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Buying a used car is a fabulous way to save money, although buying the wrong used car can cost you in the long run. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure you get a high-quality used car at a good price. The goal is years of low-cost, trouble-free service from a vehicle that meets your budget, needs, and lifestyle. 

It's important to get everything right with a used car. Unlike a new car, which typically has a warranty to take care of any problems that crop up, most used vehicles are sold as-is. If something goes wrong, it's up to the new owner to get it fixed.

Here are some tips to help you find a great used car.

  1. Pick a Place to Shop
  2. Get Financing Before You Start Exploring
  3. Check the Ratings
  4. Study the Vehicle History Report
  5. Check the Title Status
  6. Use All of Your Senses
  7. Take a Friend
  8. Check Those Seams
  9. Match Those Colors
  10. Magnetic Personality
  11. Look for Evidence of Flood Damage
  12. Search for Rust
  13. Check the Tires
  14. Listen for the Unexpected
  15. Look for Leakage
  16. Tailpipes Can Tell a Story
  17. Glass Chips to Fractures
  18. Use Your Nose
  19. Odometer Math
  20. Trash Is a Red Flag
  21. Test Everything
  22. Check its Recall Status
  23. Get a Professional Opinion

1) Pick a Place to Shop

You can find used cars for sale in several places, ranging from private parties selling their own used cars to franchised new car dealers. Between the extremes are locally owned used car lots and used car supercenters, such as CarMax and Carvana. 

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Where you buy can have a considerable effect on how much you pay, whether you get any warranty coverage, and how smoothly and easily the buying process goes. You'll typically pay the most at franchised new car dealers, especially if you buy a certified used car with factory warranty coverage. Dealer salespeople are trained negotiators, skilled at incrementally moving you to the deal they want to make. The dealership can make the process simple, though, by taking care of all of the paperwork, so you don’t have to. 

The best deals can often be found when you buy from a private party. Since there’s no dealership overhead, the price can be much better (especially if you’re a shrewd negotiator). With a private-party sale, however, you’ll be responsible for taking care of all of the car-buying paperwork, including the title, transfer of ownership, and registration documents. 

Before you start shopping, you should assess your own comfort level and decide which buying source best meets your needs. 

2) Get Financing Before You Start Exploring

No matter whether you choose to go the private-party route or shop at dealers, it's crucial to have a preapproved car loan from a bank, credit union, or another lender. You need to have it in place before you set off on your car buying journey. Our guide to getting a used car loan explains the process in detail. 

Many buyers at dealerships have the dealer arrange for financing, which can be an expensive route to go. In most cases, dealers mark up the interest rate or are otherwise compensated for the auto loan they find for you. When you have a preapproved car loan offer in hand, the dealership’s finance manager will have a benchmark they need to beat if they want your business. Without one, the dealer is free to write the auto loan that gets them the best return, rather than getting you the best deal. 

The last thing a private-party seller wants to do is wait around for you to get your loan together. By having a preapproval in place, you’ll be ready to go the moment you find your dream car. Getting financing for a private party purchase can be a bit more complicated than regular loans. You should read our guide to private party auto loans before you need one.

3) Check the Rankings and Reviews

A car deal is only as good as the car you buy. That’s why checking on a car’s reviews is a critical step in the used car buying process. At U.S. News & World Report, our used car rankings and reviews are based on the consensus opinion of the country’s top automotive journalists, blended with quantitative data about safety, predicted reliability, cost of ownership, and more. 

You can compare cars side-by-side based on factors buyers tell us are critical to their purchase decisions. 

Looking at online owner's groups, you can see trends describing issues owners have had with specific vehicles. If, for example, you see people chatting about transmission failures at 70,000 miles, you probably want to take care if you're looking at one with 80,000 miles that has not had transmission service. Owner’s groups are also a great source of information about do-it-yourself vehicle maintenance.

4) Study the Vehicle History Report

Before you spend a day crisscrossing around town, it’s a good idea to check out a car’s vehicle history report. Provided by companies such as Carfax and Autocheck, a vehicle history report has a wealth of information about its title, accident, ownership, and maintenance history. If it raises red flags, you don't have to waste your time going to see the car. If you're still interested in the vehicle, the information will help you ask the right questions and give you information you can use when it's time to negotiate a price.

