Advice from Intellichoice: Red Flag Guide on Buying a Used Car - Part 1 of 2

No doubt about it: Buying a used car is a daunting task. In an effort to make the time-consuming process a little bit easier, we’ve laid out some of the most common trouble areas and have provided tips on helping you spot problems before you decide to buy. We also tell you why some problems occur and what is involved in fixing them (think broken transmission vs. burnt-out turn signal bulb).

Remember, the guide below is a great starting point, but there is no replacement for common sense, an attentive test drive, and a good mechanic.

TIP 1: Under the Car

Stick your head under the car and have a long look. Check for any signs of leaks as well as hanging or dragging parts. Move the car and look under it. If you see a leak, use a piece of white paper to identify it by color.

Red: Transmission or power steering fluid;
Black or brown: Oil or brake fluid;
Green: Coolant;
Clear: May simply be condensation from the air conditioner and nothing to worry about.

Exhaust system repairs can range from a $35 bracket repair to a complete replacement, which can cost more than $1,000. Repairs to the suspension can cost even more. If any suspension arms are bent, walk away. Also inspect the exhaust pipes for corrosion, holes and missing brackets. Hanging parts are dangerous - not just for you, but for other drivers too. If that’s not incentive enough, it’s illegal to drive with parts that scrape the ground!

Don’t forget to ask …

What's the history of the car and what problems has it had? Do this especially if your inspection reveals anything hanging underneath. If there are fluid puddles, get a detailed explanation from the owner.

Here’s a bright idea:

Try to set viewing times for first thing in the morning, because checking the car before it has moved will better allow you to spot any leaks.

Bargaining chip:

Depending on the extent of your concerns, $35 all the way up to $1,000. If necessary, ask the owner if you can have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic to determine the cause of leaks and the cost to fix them.

TIP 2: Dents and Rust

Thoroughly inspect the paint and body of the vehicle. Are there any signs of rust or dents? Dents and minor paint damage can be expensive to repair but in most cases won’t affect how the car runs, just your pride. You make the call.

But dents aren’t always expensive to repair. Your local paintless dent-removal specialist may be able to remove them for a small fraction of the cost of a body shop. Even if dents are beyond quick repair, they generally won’t affect reliability.

Rust is another matter. It can often hide around the wheel wells and under doors. From there it can spread and weaken the body, making the car less safe. Catch it early enough and any danger can be avoided. Check thoroughly - if you see any rust on structural members, walk away!

Don’t forget to ask …

How did those dents get there? It could be there's more damage that isn’t immediately visible. Also, ask if there are any dents that have been previously repaired.

Here is a bright idea:

Check carefully for signs of abuse - even great cars can be beaten over the years. Cars with more than a few minor dings may indicate the car's owner may have also neglected items like routine maintenance.

Bargaining chip:

Take off at least $100 for each minor, repairable dent. Serious rust problems on the other hand may result in the car being worth thousands less than a clean one.

TIP 3: Paint Flaws

Look for paint overspray inside the doorjambs and engine compartment. This may indicate that the vehicle was repainted, possibly after an accident. Any paint on the body that isn’t from the factory is suspect and may cover up bodywork repair.

Look for any colors that don’t match at hard-to-paint areas of the vehicle such as corners, edges of the body, under and around the doors, and under the hood.

Run your hand over suspect areas - overspray will feel noticeably coarse in comparison to the glossy smooth finish of factory paint. New paint isn’t always a bad thing, but overspray almost always indicates a shoddy job.

Don’t forget to ask …

Has the car ever been in an accident? Has it ever been repainted? If so, why?

Here is a bright idea:

Never inspect a vehicle in dim light or at night. Poor lighting is an old trick that sellers use to unload damaged goods. Daylight is your friend; it will help you spot any damage, particularly on the body and wheels.

Bargaining chip:

Ask for up to $1,000 off the asking price if you find that a car has been in a minor accident. Big accident? It's best to look elsewhere.

TIP 4: Body Panels

Check the alignment of the doors and body panels as well as the trunk and hood gaps. Gap widths should be consistent and straight. Sagging and/or uneven gaps can indicate panel replacement after an accident, or worse, a weakened frame.

An accident or years of hard use can cause the frame or unibody to weaken and even render the vehicle completely unsafe. Check this by looking for door seal problems. Steer clear if the frame is damaged.

Don’t forget to ask …

Has the frame has ever been repaired? This could be a deal-breaker if the body shop didn't use laser alignment. A damaged or poorly repaired frame (or unibody in some vehicles) can affect safety and handling characteristics permanently.

Here’s a bright idea:

If you’re looking at a pickup truck, make sure you inspect the gap between the truck cab and the bed; unevenness here can also indicate frame-related problems.

Bargaining chip:

Misaligned body panels resulting from replacement should be pointed out to the owner and will reduce the price you are willing to pay. Once again, walk away from vehicles with obvious frame problems.

TIP 5: Wheels & Tires

Inspect all four wheels and tires. Do they all match, including the spare? How worn are the tires, and are they worn evenly? Tires can be expensive, and finding a replacement wheel that matches the set on the vehicle can be difficult.

Be sure to ask where the spare tire and tire-changing equipment are stored. In many cars, there is a storage compartment for these parts in the trunk. Check to make sure everything is there and in good working order.

