Buying a Used Vehicle

Copyright 2002, 2017 by Blaine S Nay, Cedar City, Utah, USA
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Rule #1 - Never fall in love with something that can't love you back. -- Bruce Williams

Rule #2 - Know the difference between a luxury (you cannot afford) and a necessity (reliable transportation).

I couldn't afford to fix my brakes, so I made my horn louder. -- Author Unknown

It takes 8,460 bolts to assemble an automobile, and one nut to scatter it all over the road. -- Author Unknown

Never buy a car you can't push. -- Author Unknown

How To Buy A Used Vehicle

  1. Decide what you really need. What you want and what you need are usually not the same. Consider how you will use the vehicle. You may want a big, expensive 4X4 truck or SUV when an economical subcompact better fits the way you and your family drive.
  2. Decide how much you want to spend and how much you can afford. Remember to include other costs of ownership: financing (if you have poor or unestablished credit-worthiness, you'll pay as much as a 21% interest rate), insurance (if you're not responsible enough to have insurance, you're not responsible enough to drive - take the bus), fuel, and maintenance (newer cars cost more to buy, but usually need fewer repairs).
  3. Decide what models you might want. Narrow your choices to a model or two. Pick a year range
  4. When shopping at dealerships, it is often advantageous to shop in periods of low consumer demand for cars and trucks. Salesmen then are hungry and are eager to meet their sales quotas. January is said to be the best month. Shop at the end of the month, when salesmen are running out of time to make quotas. Shop on cold stormy days when most consumers are home, curled up by the fire, and salesmen are idle and frustrated by lack of sales.
  5. Shopping with a companion is wise since a second person can help you cope with the pressure that professional salesmen can apply. A companion can also help to moderate your excitement over buying a new car. Choosing a shopping companion who is very knowledgeable in knowing what to look for in used cars can help keep you from making a decision you'll later regret. Many experts suggest you shop with your spouse or a companion of the opposite sex posing as your life partner. His or her role is to act as resistance to the purchase by saying "we can't afford a new car" and by pointing every defect possible. Salesmen often double-team their customers. Double-team 'em right back!
  6. Check the used vehicle lots and your local newspaper ads. Privately owned vehicles are usually less expensive, however you will not get a warranty that, in most cases, comes with a used vehicle purchased from a lot. Authorized dealers are less likely to sell you a lemon since they must answer to big car companies and usually avoid selling problem cars to the public.
  7. Never shop at night. The shadows and glare of the lights make it easy to miss faults on the body caused by accident or rust repair.
  8. Don't tell a salesman how much money you have to spend. Only tell him the model(s) you're looking for. Don't let him steer you toward model(s) you can't afford, don't want or which don't fit your driving needs. He may offer to help you with financing to get into a more expensive car than you had planned. Don't fall for it!
  9. You want a salesmen to be helpful, sincere, and professional. At the very least, they should be better dressed than the customer. Most shady salesmen and dealers are jerks who try to rush customers. If you are uncomfortable with a salesman, if he's evasive, or if he tries to steer you toward something you don't want, walk away. You should be the most important person in his life while he's serving you. If he takes a phone call or works another customer, leave.
  10. Try to get the name and phone number of the previous owner. If the owner of the lot refuses this information, look for a vehicle somewhere else. Contact the previous owner and ask about the vehicle. Ask "What's wrong with the car?", not "Is there anything wrong?" A private seller can tell you about the vehicle and maintenance. However, there's no law requiring honesty from private citizens selling used vehicles. There's a law that forbids tampering with the odometer mileage. The law also requires the seller to provide the buyer with a signed statement indicating the mileage on the odometer at the time of transfer.
  11. Before you buy any used vehicle, write down the year, model, and VIN (serial number at lower edve of windshield). Call the National Highway Traffic Administration at 1-800-424-9393 and ask if the vehicle has ever been recalled. If so, make sure the needed repairs were made. You can also go to links on the Ol' Buffalo Car & Truck Page ( for recall and service bulletin information. In addition, call the local dealer who sells this brand of vehicle for information on recalls, warranty items, service history, and record of complaints.
  12. Check the "blue book" price of any vehicle you're looking at. Your credit union can give it to you, or you can buy a price guide in most bookstores. The Internet also has several sites that give "blue book" prices. Go to the Ol' Buffalo Car & Truck Page for links to these sites. Remember that the price is based on vehicles with normal driving histories and good care. Any vehicle with more than 15,000 miles per year has seen hard use. Negotiate UP from the vehicle's "loan value -- not DOWN from the seller's asking price. The loan value is 80% of the average wholesale price. Shop around for financing. A credit union may charge as low as 7% interest while a dealer may charge over 3 times that much!
  13. Use the checklists below to check all the items on the used vehicle you are considering. Some items are more important than others. You should know how much you can afford for repairs. Beware of trouble areas that affect operation, safety, or emissions.
  14. Road test the vehicle according to the checklist below.
  15. If you are satisfied with the apparent condition of the vehicle, take it to an independent mechanic for a complete check -- it's a well-spent $100. The information you gain will either tell you buy, to walk away from the deal or give you information for negotiating. If your state requires a safety or emissions test, have it inspected immediately before purchase or specify on the bill of sale that the sale is conditional on passing the state inspection. Even where not required, a test of the emissions control systems is a good measure of the health of the engine's induction and ignition systems -- which can be very costly to repair. If the seller or salesman is reluctant or refuses to allow you to have these checks done unless you are willing and prepared to assume large repair bills.
  16. Log onto CarFax ( to research whether your intended purchase has been involved in a serious accident. This service will cost $20, but is well worth it.



