Tips for Buying a Used Car from Individuals and Other Dealers

Buying a used car can be like skating on thin ice. You never know what pitfalls you’re likely to be encounter. The water is freezing, and the stakes are high. Even the professionals who know what they’re doing want to have a safety line.

Every used car has a unique history. For some, that can mean a pampered life in a suburban garage with an owner dedicated to keeping up with all the necessary routine maintenance. For others, it can mean a life on the street driven by an underfunded, encountering potholes, curbs, and even the occasional excruciating stunt. For cars newer than 1983 should check out the car using the VIN number to get the CarFax report.

Take a Detailed Look

Walk around the car and examine each body panel individually for scratches, dents, or rust. Don’t forget the roof, the hood, and the trunk lid. You should also squat down on your knees at the front of the car and peer down each side, front to back, looking for any waviness or unevenness that could indicate previous body damage. Do the same from the back and on each side of the car. 

Keep Seams Straight

Stand back from the car on each side, and from the front and back. With your eyes, follow along each seam between body panels, between the fenders and the doors, for instance, and between the hood and fenders. Make sure each seam maintains an even width along its entire length.

Check around the head and tail lights and where the bumpers attach, too. It is difficult for auto body shops to get every part to line up just as it did from the factory. If they take shortcuts and do their best to make everything fit back together at the end, this is where it's likely to show up. 

Coloring between the Lines

Make sure you inspect the car during daylight hours, on as bright a day as possible. While you're standing back from the car, look closely at the color of each individual panel. Especially if the car is silver, metallic white, metallic red (especially lighter reds), or gold, confirm that the paint colors match as exactly as possible. Even the factory can't get every panel to match exactly, especially in these difficult colors. They should match as closely as possible, though, and be equally glossy. If one panel is much darker or lighter than the one next to it, the darker panel has probably been repainted, and you should ask why.

Look carefully just inside the hood, trunk, and doors for any dull paint that's duller than the surrounding panels. This overspray is also evidence that the adjacent panel has been repainted and is cause for suspicion. Be especially wary of small ridges in the paint near the edges of panels, under windows, just inside doorjambs, or under the hood. These indicate where masking tape marked the edges of a new paint job near the edges and under the windowsills when body damage was repaired.

Magnetic Attraction

If you go to the car dealership bring a square magnet along with you for your car inspection. Being careful not to let it touch the paint, run the magnet along all the metal panels – everything but the bumpers, including the doors, fenders, trunk, and at least the edge of the hood – to see if the magnet feels pulled uniformly toward the metal. If the pull goes away, that’s a sign that there's body filler such as Bondo under the paint a sure sign of previous bodywork.

A Flood of Problems

Prior accidents aren't the only problem you need to watch out for. This is even truer if the car is from a section of the country that had a hurricane or tremendous rain in the last few years. You should also look for potential flood damage by checking the headlight and taillight lenses for any sign of moisture or condensation inside. It’s easy to spot when you look for it.

Lift a corner of the carpet to look for any muddy or dirty residue in a hard to reach the area, such as under the pedals or under the front seats. This can be a sign that the interior was once filled with water. Sniff the interior and trunk for any musty, moldy, or mildew smells that could indicate water damage. Open the doors and look under their bottom edges for signs of muddy residue (and look for rust while you're at it).

Rust Spots

While you're looking under the car, check inside the fenders, especially along the edges and under the corners for any rust starting to form. Look all along the bottoms of the door sills and on the bottom of the car between the doors for rust. These are usually the first places rust forms. 

Unusual Tire Wear

Check the tire wear to make sure it is even across the tread and that the tread blocks are flat across the top, not cupped. Note that new tires may hide problems with the alignment that may be hard to fix if the car has been in an accident. 

Listen to What the Car Is Telling You

Listen carefully as you test drive the car, we usually provide videos with the sound of the engine for you to hear. The engine should sound smooth, without any squeaks or squeals. The smooth sound of the engine is all you should hear. There should be no other humming, thrumming, or whining from any other part of the car.

