The lack of money required to purchase a new automobile, the desire to buy a larger and/or better equipped car or simply fulfilling a childhood dream – whatever the reason, millions of people around the world contribute to supporting the market of used cars, year after year. Depending on the legislation in the country of origin, the degree or civilization of its inhabitants and, last but not least, the roads infrastructure, the process can be easy or cumbersome; but one thing is for sure: there are less honest individuals everywhere, and that is the reason why it is necessary to perform a careful inspection of the vehicle, no matter where the transaction takes place. That is why we are going to underline some of the unwritten laws for buying a used car.
You should start by checking the vehicle documents: if the car you want to purchase is not impeccable from this point of view, than the remaining steps are irrelevant. There is no point for us to dwell too long on the proof of origin and, generally, on any documents proving that the vehicle had not been stolen, since the process of tracking irregularities – checking the chassis and the engine series, for instance – is well known and people apply it in most cases; however, it is important to mention the maintenance and service logbook.
A lot of people ignore the lack of the maintenance and service logbook (or the information therein), especially if the car was manufactured recently, has the reputation of a reliable brand and has a low mileage counter. Unfortunately, more often than not a low price will disguise serious technical issues caused by inappropriate vehicle maintenance. Starting from the saying “A stitch in time saves nine”, the best thing to do is to thoroughly check if there are any gaps in the range of preventive maintenance inspections specific to that car type and to compare that data with the data in the maintenance and service logbook: even if the owner had made unscheduled repairs in other autorepair shops to avoid filling the pages and thus depreciating the car value, mandatory scheduled inspections must be logged in the document (and, by the way, checking its authenticity is a must). Is that not the case? Then you should resist the temptation and look elsewhere.
2) The exterior
Once the car has passed the “documents test”, it is time for the body to be inspected. The exterior must be checked in the smallest details: paint, the alignment of the doors, the condition of door seals, rust stains along the doors / door sills, dents in the body, and the aspect of the engine compartment. While it must be said that for each effective method of identifying flaws there is an equally effective counter-method of concealing them, we will now provide a series of recommendations worth taking into account:
• Note any irregularities on the body surface and the areas where the paint burst off, as these are often signs of hasty repairs (whether caused by rust or by a more or less minor crash).
• Focus on the areas where rust usually appears, especially when dealing with an older car. First inspect the fenders, wheel arches, door sills and the bottom edges of the doors. It is important to avoid buying a vehicle that shows signs of excessive wear. In most cases, a car will end as scrap not because of mechanical failures, but because of a very poor body status.
• Inspect any scratches that cannot be fixed by polishing and try to get a discount, especially if the owner did not mention them in the ad: if the car does not look as it was described, you shouldn’t pay for it.
• Check the functionality of the shock absorbers; they should counteract the violent swaying of the body after it has been pushed down, bringing it up to a level where it remains stable. And if you are still close to the wheel, make a strong push against the shaft to check for potential loose joints.
3) The interior
It is well known that, once inside the passenger compartment, those interested in purchasing a used car have an instinctive tendency to check the mileage counter. Unfortunately, the mileage indicator can be easily tampered, so if the vehicle history cannot be verified or the seller is not a “reliable source”, there are high chances that you might be cheated. Fortunately, there are many other ways to identify a high wear, some of them even more obvious than the mileage. But let's take them one by one:
• Seats: cracked leather or worn out textile indicate a higher mileage than claimed by the car seller.
• Pedals: if the rubber covering them is excessively worn out, it means that the vehicle had not just been driven a long distance, but also at high speed.
• Steering wheel, door panels and controls on the dashboard: most likely they are made of plastic, which easily reveals the vehicle’s level of wear, as it gets shiny with wear over time.
• Gear stick: this must not show any obvious slack either in neutral position or in any of the gears.
• Electrical installation: all controls and gauges should work perfectly, the same as the headlights, turn signals or electric windows. Each broken warning light or a malfunctioning lighting system is proof of poor maintenance.
• To be on the safe side, you should also run a quick check of the edges of the brake discs: if the “collar” is obvious, then the vehicle was overused or has a high mileage.
4) Mechanic and test drive
Although it might seem that the last steps before purchasing a used car exclude one another, they actually complete each other during the practical inspection. The first step is getting the vehicle on the ramp. The mechanics in the car repair shop where the car was scheduled for inspection (preferably a place agreed by the buyer) are able to check any part of the car (from engine and gearbox to the drivetrain assembly – wheel bushings, pins, rod ends, etc.). This is where you can really see how much the engine pollutes, how worn the brake friction pads are, the “life expectancy” of the exhaust system and the wear level of the supercharger.
And yet – even though the mechanic might tell you everything is ok, you should trust your own instinct (or that of a friend with better technical skills), resulting in the much expected drive test. Here, it is necessary to verify the following:
Starting the engine: when cold, it needs to start working in just a few seconds after turning the key. Pay attention to any disturbing factor of its functioning – be it a vibration or a sudden drop in the idling speed – as it may mean there is a fault that would later cost a lot of money to repair.
Brakes: if the mere inspection of the friction pads was not enough, you will get a better idea when trying to stop the car. If the vehicle needs long distances to stop, the pedal is “soft” and/or there is a loss of direction when hitting the brakes a bit harder, it means that it needs an urgent inspection.
Status of the drivetrain: any bumpy or cobbled road will reveal the condition of the suspension joints. However, even if you hear a lot of noise, do not despair: after all, they are consumables and need to be replaced. It is the best time to find out the price and frequency of this procedure.
In fact, this is a question that needs to be asked throughout the purchasing process. Choosing a used car is not about emphasizing the advantages it has compared to an identically priced new car – for example, larger body, a more powerful engine or better equipped interior – but about focusing on the disadvantages of a product that has no warranty. If, after following these steps, you think that these disadvantages are few or manageable you can draft the purchase contract.