Used Car Buying Guide

Used Car Buying Guide

Buying a used car can save you a lot of money, and buying on the private market will save you even more. But there's plenty of pitfalls and lemons out there, so how can you avoid getting one ? Aside from the test drive which only really tells you how the car rides and handles, there's a few tests you can do without any tools and things to look for which will let you know if you have a gem, or a junker.

1. Check the bonnet & engine for heat as soon as you get there. If they're hot, the engines been pre-started and warmed up.. sometimes the seller does this to hide cold-start problems and rough idles when cold. (Car yards ALWAYS do this on their used cars, for that reason).

2. Start the engine and let it idle for a minute, then rev it. If the valves, valve guides or stem seals are bad it will blow smoke.

3. Transmission clunking into gear or shuddering into reverse indicates a bad trans.

4. Manual Trans: grinding when trying to engage gears shows bad synchro's (needs rebuild)
4.a. Just about all Honda's grind going into reverse cos they dont have a synchro on it !

5. Auto Trans lagging getting into Drive or Reverse (2+ seconds) indicates bad bands, bad solenoids or low fluid.. and it probably needs a service.

6. Auto Trans "shuddering" when cruising/driving/accelerating indicates a screwed converter or lockup solenoid.

7. After the test drive, pop the bonnet and smell the engine bay. If you smell burnt toast, the transmissions burning fluid.

8. Check the hoses for leaks at the engine or radiator. Also look for obvious oil leaks.

9. If the brakes sink to the floor whilst sitting at an intersection, the brake master is blown.

10. Check for cracks around the strut (shock) bolts in the front.

11. Knock around the wheel arches in the back. A wooden noise means bog (and rust) in the rear quarters.

12. Check under the car for obvious damage to the exhaust pipes, leaks from the diff/trans, leaks at the brakes. Anything that looks dark & wet is leaking.

13. Push the front & back up and down. Good shocks will pop up and stop. Blow shocks will bounce up and down.

14. Check the rims for cracks.

15. Open the boot and lift the carpet. Check for rust and warps, especially if the cars got a tow hitch.. warps indicate overloaded towing (and probably a bad trans).

16. 4 Cylinder + Tow Hitch = avoid. 4 bangers arent build for that and will be thrashed.

17. Check the heater/AC functions, headlights, brake lights, stereo and any other electric stuff for faults.

18. Turn the car off and on a few times, make sure the starter, fuel & ignition systems are reliable.


Depending on how mechanically inclined you are, some of the stuff wont matter, and you'll be happy to replace a bad master cylinder yourself.
Depending on your intended future mods, some things arent important. If you want a new exhaust, rims and suspension straight away anyway, rust/cracks or worn parts arent a big deal.

When I buy a new car for daily driving I always service the intake, replace the spark plugs, leads & cap/rotor (if applicable), new oil/air/fuel filters, change oil & get a trans service. Then do the pads and brake fluid if they look worn and dirty. This is a good rule of thumb for any used car you buy privately.
When buying from a dealer, they will do this service work (usually) before they sell the car. Some smaller yards dont, and this is why their cars are so cheap !