a clean Carfax report. Not long after buying the truck, he spun off the road and learned the truck had previous major frame damage. ABC News spoke with Carfax communications director Larry Gamache:

"We have a database of 12 billion pieces of information," Gamache said. However, he added, "we don't know everything about a used car's past."

Couple shopping for car © Medio Images, Getty ImagesCarfax reports come from police departments and insurance companies, as well as other sources, ABC News says. While the information shown on the report is certainly helpful, it isn't the full story.

To better protect yourself, order a car title history report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which shows the full history of a vehicle.

2. Watch out for rentals and demo cars

Rental cars may not have a lot of miles or any obvious damage, but the engine likely has a lot of wear and tear. Be sure to ask the dealership or owner if the car you're considering was ever a rental.

Also watch out for cars previously used as manufacturer test or demo cars. These cars were driven by journalists, public relations professionals and others who are putting the car through its paces, testing its limits and performance. You can ask the dealer if the car was a test or press car, but Car and Driver says to be on the lookout for the phrase "executive demo" -- a fancier way of saying the same thing.

3. Ask for a service history

Ask for a service or maintenance history for any car you're considering. A good service history includes detailed records of maintenance work like oil changes, tire rotations, air filter replacements and other small jobs that keep a car running longer.

4. Inspect the outside

Walk around the outside of the vehicle and look for any dings, scratches, rust or mismatched paint. Open and shut all doors, the trunk and the hood. If you see rust, the car might have flood damage. Mismatched paint and off-kilter doors can mean collision damage. Don't forget to check the roof and inside the doors for paint damage.

Consumer Reports provides a list of signs to look for to make sure the car hasn't been in a wreck. For example, it says a CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on parts may be a sign of collision repair.

5. Kick the tires

Insert a penny in the tread of each tire with Abe Lincoln upside down, facing you. If you can see the top of his head, the tires probably need to be replaced. All four tires should have even tread wear. If they don’t, Consumer Reports says, the wheels might be misaligned.

6. Check the fluids

Open the hood and check the engine fluids. The oil should be a golden or amber color. Dark or clumped oil is a warning sign. The brake fluid should be clear, and the coolant reservoir should have color-tinted coolant or antifreeze up to the "full" line. If you're not sure how to check the fluids, have your mechanic do it.

7. Ask a professional

Finally, if the used car passes all of the other tests, have a professional mechanic check out it. A mechanic can find engine damage and look for other needed repairs that you won't be able to spot on the lot.

More on Money Talks News:

Oct 11, 2013 2:14PM
Never , never buy a vehicle with a open Title or one that is not up to date with tag & registration [ the sellers name is not on the Title ] have them show you their drivers license ! They will tell you they are selling for their niece , friend , cousin , daughter , father in law etc. ! All lies , ever body is flipping  junk cars on Craigslist , car dealers have salesmen take the cars home and try to sell them from their driveways  pretending to be private sellers   , also shady repair shops and illegal Mexicans[lots of them on Craigslist]  they buy these cars or trucks at insurance auctions rebuild them or get them running , some turn back the odometers , now a common practice easy to do with a electronic mileage corrector that comes from China !  Chicago's  Craigslist is a cesspool of shady flippers !  Be wary out there !
Oct 11, 2013 2:21PM
Way too many folks are paying New Car Prices for Old Car with a ton of mileage on them. That's pure insanity. What's the point of buying used if your purchase is already a bad deal. Buy a cheap clunker, only invest in oil changes and save money for a value priced New Vehicle. Then take care of it as if it was your only child. That can easily get you through the next 15-20 years. People usually get rid of their Old Cars for a reason. Not always a good one.
Oct 20, 2013 4:58AM
.You should look for rust on the floorboards under the carpet and in the body mounts.  Some body mounts are hollow and can hold road salt.  Uneven tire tread wear is usually caused by not rotating them.  On diesel engines, the oil will be black no matter what.  Also, check the carpet.  If it looks like the dealer shampooed it so much that fibers are standing up, chances are the prior owner didn't take very good care of it.  Stare at the vehicle head-on to make sure it doesn't look slanted.  Have the dealer put the vehicle on the shop lift so you can check the underside for damage and leaks.  Make sure the exhaust is solid.  Start the vehicle and look for exhaust coming from the engine itself, that's a sign of leaking manifold gaskets.  Make sure there's no oil film in the coolant, a sign of bad head gaskets.  Be wary of aftermarket stereos, especially subwoofers and speakers.  That's a sign of it being owned by a kid.  Check the oil pressure.  If there's no gauge, make sure the warning light comes on when the key is in the "on" position, and that it goes off when started.  Finally, on the test drive, make sure you're able to get the vehicle up to highway speed.
Oct 20, 2013 9:49AM
I think that America's "love affair" with automobiles is coming to an end. The majority of young people I know (20 somethings) don't have a car, and quite frankly, don't want one either. They see the need too purchase a vehicle as an onus and something they might HAVE to do. Subsequently, they look for the cheapest, easiest to maintain, best fuel economy and a vehicle they can fit all their stuff and perhaps children in.