Quick tips for you to remember

To confirm there’s enough tread on the tires to safely drive away, take a penny and turn it upside down, then place it in a tread groove. If part of Abraham Lincoln’s hair or head is covered, at least 1/16 inch of tire tread remains. If the grooves are any shallower than that, the tires are likely unsafe.

Don’t forget to ask …

How many miles are on the current set of tires? How long did the previous set last? A car that goes through tires faster than normal could need an alignment (about $100).

Here’s a bright idea:

After you have set an appointment to check out a used car, make sure you arrive 15 to 20 minutes before the agreed-upon time. Do a drive-by to see if the owner is out working on the vehicle, and if so, what he or she is working on.

Bargaining chip:

Ask for $50-100 per worn tire (or more if specialty tires are required). Point out mismatched tires as a negotiation tactic.

TIP 6: Keys

Make sure to ask if there is a complete set of working keys and key fobs. Most new cars come with two sets. Don’t forget that some vehicles may require different keys for the gas cap, trunk, valet or wheel locks.

Some newer vehicles use a combined key/remote device. These can be very expensive to replace and often require programming at a dealership, which typically costs about $100!

Don’t forget to ask …

Does the vehicle require specialty keys such as a wheel-lock key? If so, ask the seller to demonstrate how they work. Also ask if any locks have been changed, and if so, why.

Here’s a bright idea:

Try all of the keys and fobs to make sure they work properly and that fobs have working batteries.

Bargaining chip:

Key fobs are expensive and require costly programming in order to work. $200 for problems in this area.

TIP 7: Belts and Hoses

When first inspecting underhood components, make sure that things in the engine compartment are cool enough to touch. It might be quite a dirty adventure; bringing gloves wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Make sure the engine compartment isn’t too hot, then squeeze the hoses and closely inspect the belts. Ensure that none are cracked, melted or overly worn. Hoses should be firm when squeezed. Hoses and belts should be black in color - excessive white or gray could indicate the need for replacement.

If the vehicle is equipped with a timing belt (many use internal timing chains), ask when it was last changed. In most cases, timing belts should be changed every 60,000 miles. In cars with “interference engines,” a broken timing belt can mean a broken engine, so take this one seriously.

Don’t forget to ask …

Has the vehicle had a recent tune-up? Many modern cars require a tune-up only every 100,000 miles.

Here’s a bright idea:

Most reputable shops will provide stamps, records or other proof of maintenance having been done in a timely fashion. Ask the owner for these as well as any receipts he or she has collected over time.

Bargaining chip:

Most belts and hoses are relatively inexpensive to replace, but timing belts and those that require removing other engine parts for access are more costly.

TIP 8: Coolant

Check the coolant level. Refer to the operating manual to find the proper way to check the coolant. The coolant is an excellent indicator of engine health.

CAUTION: If the vehicle has been running, it is likely the coolant is very hot and dangerous. To be on the safe side, use a rag when opening the radiator cap and turn it very slowly. This way, if any hot fluid escapes, your hand will be protected.

A poorly functioning or empty radiator can cause the engine to overheat. In extreme cases, this can ruin the engine.

Don’t forget to ask …

When was the last time the radiator was flushed? Coolant degrades in quality over time, diminishing its effectiveness. Additionally, a regular and timely flush prevents contaminants from building to dangerous levels.

Here’s a bright idea:

When the engine is cool, remove the cap and watch the coolant when the car is running. Bubbling coolant could be a sign that the head gasket is blown, while oily coolant could mean even worse. Say no to the vehicle - unless you’re prepared for a major expenditure.

Bargaining chip:

A poorly working or leaky radiator may need to be replaced completely. That's about $300.

TIP 9: Oil

Check the oil level and its color. Refer to the operating manual to find the proper method of checking the engine oil. Oil should read at the “fill" level on the dipstick and should be caramel-brown in color, not black.

Oil keeps the engine lubricated. If it is low or has lost viscosity and become thin, proper lubrication cannot take place and the engine may seize. If the oil is just a little low or old, an oil change can probably save the engine before it is too late. Depending on driving conditions, oil should be changed from every 3,000 miles to every 7,500 miles.

Don’t forget to ask …

When was the last time the oil was changed? Was it changed regularly, and if so, are there receipts to back this up?

Here’s a bright idea:

Check the emission status of a vehicle before purchasing it. The status should be current and okay. Even if the vehicle has a recent smog-test sticker, it’s not a bad idea to get it retested.

Bargaining chip:

There's not much negotiating room here. If the oil is a little old, usually an oil change is all that is needed. But beware of owners who don't know when the oil was changed last; that's an indicator that other maintenance may have been neglected as well.

TIP 10: Transmission Fluid

Check the transmission fluid level. The color and smell of transmission fluid can indicate problems with the transmission; the fluid should generally have a red, translucent color and no burnt odor. Not all cars have a dipstick for the transmission. Be sure to check the owner's manual.

Don’t forget to ask …

When was the last time the transmission fluid and filter were changed? Ask for a receipt documenting the work.

Here’s a bright idea:

If the car is Certified Pre-Owned, the dealer should be able to provide you with inspection sheets. Ask to see them to gain a better idea of what repairs have been made.

Bargaining chip:

If the transmission fluid is dirty, a flush and fill may be in order. Say, $100.