How to choose a used car

Follow these steps to avoid getting stuck with a clunker

Published: March 20, 2015 02:00 PM

Sure, new cars are flashy and, well new, but used cars are where the smart money is. Since new cars decline in value so rapidly, a three-year-old used model will likely sell for nearly half what it cost new but still deliver solid performance. Plus, buying used is also a way to get a nicer car than you'd be able to afford new.

However, with, literally, millions of used cars out there, how do you tell the treasures from the trash?  

Here's a tip: You don't have to be a car expert to figure out when a vehicle has been neglected by the previous owner. In fact, just using your eyes, ears, and nose makes you more qualified than you think.    

For example, looking at the exterior, you can usually see when body panels have scratches, dents, or rust. Masking-tape marks under windowsills or fender edges can indicate paintwork.     

Listening to the engine under acceleration, you can tell when it's knocking. And a black, greasy residue inside the tailpipe means the engine is burning oil.        

A musty, moldy smell in the interior or trunk could indicate water damage. A coating of rust on bolts or hinges inside the doorjamb can be a clue that the car may have been submerged. Same goes for waterlines in the engine compartment.

Make sure the tires have even tread wear. New tires may hide problems. 

See our list of best and worst used cars.

Even with a careful walk around, trouble signs can slip by. According to Carfax, a service that provides vehicle history reports, about 20 percent of cars on the road have some sort of accident damage.    

History reports are a helpful tool, but they aren't perfect. Differing state laws governing salvage titles allow for loopholes big enough to drive a rebuilt wreck through.   

Ask to see the title before you buy a used car. Be especially wary of any car with a "lost" title, as that can indicate a salvaged car—aka one you do not want.     

Targeting a model known for reliability puts the odds in your favor, but with used car, each is truly an individual with unique road experience and care. Consequently, there is no substitute for hiring your own mechanic to inspect any car you're serious about buying.

Check out our extensive used car section for more buying advice.

—Mike Quincy

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