I'm sure there are sill people who define who they are, by the vehicles they purchase....but that attitude is changing. Cars are an expensive luxury to many people these days, and the idea of going into terrible debt for a nice "ride" isn't desirable for the majority of young people. They much prefer to use public transit, bikes or even walking. When they do absolutely need to buy a car, they get the cheapest one they can, that does the job.

When I was a college kid (you now, back before dirt) we would brag about how fast our cars were, how powerful the 4 wheel drive was, or how nice the stereo was. Kids today, brag about how cheap it cost, how many MPG it gets, and they see passing the 100K mile mark as being normal wear. The only "luxury" item they seem to care about, is whether they can plug their IPOD's into the sound system.

Oct 20, 2013 8:30AM

This author forgot to tell people to look at the carpet. If the carpet looks to new for an older used car, then that car was probably in a flood. Also look for tattle tale signs of mud and mold. If the car has a musty smell and the owner or sales person says it was sitting up, then be weary. It might have been sitting up, but water could have leaked in around the windows and the windshield. You need to check the rubber gasket that holds the windshield in place for cracks. If the vehicle has been in the sun, then it may have cracks which would be a cause of leaks.

Get down on your hands and knees and check the under carriage for new paint. New paint on a used car can only mean it is either been in water or it has been in a climate that is normally damp. Newly painted under carriage can mean rust on the frame.

Oct 20, 2013 8:18AM
I prefer to buy late model used from private sellers who live in neighborhoods that are good.  I can judge a car about as well by the owner,  his situation,  and his home as I can by the car itself.
Oct 20, 2013 6:52PM
stupid headline....lemon laws do not apply to used cars.  msn at its finest!
Oct 20, 2013 11:52AM

I've been looking for a used vehicle for my son for weeks. I've looked at thousands of posts on Craig's List, (and other local car selling sites) and only a fraction were actually worth going to see. They also turned out to be junk, because pictures are deceiving and people lie.  


60% of the cars being sold on Craig's List are just a few miles away from major repairs because they are extremely high mileage vehicles.  30% are scam artists. 5% are cars that aren't even being sold, they just want your email address so they can send you unwanted emails. If you are fortunate, there might be 3-5 cars out of 100 that are worth a phone call. 


What a huge pain in the behind trying to find a reliable used car from an honest seller!!!    

