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Purchase With Confidence: 3 Used Car Buying Tips You Should Follow

tips for buying a used car

Buying a used car is often a purchase that can’t be undone. Only a handful of states have lemon laws, and even those offer limited protection for used cars. Most automobile sales are “as-is” which means once you sign the paperwork, the vehicle and all its problems are your.  It’s up to you to fully evaluate the vehicle first. Worried about getting stuck with a clunker? Follow these used car buying tips to ensure you bring home the best vehicle you can afford.

1. Do Your Research

Many free resources exist online for consumers buying a car. Take a bit of time to look up information specific to the make, model and year you are considering. Some of the most important things to keep in mind while you search include:

  • Does the asking price match its estimated value?
  • What kind of fuel economy does it have?
  • Has the manufacturer issued any recalls?
  • What are the safety ratings?
  • Are other owners satisfied with the car?
  • Are there any common problems with the year/make/model?

Moving past free resources you should invest in an automotive background check through one of the major services like CARFAX or AutoCheck. You will need to know the VIN (vehicle identification number) to do a background check. These background check services can tell you if the vehicle has ever been reported in an accident, when it was sold, where it was sold, any service records, and if it has ever been reported as totaled. Just remember that these reports rely on information that is gathered through routine procedures not always a physical inspection. They will not reflect things that happen but are not reported. For instance, if a vehicle is wrecked but the owner never claims it on their insurance while repairing it themselves, the accident will not be shown on a vehicle history report.

2. Check the Paperwork

Researching details is one of the top 3 tips for buying a used car. A vehicle’s paperwork is the key to understanding its history. Begin with the title, a must-have to prove ownership of the car (compare the title to the VIN on the car). Next compare the name on the title to the person selling the vehicle. Be wary if a seller has lost the title and wants the buyer to be responsible for getting a replacement. Also be wary if the title is not in the name of the seller.

Before you pay for the car, check to see if the title has been branded. When a vehicle is in a major accident, severely flooded or otherwise declared a total loss, many states will permanently mark it on the title. Make sure you fully understand any physical issues the car has experienced and their impact on the vehicle’s value before buying a branded car. If in doubt over any title issues, contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles. It also never hurts to run the VIN through the free NICB (National Insurance Crime Bureau) VINCheck database to make sure it isn’t stolen.

Maintenance records, repair bills and receipts are a bonus when buying a used car, but not a necessity if it passes your physical inspection. The exception is for any component covered with a transferable warranty, where a receipt is typically required for any warranty claims.

3. Go Beyond Kicking the Tires

One of the most important tips for buying a used car is to give it a thorough inspection, inside and out. Having a trusted expert at your local NAPA AutoCare Center perform a thorough pre-purchase inspection is usually well worth the cost, but you can give potential purchases a quick once-over yourself to narrow down the choices. If a seller won’t let you have the vehicle inspected by a shop of your choosing, walk away.

As you look over the vehicle, don’t leave any surface unexamined. Sit in the different seats and test out the power windows and locks. Go through all the functions on the stereo, and the temperature settings. For vehicles with folding or removable seats, try each one out in order to make sure you understand how they work and to see how well they operate. If you use car seats, install them to ensure they fit and can be properly secured. Open the trunk and pull back the carpet to check for any crumpled areas that might signal crash damage or rust.

Look under the hood, even if you have little mechanical experience. Bring a flashlight to see into nooks and crannies. Red flags to watch for include excessive dirt and grime; dark staining that may indicate a leak; and belts, hoses or wiring that are frayed or worn. Look at the bolts that hold the fenders on and see if they show signs of being moved, as this may signal that the vehicle had collision repair. If any wiring looks out of place ask for an explanation.

Don’t be tempted to skip a test drive just because your visual inspection checks out. Many issues you may miss in a parking lot, such as clunks, vibrations and rough running, will become evident on the road. Get the vehicle out on the highway to verify it shifts through all transmission gears. Ask the seller to not start the vehicle until you get there so it will have a cold start. Any smoke that comes from the tail pipe during a cold start can be a sign of engine problems. If the vehicle is already warmed up to operating temperature when you arrive, be wary.

Lastly bring your own OBD scan tool to check for any unseen issues. Simply plug the tool into the OBD-II port and scan the onboard computer. There should be no pending fault codes and all systems should read ready. If systems are not ready then the onboard computer may have been reset recently, possibly to hide an illuminated check engine light. Any pending fault codes should be a deal breaker unless you are comfortable with the pending repairs.

Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPAOnline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on used car buying tips, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Shelton.


Sarah Shelton View All

As a freelance automotive writer, I create articles, how-to guides, web content and white papers for online magazine site and automotive companies. I passionately believe that cars and motorcycles should be appreciated for the works of art they are, and fantasize about owning a white Ducati 899 Panigale to display in my living room. I am currently the Corvette expert at, cover alternatively-fueled vehicles and technology at, and hold the imaginary title of Formula One test driver on the back roads surrounding my Oregon home.

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