Section One - Two or more problems in this section indicate bad maintenance or a lack of maintenance. Beware.

  1. Mileage: Average mileage is about 12,000 per year. More than average mileage may indicate hard, possibly commercial, usage. Vehicles made in 1975 and later may need catalytic converter service at 50,000 miles. The wear on the carpets, seats, pedals, driver's door sill, etc. should match the odometer. Heavy wear in these areas indicate there should be a 1 or 2 in front of the odometer reading or that the odometer had been tampered with.
  2. Paint: Check around the tailpipe, moldings, windows, inside wheel wells hood, door and trunk openings for over spray indicating repair to collision or rust damage.
  3. Rust: Check fenders, doors, rocker panels, window moldings, wheel wells, floorboards, under carpet and floor mats, and in the trunk for signs of rust. Any rust at all will be a problem. There is no way to stop the spread of rust, except to replace that part or panel.
  4. Body Appearance: Check the moldings, bumpers, grille, vinyl roof, glass, doors, trunk lid, and body panels for general overall condition. Look for misalignment, loose hold-down clips, ripples, scratches in glass, rips or patches in the top. Mismatched paint, welding in the trunk or under the hood, misalignment of body panels or ripples indicate repairs to collision damage. Tap on body and door panels to hear whether it sounds like sheet metal or body filler or use a small magnet to check for body filler. Don't just look for dents and body filler -- check closely to see if the entire fender is new indicating possible collision repair.
  5. Leaks: There are no normal leaks. A leak indicates a need for repairs which could be very expensive. Get down and look under the vehicle. Ask where the vehicle is usually parked -- the seller may have moved it away from that huge oil spot left in his driveway. Look closely around the water pump and head gaskets for deposits which could indicate coolant leaks. Water condensation from the air conditioning condenser drain tube is normal.
  6. Tires: Check the tire air pressure. A common trick is to pump up tire pressure to make the vehicle roll easier. Check tread wear. Check the spare too. Uneven or irregular tire wear is a clue of suspension problems. If the car has four different brands of tires, be very cautious.
  7. Shock absorbers: Check the shock absorbers by forcing downward sharply on each corner of the vehicle. Good shock absorbers will not allow the vehicle to bounce more than twice after you let go.
  8. Interior: Check the entire interior. Look for an overall interior condition that agrees with the overall condition and age of the vehicle. Reasonable wear is expected, but beware of new seat covers on sagging seats, new pedal pads, and worn armrests. These indicate an attempt to cover up heavy use. Pull back on carpets and look for evidence of water leaks or flooding. A musty smell may also indicate flood damage. Check the trunk for water damage (indicates either faulty assembly or collision damage). Look for missing hardware, door handles, knobs, defective seat belts, etc.
  9. Instrument panel: Check lights and signal operations. Make sure all accessories (air conditioner, heater, radio, windshield wipers, etc.) work. Warning lights and gauges should all work and indicate no malfunction -- unless you are willing to assume heavy repair bills. Even when the underlying system is fine, getting inoperative lights and gauges to work can be expensive. If the vehicle has an expensive audio system, it's probably the only thing you're getting -- owners who put expensive audio systems in their vehicles tend to be very hard on cars.
  10. Air conditioning systems can be expensive to repair. The air coming from the outlets should be cold.
  11. Missing pieces: Look for things that should be there, but aren't -- trim pieces, emissions equipment, exhaust pieces, spare tire, jack, etc. On a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a missing drive shaft is a very bad sign. Some missing items are cosmetic or trivial. Others are essential for safety or to make the vehicle legal to drive. Be sure you're willing to accept the cost of any repairs or have them repaired before you buy.
  12. Disconnected electrical systems: Ensure the ABS (Antilock Braking System) is connected and working -- this system can be extremely expensive to repair and unscrupulous sellers often disconnect faulty ABS systems.
  13. Modifications: Be wary of modifications such as a raised or lowered suspension, engine or transmission swap, oversize tires, high-power audio systems, etc. If not done correctly, these modifications can make the vehicle unsafe, unreliable, affect handling, or increase wear on the vehicle.

