1. Go over the maintenance records carefully. People with well maintained cars keep records. Cars with timing belts are a prime example of needing to examine the records in detail. It won’t be such a great deal if you have to spend $800 and up to replace the timing belt right after buying the car, if you’re lucky and it doesn’t snap taking the engine with it.
2. Check the lights, both inside the car and outside.
3. Don’t kick the tires, look closely at the tread on every one of them. Those babies are expensive to replace. Irregular wear can mean big repair bills.
4. Don’t laugh, but if the undercarriage is caked with mud, you may be looking at a Katrina victim. I looked at a Saturn for a customer last month, which had at some time in the recent past been sunk to the floor boards in mud.
5. Although only a thorough leak detection check can tell for certain if the people just charged up the air conditioner, at least make sure it works in all positions with the controls. Listen for when it kicks on. Overly noisy engagement means trouble. AC repairs start at upwards of a thousand dollars.
6. Try out the radio, cassette, CD player, and make sure there’s no tinny sound from the speakers. Blown out speakers are annoying as hell.
7. Open up the hood, and look to see if various fluids are coating the engine. Check the fluid levels, even though they may have changed the eng oil to sell the car. Bringing along a small flashlight is a good idea for playing CSI on a used car.
8. If the coolant in the overflow bottle is missing or looks like mud, that’s a bad sign. You want to see bright red or green.
9. Pull off the oil filler cap and look at the underside. It should look black or whatever the color the cap is. If there’s any viscous creamy looking stuff or beads of moisture, walk away.
10. Turn off all sounds on the test drive, and close the windows. Listen for out of the ordinary road noise, pulling when the steering wheel is released, pulling to one side when braking, noises when braking, and excessive noise when going over bumps.
11. Get a smog test before buying the vehicle. If it won’t pass smog, walk away.
12. Pick a vehicle for your needs. If you need a pickup truck, don’t buy a Honda Civic and load it down like a pickup. The gas mileage drops exponentially on small four cylinder cars when they are loaded down. If you want to commute with people and baggage, a V6 engine will probably be a better choice.
If the used vehicle still looks like a good buy after you’ve gone through all this, take it to a trusted pro. Buying a used car is a lot like sending your manuscript in to an editor. You want to have done all the basics before they look at it. If it's not possible to get the final check, those maintenance records are super important.