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No Secrets: Clunker-Free Used Car Shopping Tips

7af56e4cffb44e179beefc0507b27964You’re in the market for used or previously owned car.  So, you embark on your journey with the intention of finding the right used car without getting sidelined by the usual anxieties regarding its past, possible problems, or it being a downright ‘clunker.’

Drive by the following used-car shopping tips before steering toward a used car lot or online exchange.

Park Your Expectations

To begin, get an idea of how much you can spend rather than start by allowing potential models to catch your eye.  Starting from the latter will leave you susceptible to seller persuasion and could get you to pay more than your wallet allows.

First, be prepared to walk away from a potentially bad deal regardless of how much you want the automobile.  Also, don’t readily accept initial prices regardless of how many others are reported being interested.  Next, you’ll need to inspect the ‘DNA’ of the vehicle, getting a vehicle history report and its prior service records.  Do your own investigating or ask an agent at the used car dealership at

See for Yourself

Of course, a used car dealer will think the world of any car they’re selling and a private owner will mention having no problems with the automobile they’re trying to get off their hands.  So, you need to see for yourself, inspecting the car inside and out.

Make sure the lines of the body are even and aligned, doors open and close properly, and the tires are in good condition.  Next, lift the hood and check for leaky hoses, worn belts, foul oil or fluids, and a potentially dirty radiator.  Get in the driver’s seat and switch the ignition to ensure no warning lights come on.  Start the car, again checking for emergency indications.

Some aspects you may not be able to inspect yourself due to limited knowledge or placement of features, such as working airbags.  Discuss the option to take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic who can thoroughly check the car before you make a purchase.

Other details include checking for water damage, dirty carpets, rust in the tire well, and frayed or brittle wires under the car’s exterior.  Also, check the air conditioning and heater – something you may immediately forget due to present weather.

Take a Test Drive

The automobile may look safe and sound on the outside, but you can’t be sure it’s not a lemon until you actually start the car and take it for a test drive.  Accelerate to over 40 mph, listening for a strained motor or any other issues.  Also, if it’s a manual transmission, ensure you can smoothly shift through the gears, both when accelerating and decelerating.

Take the car on highways in addition to somewhere you can make multiple turns and apply the brakes often.  This may seem like a lot to do before buying, yet being diligent before making a purchase ensures that you’re not stuck with a clunker in need of repairs and additional investments.

Study the Car’s Past

Getting a printout or car fax that lists the history of a car is one of the smartest things to do in the modern era.  In the past, used car buyers had to rely on the seller’s word, but today, you can double check a seller’s testimonials with data that is tied to a car’s VIN number.  A report will tell of previous flood damage, odometer issues, etc.

You can attain a history report from several sources.  The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System features companies that provide you with one (many cost just a few dollars).  The reports use title information from registries all over the nation.  Operated by the Department of Justice, it’s the only system of its kind available to the public.  All insurance carriers, auto recyclers, junk yards, and salvage yards provide data on associated vehicles on a regular basis.

Carfax, starting the process in the 80s, faxes data directly to customers, with other companies, such as AutoCheck, providing the same level of service.  Regardless of where you get the data, most reports are the same, using a vehicle’s VIN number to reveal its past.  Get a single report, or for a higher fee, get a subscription that allows access to numerous reports per month.

If you’re getting a car that is new to you rather than fresh off the assembly line, there are few things you need to do to ensure you’re getting a class-A automobile and not a clunker.  Be patient, thorough, and definitely learn of the vehicle’s past.

Nathan Elliot is a car insurance adjustor. He likes to share what he has learned by posting online. Look for his articles mostly on automotive and insurance websites.

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  • I have to admit, I suck at buying cars rationally. Typical scenario: wife and I decide to go out and start looking at used cars. Test drive a few, see what’s out there in our price range that looks good, rides well, has comortable seats… you know, the important stuff. “But we’re not buying a car today.”

    We’re about 50/50 on that promise. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to leave home that will make it impossible for us to buy a car.

  • Our car died 10 days before FinCon last year — and my husband was going on a trip at the same time — so we had to rush to get a replacement.

    We ended up with a 2012 Civic with less than 30k on it for $14k out the door thanks to a trade-in of the dead car and cosmetic imperfections in the paint. We probably could have gotten a slightly better deal by walking away for a day, but at that point we’d been searching for days and just wanted it done.

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