It Is Always - Buyer Beware!

A used car buying checklist is as indispensible as a test drive when buying a vehicle. Affordability, financing, warranties, and a vehicle history report will be discussed.

Most often, it is budgetary considerations that determine whether a new or used car is purchased. However, some people prefer not to buy a new car because of the instant depreciation as they drive off of the car dealers lot.

I bought used cars for years for this reason. The car was "new" to me, I would argue. It was a way for me to meet my financial goals while providing reliable transportation. Now, I am able to buy new cars, service them properly, and keep them for 8 to 10 years.

Why Am I Buying This Vehicle?

It might be what I can afford. It could be favorable gas mileage. Maybe it has options that I cannot live without (make a list). I needed reliable transportation to work. That is the one option that I could not live without.

The process of buying any car or truck usually begins months, sometimes years, prior to the purchase. There is probably a vehicle that caught your eye or has the interior seating to accommodate your growing family.

Use all of the available information to check on the year, make, and model of your potential purchase. What are the maintenance costs and the frequency of repairs? What is its history of engine or transmission problems? Check gas mileage and safety records.

You will need insurance for the vehicle. So, a quick phone call to your agent will prevent any unpleasant surprises after the purchase. This should be part of your used-car-buying checklist.

Should I Purchase From a Dealership or a Private Party?

You may pay less buying from an individual. But, you will need to be even more careful during the inspection and test drive. Doing so will avoid high-pressure sales pitches or "game-playing" that can occur at dealerships.

Buying from a private party may make more room for price negotiations. But, there are no warranties or trade options. You will also be responsible to complete and submit the paperwork.


Purchasing from a dealership, not only gives you the options not available buying privately, and there should be financing available. Also, certified trained technicians may have inspected the vehicle.

Remember, salespersons work on commissions and report to a sales manager. They are trained to get the best deal - for the dealership.

The Inspection!

There are so many things to look at and consider when inspecting a used vehicle that I recommend finding a list on your computer. Print the used-car-buying checklist and take it with you.

You will also need a notebook and pen to record the asking price, mileage and the vehicle identification number (VIN). Take a flashlight to look under the hood and under the vehicle, checking for fluid leaks. Do this with the engine running and after it is off.

Test the car stereo with your own CD.

Your inspection should reveal if the car was in an accident, flood, or fire. Start with a slow walk around the vehicle. If it does not appear to be well taken care of, it is likely that the mechanical components were similarly cared for.

Look at each tire individually. Note if they are the same size and brand. Also, compare the wear patterns to see if the tires are worn evenly.

Check the operation of the windows, doors, wipers, radio, etc. While checking each door, look for rust along the edges. Lift up the mat in the trunk to look for rust.

You need to know more than the outward appearance of any vehicle purchase. You should verify that it is mechanically safe. For this reason, I recommend an  inspection by a trusted repair shop that includes a computerized engine analysis.

This should minimize the chances of running into "hidden costs" or buying someone else's "lemon".

When I sell my vehicles, I provide a 3-ring binder with all service records, the original window sticker, and the manual that came with the car. This always impresses the buyer. Because, I take care of my cars, I never have any trouble selling them.

The Test Drive!

If the car or truck does not pass your inspection, there is no need for a test drive.

Does the vehicle shift smoothly through each gear on acceleration (automatic transmissions, of course)?  Note the smoothness of shifting as you decelerate to a full stop.

Does it pull to one side during acceleration or at a steady speed?  Does it pull to one side when the brakes are gently applied?

On a vacant road or in an empty parking lot (at about 20 mph), let go of the steering wheel.  If it pulls to one side, the alignment is likely to be off. 

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)!

The VIN is unique for each vehicle. The records of a particular car or truck follow it throughout its lifetime. For a nominal fee, you can submit the VIN to a service and they will track the history of a vehicle. You will know if the vehicle was in a serious accident, the number of owners, the original sale date, etc.

The report will identify if the vehicle was used as a taxi or police car, for example. It will list the place of manufacture, mileage, and much, much more. It is a worthwhile investment, at a fee that is miniscule when compared to the purchase price.

Bill Of Sale!

The bill of sale is a record of the transaction. It is usually the seller's responsibility.

When purchasing a vehicle privately, it should include the purchase price, mileage, and VIN. Purchasing from a dealer automatically includes the bill of sale.

The rules are different for each state. Some require both the seller's and buyer's signature and date. Some require a notarized bill of sale.

The bill of sale is not a title transfer. That is a different form. Finally, the bill of sale proves that you are no longer responsible for the car or truck. If it is involved in an accident, you should be clear of any responsibility.


The used-car-buying checklist is not legal advice. You must contact an attorney for legal advice. This is for informational use only.


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