If you’ve found a used car that you think you might want to buy, use these tips to help determine if the car you like is going to be reliable.
1. Complete an Inspection.
We can’t emphasize this enough – inspecting a used vehicle is the best way to make sure you don’t buy a bad car. Luckily, you have lots of options when it comes to completing this step. You can use our Used Car Checklist — We give you a complete list of items to inspect, and we’ve got a complete step-by-step breakdown of every item on the checklist. You can also hire a local professional inspection service. Either way, this step is crucial. If you don’t inspect the car, you may come to regret it later.
2. Does The Car’s “Story” Make Sense?
When you’re looking at a used car, you always have to think “Why would someone sell this car?” Often times, the answer you get from the seller will make sense — the owner is moving, the car is too small, the car is too big, it’s no longer needed, etc. While these stories are often true, it’s important to remember that the seller could be lying to you. For example, a person selling a one-year-old car may tell you they’re getting rid of it because it’s too expensive. However, there’s a chance the owner is selling their car because it has some sort of incurable mechanical problem (in other words, it might be a lemon). Don’t get me wrong — you don’t have to doubt every person you talk to. Just remember to be a little skeptical when you find out why someone is getting rid of their car. If you have doubts about the seller’s motivations, feel free to walk away.
3. Generally speaking, there are a handful of features and options that reduce a car’s long-term reliability. Here’s a quick list:
a. Manual transmissions are always less reliable than automatics, simply because they’re certain to require a new clutch at some point in the future. If you choose to buy a used car with a manual transmission, make sure you can afford to replace the clutch at some point in the near future (just in case).
b. Vehicles with either Turbochargers or Superchargers are usually less reliable than vehicles without. Most likely, the person that owned the car when it was new drove it hard and fast. Turbochargers and superchargers also tend to be more maintenance intensive, so buy with care.
c. With the exception of some basic equipment, any vehicle with after-market parts and accessories is more likely to be less reliable than a standard vehicle. After-market (or non-factory) options like custom body parts, air intakes, suspension kits, performance chips, alarm systems, or expensive interior electronics could indicate the previous owner was harder on their vehicle than most people. If you see evidence of poor installation (like loose wires or missing pieces), it’s probably a good indicator that the parts weren’t installed professionally. Amateur installations are MUCH more likely to damage a vehicle.
4. Get a Vehicle History Report.
Before buying a used car, it’s important to purchase either a CarFax or AutoCheck vehicle history report. You only need one of these reports (they’re about $20), and you can use them to make sure the car you’re looking at wasn’t a “Manufacturer Buyback” vehicle (also known as a “lemon”), that it’s not a salvage title, see if the vehicle has any accident reports, open recalls, etc. While these reports aren’t completely accurate (sometimes I’ve found them to be missing data), they’re very good and easily worth the $20 you spend on them.
5. Hire a Professional Inspector
While our Used Car Checklist is very good for finding obvious problems with a vehicle, it’s no substitute for a professional inspection. A professional inspector (usually a former mechanic) will crawl under a vehicle, poke, prod, check fluids, etc. until he or she is satisfied the car is OK to buy. Professional inspections can cost anywhere from $75 to $200, but they often will travel to the vehicle to complete the inspection, and they’re almost always worth the expense. Unless the used car you’re looking at is almost brand new (say, less than 20k miles AND less than 2 years old), hiring an inspector is a good idea.