Section Two - These problems indicate poor maintenance, but might be corrected with a tune-up or relatively simple parts replacement.

  1. Belts and hoses: Open the hood and check all belts and hoses for wear, cracks, and weak spots. Check the hose connections for stains indicating leaks.
  2. Battery: Low electrolyte level, corroded terminals, or cracked case indicate a lack of good maintenance. Once a modern battery is low on fluid it is likely at the end of its useful life.
  3. Radiator: The coolant should be a 50/50 anti-freeze/distilled water mix. It should look clean. Look for rust in the coolant indicating a lack of good maintenance. A low coolant level may be a sign of leaks and possible engine damage due to overheating. Debris or sludge in the coolant indicates possibly serious engine internal problems.
  4. Air filter: A dirty filter usually means a lack of good maintenance.
  5. Ignition wires: Check the ignition wires for cracks, burned spots, or wear. Worn wires will have to be replaced. If possible, remove and check the spark plugs. An engine in good condition will have spark plugs with a light tan or gray deposit on the electrodes.
  6. Lights: Ensure all electrical systems such as lights, turn signals, backup lights, hazard flashers, windshield wipers and washer, horn, cigarette lighter, radio, heater, air conditioning, etc. all work. Electrical repairs are time consuming -- at $60 per hour, and you won't be able to license that vehicle until the inspector is happy.

Section Three - Problems in the engine or transmission can be very expensive. Walk away from any vehicle with any of these problems.