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Many car dealerships and some private parties will provide vehicle history reports on vehicles they are selling. If they don’t, it’s cheap insurance to buy one yourself. 

Our guide to vehicle history reports provides in-depth information about their contents. 

5) Check the Title Status

Potential buyers should check the title status of any vehicle they are considering. You want it to be clear of "brands," such as salvage, flood, fire, or hail. They mean that a car has been declared a total loss by an insurer. You might also see such terms as rebuilt or irreparable. In some states, you'll see a title marked buyback for vehicles repurchased by a dealer to comply with the state's lemon law.

Other title statuses included:

  • Wrecked for vehicles that have been sold for scrap.
  • Taxi for vehicles used in taxi or livery service.
  • Police for former law enforcement vehicles.
  • Abandoned for those recovered and unclaimed. 
  • Theft recovery for vehicles stolen and later found.

While you might get a great deal on a vehicle with a branded title, you should tread carefully due to their checkered history. Many lenders will not finance auto loans on vehicles with branded titles. 

6) Take a Friend

Now it’s time to look at used cars. Your primary focus should be about protecting the safety of both yourself and your wallet. If you're looking at a vehicle offered by a private party, you should plan to meet in a public place, and definitely not your home.

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It’s a great idea to bring a friend along when you’re shopping. They can be your auto-buying wingman, making sure you’re safe and you’re not overextending your budget. You don't want the friend who encourages you to put the latest iPhone on your credit card. Instead, you want the one who insists on splitting the dinner check to the penny. They're more likely to help you when the pressure to buy is at its peak.

Another reason to bring a friend is that two sets of eyes are better than one when you’re looking at a used car. They may see or hear things you missed, or they might have questions for the seller you may not have considered.

7) Use All of Your Senses

When shopping for a used car, it's good to use almost all of your senses, including your sense of intuition. You probably don't want to use your sense of taste, though, as that would likely just creep everyone out.

Seriously, though, your sense of sight will help you assess the physical condition of the car. Your sense of smell can help identify engine issues and the possibility of mold or mildew in the vehicle’s cabin. When you’re on a test drive, your hearing is essential to listen for problems in the engine, transmission, or suspension. 

How the seats feel is a critical consideration. If they're not comfortable during your test drive, they're unlikely to magically get better after you purchase the car. Your sense of touch on the steering wheel may help you feel steering, suspension, or tire issues. Sometimes, you'll feel vibrations in the seat that indicate mechanical problems.

Don’t ignore your sense of intuition. If something just doesn’t seem right, it’s OK to ask questions. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, it’s time to move on to the next vehicle on your list. 

8) Check Those Seams

A good body shop can perform almost flawless repairs, but the toughest thing to do is get all of the body seams straight and even. Look down the side of the car to see if they appear to be aligned and even. If not, the car has probably been in a crash at some point in its life. If it was a major collision, the repair will often be reflected in the vehicle history report.

If you do think the car has been in a collision, you need to inspect everything with a bit more detail. You need to know if the vehicle was structurally compromised and whether the repairs were performed correctly. Both tasks are a job for a trained, independent mechanic. 

9) Match Those Colors

One reason you never want to shop for a used car after dark or on rainy days is it’s too easy for the seller to cover up dents, scratches, and poorly painted body panels. Instead, you want to inspect the car in the daylight or a brightly lit garage. 

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You’ll want to stand back from the car to see if the color matches from one panel to the next and top to bottom. Getting paint right is a tough job for a body shop, and a shoddy paint job is a sign that the car has been in a crash and may not have been repaired to a high standard. Overspray on a vehicle's door jambs or under the hood makes it easy to identify a low-quality repaint job.

You should also look at the shine of the finish. It should match and not have any blotchy areas. Looking at the condition of the paint is a good indication of whether a car has been stored in a garage or outside. 

10) Magnetic Personality

A common way to mask collision or rust damage is to use a composite body filler to level the surface before repainting. By carefully running a magnet above surfaces (never touching the paint), you can determine where there's metal and where a filler has been used. The most common place to check is along a vehicle’s quarter panels and the lower portion of the front and rear fenders. 

Composite body filler (often called by the brand-name Bondo) does not have the same structural integrity as non-rusted body panels.

Having body filler indicates that damage has been repaired. It’s not always a deal-breaker, but you should assess the extent of the underlying problem before you buy the vehicle. 

