29 Used Car Buying Tips from an Old Car Dog

I buy used cars for a living. Chances are, you don’t.

So here I present an Old Car Dog’s list of  29 practical used car buying tips.

I think that buying a used car is an art, not a science.

Use these techniques the next time you go out to find the perfect used car.

Note: This is a list of tips to help you find a great used car. It isn’t a primer on how to negotiate your best used car deal. That, is for another list and a different article.

  • Know your targets – do some research about the kinds of vehicles that you want to consider. Get online and read reviews at major services like Kelly Blue Book, NADA and Edmunds.
  • Never look at used cars that you are considering for purchase while it’s raining.You’ll miss too much. Many of the techniques that I’m going to tell you about here, just won’t work in the rain. Note: Not to be confused with the negotiating tactic of - ”whenever possible, buy your car in the rain” - Rainy days are slow days in the car business and you can use that to get a better deal sometimes. But it only makes sense if you’ve already decided on the best car to purchase before the rainy day.
  • Don’t miss the obvious. Do the wheel covers match on both sides? How about the tires? Body-side moldings?
  • Look at the car out in the open, from all sides and from a bit of a distance. You can sometimes be too close to see something that is obvious from a little ways away. Mis-matched paint, for instance kind of jumps out at you from 15 or 20 feet.
  • When you’re looking for mismatched paint, it helps to look at the car with your vision a bit unfocused. Color mismatches will be more apparent.
  • Take an extra set of eyes with you. Take a friend. It couldn’t hurt.
  • Look closely for hail damage. Get your eyes down next to the top surfaces and look for small dimples in the paint. If you see one or two, there may be hundreds more.
  • The following video shows a couple ways to look for signs of collision repair. VIN stickers and how to find paintwork.



  • Let the salesperson start the car, while you stand outside, listening for weird noises.
  • But don’t let the salesperson move the car. You want to drive it first, so you can feel the condition of the brakes, whether the transmission slips when cold, etc.
  • Are there any “check engine” or “service engine soon” lights on? These can indicate relatively minor, and sometimes major, problems.
  • Drive the car. Take a good four or five mile test drive that includes some expressway travel. This test is to see if the car feels alright to you. Are you comfortable? Is the car quiet enough and the ride smooth enough for you? Can you reach the controls?  Unless you are a mechanic, you are just looking for the obvious. If you aren’t a mechanic…
  • Take the car to a mechanic that you trust for an inspection.
  • Tell the mechanic that you want a used car inspection – not an estimate on  a restoration project. Chances are, if the car needs more than a few hundred dollars worth of work, you’re going to either make the dealer do it or pass on the deal and find another car.
  • Get a look at the Carfax report – and make sure it’s current and for the car that you are looking at. (Check the VIN!)
  • Don’t over-value the “One Owner” concept. It’s not that big a deal, most of the time.
  • Miles count. Make sure that the odometer is correct.
  • Vehicles with documented service histories – sometimes found in the Carfax report BTW – are automatically worth more to me.
  • Understand the importance of timing belts on the vehicles that you are looking at.They need to be replaced on all overhead cam engines at some point. But on certain cars, not doing so can be a car killer. Find out if that’s the case on the cars you are considering. You need to know this – don’t rely on the salesman to tell you.
  • Forget color. I know it’s hard. But buy a good car and live with the color. Unless it’s pink.
  • Red cars DO NOT get more tickets. See above.
  • Yes, black cars are more work to keep looking perfect. A consideration only if you try to keep your cars looking perfect. If you wash your car once a month, black is just another color for a dirty car.
  • Know the potential problems of the cars that you are considering. In fact, don’t buy cars with known problems unless you are prepared to pay the bill when – yes when – they break.
  • There are no great $1000 cars. If you find a great car for a $1000, buy it, because it’s probably worth double that.
  • There is no “used car factory”. If, after looking for awhile, you can’t find what you seek – what you seek might not exist.
  • Decide what your “deal killers” are before you go out to look. And then stick with them.
  • Understand trade-offs. The biggest trade-off is, usually, miles for money. If your goal is a Honda or Toyota for under, say, $6000 you will probably need to look at cars with over 100,000 miles. Don’t waste alot of time looking for one with 50,000. The reverse is true too. If you want that perfect, ten year old car with only 30,000 miles, you will have to pay a premium price. That car isn’t in any of the guide books.
  • When you find it – the car meets your guidelines – buy it. Good cars don’t last. I have seen so many people miss out on great cars because they had to think about it overnight, or whatever. If you do this right, you don’t need to think it over. You know.

I know that I’m leaving good information out. But I want to see what tips you have for me. Leave your best car buying tips in the comments. I need all the help I can get.

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13 May 2011

By Charlie Turner