  1. Oil: If the oil level is low, chances are the engine uses oil or leaks. Beware of frothy oil which indicates water in the oil (leaky head gasket or cracked block), excessively thick oil (used to quiet a noisy engine), or thin oil with a distinct gasoline smell (internal engine problems). Chunky, dirty, or black oil indicate poor maintenance which prematurely ages an engine. A fresh oil change or a sparkling clean engine compartment may be an indicator that the seller is trying to hide the above problems.
  2. Automatic Transmission: Pull the transmission dipstick when the engine is running with the transmission in park. The level should read "Full", and the fluid should be clear or bright red and translucent. Dark brown or black fluid or a burned odor signals a transmission in need of expensive repair.
  3. Exhaust: Check the exhaust system for leaks; it can be expensive to replace. Check the color of the color of the exhaust smoke. Blue smoke indicates the engine is internally worn. Black smoke can indicate burned valves or carburetor/fuel injection problems. Wispy, lingering white smoke with a bittersweet smell indicates coolant is leaking into the combustion chambers through a leaky head gasket or cracks in the engine. Belching white smoke upon start-up could be a sign that transmission fluid is entering the combustion chambers through a vacuum line that connects the engine to the automatic transmission.
  4. Spark Plugs: Remove at least one of the spark plugs (the most accessible will do). An engine in good condition will show plugs with a light tan or gray deposit on the firing tip.
  5. Emissions Control: Modifications on the emissions systems are illegal and may make licensing the vehicle very expensive -- if you can even find the correct parts to restore the emissions system. Insist on a recent or new emissions test.



  1. Drive with the radio off and ask others in the vehicle to be quiet so you can listen for unusual sounds as you drive.
  2. Engine Performance: The engine should start easily, warm or cold, without unusual noises such as tapping, knocking, and exhaust leaks. If you test the engine while it is warm, come back later to try it when the engine is cold. The vehicle should be peppy and accelerate smoothly whether cold or warm -- again, without unusual noises. It should respond smoothly through the gears.
  3. Brakes: They should provide quick, firm stops with no noise, pulling, and brake fade.
  4. Steering: You want sure control with no binding, harshness, or looseness, and no shimmy or vibration in the wheel. Noise or vibration from the steering wheel when turning the vehicle means trouble -- possibly an unsafe vehicle.
  5. Alignment: Wet the tires and drive in a straight line. You should see two straight lines -- not four. Four lines indicate a possible bent frame from collision damage. If you can't we the tires, have a friend drive behind you to see if the vehicle drives in a straight line.
  6. Clutch and Manual Transmission: Clutch action should give quick smooth response with easy shifting. The clutch pedal should have about 1 to 1-1/2 inches of free play before it engages the clutch. Start the engine, set the parking brake, put the transmission in first gear and slowly release the clutch pedal. The engine should begin to stall when the pedal is 1/2 to 3/4 of the way up. When driving, the transmission should shift smoothly and crisply. It should not make clashing, grinding, or crunching sounds. Modern transmissions should not whine at cruising speeds.
  7. Automatic Transmission: The transmission should shift rapidly and smoothly, with no noise, hesitation, or slipping. It should not "clunk" into any gear or park. It should not shift back and forth but stay in one gear until a change in gear is needed.
  8. Four-Wheel-Drive (if applicable): Drive with four-wheel-drive disengaged and disengaged. Listen for gear sounds, clunking or popping sounds, chain whine or even the chain slapping against the case, etc. from the transfer case. Some transfer case gear whine is normal in low range in some transfer cases. Most transfer cases should be relatively quiet in high range.
  9. Differential: No noise or thumps should be present. Differentials have no normal leaks.
  10. Drive shaft, Universal Joints, and CV Joints: Vibration and noise could mean drive shaft problems. Clicking at low speed or coast conditions means worn U-joints. Drive front-wheel-drive vehicles in a tight circle and listen for clicking sounds from the front end which signal worn or damaged CV joints.
  11. Suspension: Try hitting bumps at different speeds. A vehicle that bounces has worn shock absorbers. Clunks mean worn bushings or ball joints.
  12. Frame: Wet the tires and drive in a straight line. Tracks should show two straight lines, not four. Four tire tracks indicate a frame bent by collision damage. If the tires can't be wet for this purpose, have a friend drive along behind you and see if the vehicle appears to be traveling in a straight line.

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