11) Look for Evidence of Flood Damage

No matter where in the country you live, you should assess any used car for signs of flood damage. Sellers sometimes move flood-damaged vehicles to areas where flooding has not occurred, with the hopes that people won’t check for water damage.

Signs of flooding include musty smells in the cabin, signs of silt and water where water should never be, and new carpet in an older car. Also, look for interior materials that don't match or seem to be different ages. Both are indications of parts that have been replaced. Flood-damaged cars frequently have electrical issues, so check out every switch and feature to ensure they work.

While you may be enticed by the low price of a flood-damaged car, it’s best to avoid them entirely. Water can damage a vehicle in many hidden ways, and the repairs can be extremely costly. 

12) Rust is Not Your Friend

Many states use salt to clear snow and ice during the winter. While it does a great job of making roads safer, it can be deadly to car bodies and underbody components. Always check yourself or have your mechanic inspect a car you’re considering for signs of rust. It often forms at the door sills, quarter panels, and inside the fenders. 

In many cases, the necessary repairs for rust damage go far beyond a simple paint job. 

13) Check the Tires

Not only do worn tires tell you that you'll soon have a significant expense if you buy the car, but they can also be a sign of deeper issues in the car's suspension. Look for wear that's unusual, uneven, or not consistent for all four tires. Newer cars are equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS). If the warning light is on, you should find out whether it’s a tire pressure issue or if there’s a problem with the TPMS.

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Frequently tires or wheels have to be replaced following a crash, so you should dig deeper if you find a car that’s on new tires. 

14) Listen for the Unexpected

When you start the car and take your test drive, be alert for unexpected sounds from the car's engine, transmission, steering, brakes, and interior technologies. By listening carefully, you can hear everything from signs of impending transmission failure to a blown speaker.

Wind noise coming into the cabin is not only annoying, but it can also be a sign of a water leak. 

Listen to the suspension as you go over bumps in the road. If you hear thumping, it can mean suspension issues. Hearing water slosh as you round corners is never a good sound. 

15) Look for Leakage

There are a couple of ways to look for leaks. You can shine a flashlight around the underside of the car, looking for signs of leaks. You can also back the car out of its parking space, then walk back into the space and look for spots of liquid on the pavement. If you’ve met the seller at his home (not the best idea), look around the driveway or garage for signs of liquid on the ground. Note that if the car has air conditioning, a pool of water under the compressor is not unusual. 

Another telltale sign that a car is leaking or burning excessive oil is if the owner is carrying extra bottles of oil in the trunk. The same goes for coolant, transmission, and brake fluid. 

16) Tailpipes Can Tell a Story

A vehicle's exhaust can tell you quite a bit about the health of its engine. If you see blue smoke, it's a sign that the car is burning oil. Black smoke can indicate failing emissions system components. While some water emerging from the tailpipe is common at start-up, excessive water can be a sign of a bad engine head gasket. Steam from a car that is warm can also be a sign of major engine issues. 

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You can take a paper towel or rag and wipe the inside of the tailpipe. Dry light gray soot is OK, but greasy black residue is an indication that expensive engine repairs may be on the horizon. 

17) Glass Chips to Fractures

Though that tiny chip on the windshield might seem insignificant, a rapid temperature change can convert it from a nuisance to a fractured windshield. In most states, you can get a ticket for driving with a cracked windshield.

Before you buy a car with damaged glass, you should have the seller replace or repair it. With most insurance, the deductible is relatively low. You may be able to make the repair of the glass a factor when you're negotiating the price of the car. You'll eventually have to pay to have it repaired if you buy the car as-is.

18) Use Your Nose

Your sense of smell is a valuable tool when shopping for a used car. Not only can you find musty smells that indicate mold, mildew, or other water damage, but you can also smell damage from a smoker or the rotten smell of food or garbage being left in the car.

Smelling a strong sulfur odor from the tailpipe can indicate a problem with the emissions system. A sweet smell like maple syrup may not mean you’re in Vermont. It could be telling you there’s coolant leaking into the combustion chambers and making its way to the exhaust pipe. If you get that smell inside the car, it may denote a leaking heater core under the dash. 

A burnt-paper-like smell can be a sign of a worn clutch, while a burning plastic-like smell can indicate a problem with the vehicle's brakes.

