The first and most important step in picking a used car is determining its condition.
But how can you tell a good car from a bad one? Unfortunately, you can’t simply judge based on the appearance. A car with gorgeous, shiny paint might just be hiding the fact that it’s never had an oil change. And, on the flip side, you might find a car with some body damage that’s actually been maintained impeccably, potentially saving you thousands of dollars.
Aside from obvious appearance issues, there are really only two ways to judge a used car: the number of miles it has and how well it’s been maintained.
All things equal, you should always pick the car with the lowest mileage you can find.
Cars are essentially tools that wear down over time. Even perfectly maintained, well-designed vehicles are going to break down occasionally, but the fewer miles that have been put on a car, the fewer problems you can expect to encounter.
The other thing that is critical when picking a used car is determining how well it has been maintained over time. Ideally, the seller will have kept receipts showing exactly what service has been performed over the life of the vehicle.
You can compare these receipts to the recommended service schedule in the owner’s manual. If the service has been performed on time, that’s a great sign.
If there are no records of service, you’ve got to assume it hasn’t been done, even if the seller tells you otherwise. Factor this into the price of the car.
If you really want to do your homework, get price quotes from local mechanics for performing the major service milestones like changing the timing belt or chain.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE ODOMETER HAS BEEN ROLLED BACK?
While today’s high-tech odometers make it harder for car sellers to be dishonest about their mileage, you can take steps to keep yourself safe.
One is looking closely at the condition of the car. If a very low-mileage car has lots of rock chips in the paint, that’s a sign that you should be cautious.
More importantly, you should look at any official records that showed the car’s mileage in the past — vehicle inspections, registration or tax receipts, for example — to see if the numbers match up.