Buying a Used Vehicle — Part 2, Vehicle Selection

Last time in the Research Phase we narrowed things down to a short list of specific models and generations. We have a known budget and we’ve learned a lot about the vehicles we are considering, so it’s time to get serious with vehicle selection. The goal of this stage is to find a specific vehicle that is worth purchasing.

1. Online
Don’t rush out to the dealer just yet. We’re going to get started with online listing sites. Don’t be afraid to leverage multiple listing sites as some of them do have extra features. For instance will provide a price analysis to indicate whether the price is fair, which can save you some time. As you are perusing listings, you’re looking for vehicles that are worthy of going to see in person. You’ll notice pretty quickly that there is a lot of variance in listings. Some are very detailed and informative while others lack any substantive information at all. You have to consider for yourself how picky you’d like to be, as only you know how many cars you are willing to go evaluate in person.

These are the things you’d really like to see in a good listing:

Pictures – Good quality, high resolution pictures. You have close-ups of wheels and body panels as well as shots that allow you to see the whole car from different angles. Good shots of the interior as well. Ideally the pictures are good enough that upon an in-person viewing there won’t be much of a surprise.

Vehicle History – Number of owners, accidents, usage in fleet, etc. I would not recommend considering any vehicle that has a rebuilt or salvage title. Accidents may or may not be a big deal. Likewise, usage as a fleet vehicle is a cautionary item, but shouldn’t rule a vehicle out. CarFax is the most commonly used history report provider. Keep in mind that history reports are not perfect; if information is not reported then it cannot possibly show up in a history report. Don’t worry, though, we’ll be taking additional steps later so that we’ll know whether the things that show up (or don’t) in the history report are a problem.

Service Records – Any mention of service records being available is a plus. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the vehicle was properly serviced, just that some records were kept of what service was done.

Vehicle Information – Options, VIN, mileage, trim level, and all core stats of the vehicle. At minimum you need the VIN so that you can look up many of these other things if they are not provided.

Price – The price is fair. Unless a listing is specified as a ‘no-haggle price’ then you should expect to be able to get the price down at least a little bit from list price. Kelly Blue Blook (available online at is an excellent resource for looking at market prices. Of course some of the listing sites have a built-in market price analysis as well.

2. In Person
Once you believe you’ve found the right vehicle it’s time to go and see the vehicle in person. First, contact the seller to make sure that the vehicle is still available. Once you arrive, you won’t just be evaluating the vehicle, you’ll be considering working with that seller as well. If you aren’t comfortable with the seller, then this isn’t the vehicle for you.

Now on to the vehicle itself.

a. Visual inspection
Look at everything closely. Really take your time. Look over all body panels, all the glass, lights and reflectors.

Pay particular attention to how well aligned the body panels are. The gaps between panels should be fairly consistent. Misaligned panels can indicated accident damage that wasn’t repaired properly. A friend bought a used BMW and didn’t notice that the fuel filler door didn’t quite close properly. Turns out that the vehicle had been rear ended, wasn’t repaired properly, and had a habit of chewing through rear tires.

Look at the engine bay. Even if you don’t know what you are looking at, you want to make sure oil isn’t leaking anywhere and hoses/belts don’t look cracked or brittle. A dirty engine bay isn’t necessarily a problem. Check out the tires to see that they are in good shape and won’t need replacing soon. Inspect the interior in as much detail as possible.

b. Does it work?
Does the car crank? Was it nice and easy or did it struggle to get started? Do all the electronics appear to work?

Don’t forget to check all the windows and the sunroof. Inspect the instrument cluster (with the car running), is there a Check Engine Light activated? Check out the radio now before you start your test drive.

c. Drive it
Turn the radio off so that you can not only feel what the car is doing but listen to it as well. Take it easy while the car warms up (this takes about 5 minutes of light driving) to get a feel for relaxed driving. Do you hear rattles or other unexpected noises? Any funny sounds while turning the vehicle? Is the transmission shifting smoothly? Is the car tracking straight? Push the car a bit and see what sort of acceleration it can muster
(and notice how well the car seems to handle this sort of activity). Brake firmly to test stopping capability and brake condition.

If you are feeling good about the vehicle at this point then you will want to keep it in mind for professional inspection. Feel free to see a few vehicles in person before taking this step as you won’t necessarily want to spend the time and money to do this on many vehicles. Once you have your top candidate in place, there are two final checks the car needs to get through so that you can be confident in your purchase.

A mechanic will inspect the vehicle for you for a fairly minimal cost. This involves examining the car in great detail and looking for existing problems. The mechanic will check nearly everything in the vehicle including engine, transmission, suspension, brakes, and so on. He can provide you with information on current problems, work that has already been done, check for recalls, and much more.

Make sure to have a third party inspect the vehicle that has nothing to lose or gain from its result. You’ll want to pick the mechanic yourself and it should be someone who commonly services the kind of vehicle you are having inspected. They should have the expertise to focus on particularly problematic areas of the vehicle.

Fluid Analysis
One thing a mechanic cannot do is see the inside of the engine and transmission. Fluid analysis can be used to gain insight on the internal condition of these components. The fluids will actually pick up wear particles (eg. Iron, Copper, Aluminum) and other contaminants (like water, dirt, and antifreeze). By looking at the composition
of the lubricant, fluid analysis can indicate whether the component has suffered from abnormal wear or is facing an impending problem. VehicleDNA provides this service and produces an easy to understand report. You really don’t want to end up with a vehicle that seems OK but actually has a transmission that is failing. This will cost you thousands of dollars.

If everything has checked out to this point, then you can confidently make an initial offer on the vehicle. There will likely be some sort of issue with the vehicle. No used car is perfect. The important thing is to have full knowledge of what you are getting into.

Next time, we’ll talk about completing the transaction.