Some questions to ask a dealership repair dep't. How much does it cost for a tune up? Or how much  will a replacement window switch cost?It knock your socks off. 
I purchased a  loaded 1998 Lincoln Continental two years old w/22,000 miles on it from a dealer in 2000.. real cherry cond.I have 187,000 miles on it. Put in a transmission, two tie rods, rear air shocks,two sets of brakes, ps unit, water pump,three tune ups, two sets of Michelin tires.Also had to replace torque converter  again last month.Also some small stuff.I found out the torque converter was the wrong one replaced the first time. Now, Excluding the  tires. I would average the cost of repairs  including oil changes to about  $2,000.00 per year. I have had the car 13 years and feel that this cost may sound high but i don't have any car payments.I sort of know my car. drives great  and looks good .Also very safe.I  question some of the so called needed repairs. Which would have reduced my Average cost. $26,000.00.and still driving.I would say it is the best riding car i ever owned. After reading some of the comments, I had most of the problems people had.
Oct 20, 2013 2:53PM
So, do you have equivalent advice on saving us from junk bonds or bad stock sold by crooks tied to the US CONbrats?
Oct 20, 2013 12:50PM
A thought. Many new cars are selling under 20K with 3-4 year warranties. Some with 0-5% financing. A used private vehicle is going to be sold AS IS. Sadly, a very good friend purchased a used Lexus crossover. Twenty four thousand miles old from an older woman who swore it was a gem. About a month went by and she noticed smoke coming from the back of the car. She took it to Lexus and lo and behold the vehicle had never been serviced. An engine block, week out of service and six thousand dollars later it's still a USED car. Think hard before you spend your money.
Oct 20, 2013 5:10AM
Best way to get back on your feet miss 3 car payments,buy a good back up like a bike.Good Luck BYE BYE
Mar 4, 2014 3:32AM
Good tips... might I suggest a Honda Civic? It's cheap to repair, cheap at the pump ($15 to fill usually thanks to gasbuddy), and cheap to insure ($30/month full coverage from 4autoinsurancequote)... Probably and small, Japanese car will do though!
Oct 11, 2013 1:27PM
New, factory warranty. Used, dealer 3-6 month or 3-6000 mile warranty. Used, private party, no warranty, pray a lot. With good used vehicles harder and harder to find, prices have risen. Even at higher interest rates if your credit is so so, look hard at new over used. Folks with good credit are still getting 0-4.99% financing up to five years. We have four newer vehicles in the family including two kids paying for their own. All purchased new. They range from a 2004 to 2010. All vehicles have had only regular maintenance with no out of pocket repairs.
Oct 20, 2013 1:56PM
don't buy into these ads on tv that tell you that they can inform you as to the "true" value of a year and model of a car.  there are a ton of different "sub" models such as gt's st's se's. etc.  there are also a ton of factory extras that can vary the price of a certain year and model of a car thousands of dollars.  the best bet is to use the Kelly blue book value and go from there considering all of the above mentioned variables.
Sep 9, 2014 2:45PM
Definitely go for used if you're trying to save money - but don't buy anything that's over 10 years old and/or has more than 30K miles on it, or you'll end up spending more money down the road to maintain the vehicle. Go to a dealership that has quality cars that range for all sorts of lifestyles (from BMW's to Honda's, Ford F150's to Subaru's.. you get the point). If you find a spot with fairly new vehicles for all types of customers, you're safe. Salesmen at those kind of used car dealerships work harder for you - dealers with older cars and less variety will not care about you, they will lie and avoid questions as much as possible to just get their unwanted cars sold. You should be able to find a good used car deal by starting online like I did - since I live in Salem I searched "used cars Salem Oregon" and after some research and poking through the inventories of my finds I went with Midtown Motors ( Worth the extra effort of doing a few days of research.. All their cars were in great condition, clean carpets, no bent frames, totally do-able pricing options, and the salespeople weren't shady at all.

Jul 3, 2014 8:09AM
For buying a used car you must be careful and smart as there are people who can get away with selling you something damaged. So there are some points like only deal with reputable dealers, ask for warranty, price should be appropriate etc. Also before buying any vehicle know about car maintenance tips like I did from because learning car maintenance can save lots of money!
Oct 20, 2013 7:24PM
Nobody owns a car .....!!!!! Only a lender owns a car unless you pay cash ....Wise up America.......HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.