Buying a used car is an exciting experience that can also be risky. Make sure you get a good deal by learning the signs of common mechanical problems before you head off to the dealership. Use our guide to discover what to look for when buying a preowned automobile, so you drive home with a winner.

Check the Engine Condition

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Thankfully, you don't need to be a car expert to avoid buying a lemon. However, even if you have no idea what all the parts under the hood actually do, it's important to take a peek at them anyway. Engineers mounted some of your vehicle's most important components in the engine compartment, so there could be a lot of trouble going on in there.

First, look for signs of rust and corrosion on metal parts and battery terminals. Now, do you see any evidence that animals have been nesting in there? Next, you'll want to glance at the rubber hoses and belts. Are they soft and flexible or dried out and cracked? A bad radiator hose could cause a coolant leak and may cause your engine to overheat. Likewise, if your serpentine belt breaks, your car's performance will be significantly impaired to the point where you may not be able to drive it.

Check for Warning Lights

Once you've looked at the engine, have a seat in the cabin and turn on the ignition. One of the first things you'll notice is the car's odometer reading. While mileage is an important consideration when valuing your vehicle, there are other important indicators on the dash.

Do you see any warning lights, such as a "Check Engine" alert? This dreaded signal doesn't necessarily indicate a major mechanical issue. It could be something as innocent as a loose gas cap or something minor like a failing oxygen sensor. Other notification lights include oil and tire pressure, low battery or fuel, and seat belt or air bag reminders. If you see a light you don't understand, your trusted mechanic can run a simple diagnostic test to determine if the issue is costly enough to scratch that car off your list.

Use Your Senses To Uncover Issues

What to look for when used car shopping requires a little common sense—and a few other senses. If you hear something unusual, you may have a potential problem with your prospective set of wheels. Listen for hisses, pings, bangs, and rattles when you idle and accelerate.

Cars are noisy machines, but some of that clatter could indicate trouble ahead. If the car clunks over bumps, the suspension may need maintenance, while metallic screeching from the brakes is a cry for attention. Many used vehicles have power-steering pumps, which thankfully will groan when they're getting ready to break. If you hear this noise when turning during your test drive, alert the salesperson.

If something smells funny in or around the car, it probably isn't right, either. If you sense smoke, oil, or antifreeze, consider passing on that particular choice. A sulfur smell also isn't normal. This foul odor could indicate a plugged catalytic converter. Even a moldy scent could reveal a build-up of moisture in the car's duct system and, while this might not be a deal-breaker, knowing it's there gives you the chance to ask the dealer to disinfect the system.

Test the Amenities

No one wants to get stuck paying for costly repairs the day after they drive the car off the lot, even if they're minor problems with the climate control system or the radio. Make sure to run all the amenities to confirm they work correctly. Don't fool yourself into thinking heat, air conditioning, and listening to the traffic report are luxuries. Your car is more than just a way to get around town. You want to enjoy the ride.

Check the Tires

You've heard the saying "a lot is riding on your tires," and while cliche, it's true. A complete set of tires can cost over $1,000 depending on your make and model, so let the dealership cover these costs. You're going to want to do more than a quick kick to test them, however.

The first step in your tire inspection is to check the tread depth using a penny. Place the coin upside down inside the pattern, and if you can see the top of Lincoln's head, those tires are worn too low. You also want to check the rubber for feathering and uneven wear. These signs can indicate a problem with the preowned car's alignment, steering, or suspension components. Remember to look over the spare, too.

Review Maintenance Records

One of the most important considerations when buying a preowned vehicle is whether it was taken care of properly by the previous owner. Ask the salesperson for a copy of any maintenance records, like documentation of regularly required services, including oil changes and radiator flushes, as well as any repairs.

Regular maintenance extends the car's life, and this evidence is very valuable when making your decision. Some buyers won't look at a vehicle with more than 100,000 miles. However, if a technician properly serviced the car or truck, it may well last longer than the same model with less mileage that was poorly maintained.

You can also purchase a vehicle history report. This inexpensive tool provides valuable information that will help your purchasing decision, including details about accidents, flood damage, and how many owners the car has had. You can also verify the VIN and the mileage, plus see if that model has been subject to any recalls. If you're looking at cars from a dealership, they may provide this document for free, so don't forget to ask for a copy,

So, there you have it. Our team put together these helpful tips you can follow next time you shop for a used car. Whether it's your first or your fifth, you'll recognize some common issues, so you can find a quality vehicle you'll enjoy driving for many years. Let us know if there's anything else you think is important to check when buying a new-to-you car.

Categories: Pre-Owned Inventory
Tags: buying tips