19) Odometer Math

The vehicle history report should show mileages at key points in the car’s life. If the number you see on the dash doesn’t make sense based on what you viewed in the report, it should raise a huge red flag and demand an explanation from the seller.

Most people drive their cars 10,000 to 12,000 miles per year. If a car's mileage is well above average for its age, it can be a sign of commercial use. If a vehicle is well below the average, it can be a great deal. It may even have some warranty coverage remaining.

On the other hand, a low odometer reading may be a sign a vehicle has had its instrument cluster replaced to disguise high mileage. It may also show that the car was stolen and recovered after significant time elapsed. In short, treat any deviations from the average with suspicion.

20) Trash is a Red Flag

If you're shopping for a used car from private sellers and you come across a vehicle that's full of trash, fast food debris, or other junk, it's a sign you should either move on or make a meager offer when it comes time to negotiate a price.

Ask yourself: If they didn’t take the time to take care of the interior, how likely is it they neglected the rest of the car, including routine maintenance and needed repairs? Chances are they didn’t care too much.

Car dealerships routinely detail cars before they put them on the lot. It's hard to tell how much the previous owner cared based on the cosmetic appearance of the pre-owned vehicle.

21) Test Everything

When you're evaluating a used car, you must test every vehicle function. Even if it's 20 degrees out, check the air conditioning. In the heat of the summer, test the seat heaters. Since you typically have no warranty coverage with a used car, you’ll have to pay to repair any problems you didn’t find before you bought the car.

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Look at every light inside and outside the car, as lights that don’t work can be more than just burned out bulbs. They can indicate deeper electrical problems, flood, or collision damage. 

The exception to this rule is if you buy a factory certified used vehicle from a car dealer. Certified used cars (CPO cars) typically go through a thorough inspection process and come with warranty coverage. Sometimes certain items are not covered by the CPO warranty, however, and you should check the function of those items before you buy. 

22) Check its Recall Status

It's unusual these days for a vehicle to be completely free of recalls. As a pre-owned car buyer, one task is to make sure all of the open recalls have been performed on any vehicle you're considering.

You can get a list of recalls on a specific model by entering its vehicle identification number (VIN) at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s SaferCar.gov website. With that list in hand, ask the seller to provide documentation that any open recalls have been performed. If they don’t have the documentation, a dealer may be able to help you determine what work has and has not been done. 

One of the most serious recall campaigns in history involves Takata brand airbags. Before you drive or have front-seat passengers in any vehicle with a recalled Takata airbag, it is critical you make sure the original airbag has been replaced. Failing to do so can be a fatal error, as the defective airbags can fire deadly shrapnel into the cabin. 

23) Get a Professional Opinion

An astute used car buyer can see some of the problems that a vehicle might have. Still, it's critical to have an independent mechanic also check out the car. Not only can a mechanic put the car up on a lift to inspect areas inaccessible when the car's on the ground, but they'll also know what typically goes wrong with specific makes and models so they can focus extra attention on those parts.

A trained technician can spot collision damage that most car buyers would miss and assess the quality of any repairs. From their inspection, they'll usually have a good idea of how the vehicle has been cared for and serviced. Buyers should give the mechanic a copy of the vehicle history report so that they can pay particular attention to components or collision damage highlighted in the document.

At the end of the inspection, the technician should be able to provide you with a report full of information about the vehicle’s condition, and tip you off to any problems that they see on the horizon. 

Many shops are set up to do pre-purchase inspections. In many cities, there are mobile pre-purchase inspection services available, as well. If a seller refuses to make the vehicle available for an inspection, you should consider it a deal-breaker and move on to the next used car you're considering.

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

Shopping for a used car can be stressful, but having knowledge about how the process works can give you the confidence to find the right vehicle at the right price. Our guide to buying a used car is a great place to start. 

Our used car rankings and reviews will help you find the best used car option that fits your budget. They’re designed to answer the questions car buyers ask by using the consensus opinion of America’s top automotive journalists, blended with quantifiable data about safety, predicted reliability, and ownership costs. 

Used car buying requires negotiation to set a sales price. Our guide to negotiating the best car price provides strategies and tips to stretch your car-buying dollars. 

A key part of your shopping should be finding the right car insurance coverage and company to protect your new-to-you ride. Our auto insurance hub will help you determine the coverage you need and any discounts you qualify to receive.