Other things to look for is to make sure the steering tracks smooth and straight on an uncrowned road at speed, and that the brakes stop the car smoothly. Turning the steering wheel should take the same effort to the left as to the right. Verify that the transmission shifts smoothly, both up and down gears and with a heavy and light throttle. 

Leaky Buckets

If requested we will take pictures or videos of the underside of the car for you to show you the buckets. So when at the dealer you should look under the hood and check for oily residue running anywhere down the side of the engine block, which will indicate a leak. Ideally, meet the seller at his or her home, or wherever the car has been parked overnight.

See if there are any oil spots on the ground under the car and, if there are oily spots, check where they’re coming from under the hood. Check all the fluids to ensure they look clear and have good color (light brown for motor oil, but not milky, and bright-but-opaque green, blue, or orange for radiator coolant). If they aren't full, ask why. 

Note we do all the proper liquid changes for all the cars we sell.

Engine Residue

Wipe your finger around the inside of the tailpipe to collect residue. (Wear gloves if you must.) The smudge that appears on your hands (or gloves) should be dry and dark gray. If it’s black and greasy, it is burnt oil, and this could be a sign that the engine could be due for an overhaul. We have multiple pictures of every car’s engine to show you that the engine is in good or great condition.


Make Sure to Decode the VIN of the Car You Are Looking At.

Checking a VIN decoder chart is a quick way to see if a used car’s VIN information matches up with what’s in the vehicle title and records. VIN cloning is a scam where sellers replace the VIN of a stolen car with one that is legally registered. Help prevent this type of fraud by decoding the VIN of the vehicle in question.


Review the Vehicle History Report

A vehicle history report can help you see title problems, ownership history, service points and previous accidents, large or small. These reports may be available from dealers or ordered online, we have the reports available for all our cars that post 1983. CARFAX offers a report you can purchase; it’s one of the most comprehensive because it’s pulled from a database of more than six billion car records. Note this information is only for cars after 1983.

Note on our site each car will have its VIN available, just cut and past the VIN into the CARFAX search.

Check the Interior

Now you should also check the inside of a car that may matter most since that’s where you’ll be spending the most time.

  • When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty or mildewy smell could indicate water leaks. Remove the floor mats and check for wet spots on the carpet. An acrid smell may indicate that the car was used by a smoker. To verify that it might it was used by a smoker check the lighter for marks and the ashtray for evi­dence. Some odors, such as mold or smoke, can be very hard to get rid of. If you don’t like what you smell, find another car.
  • Try out all the seats even though you may not plan to sit in the rear. Upholstery shouldn’t be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car with low mileage. Try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work properly and that you can find a good driving position.
  • The rubber on the brake, clutch, and gas pedals gives an indication of use. A car with low miles shouldn’t show much wear. Pedal rubber that’s worn through in spots—or brand-new—indicates that the car has been driven a lot.
  •  Check the headliner and roof trim for stains or sags to see if water is leaking through the sunroof, ill-fitting doors, or windows. If equipped with a sunroof or moon-roof, check to see if it opens and closes properly and seals well when shut. Inspect the convertible top for tears by shining a flashlight up into it.
  •  Use your nose as well as your eyes. Sniff and look for signs of water entry. See if the carpeting feels wet or smells musty, and check the spare tire well for water or rust.


Instruments and controls. Turn the ignition switch, but without starting the en­gine. All the warning lights which would be including the “Check engine” light should only illuminate for a few seconds and go off when you start the engine. Note if the engine is hard to start when cold and if it idles smoothly. Then try out every switch, button, and lever. With the engine running, turn on the heater full blast to see how hot it gets as well as how quickly. Also, switch on the air conditioning and make sure it quickly blows cold and to check how quickly the car will get cold.


Sound system. Check radio reception on AM and FM. If there is a CD player, try loading and ejecting a disc. If you plan on using an MP3 player or an iPod in the car, bring that along and test out the connection if there is one. We will customize the sound system of any car we sell for an extra cost.


Our 120 Point Inspection does cover this but we will cover the basic car with a Free 1-year warranty. But we would welcome you to come into our dealership and shop if you are in the area to check out the car of your choice.