Seven Tips For Buying a Second Hand Car and Walking Away Happy

Photo: Nora Dunn

I got burned recently buying a second hand car. It doesn’t help that I was in a foreign country (and was struggling to grasp the local policies), and in a hurry to boot. But even if you are buying a car on your own turf, there are generally a few good rules of practice:


Visit your local Vehicle Registration Office before you sign on any dotted lines

Yup. You may have to stand in line and deal with what seems to be a worldwide inefficiency that comprises government offices. But you can also arm yourself with information as to your rights, the requirements of the seller, and various obscure laws.

In Australia for example, I discovered a Vehicle Information Package that the seller can (but is not required to) provide the buyer with. It contains information about all the previous owners of the car, as well as possible liens and accident/stolen vehicle reports filed.

In some places this is mandatory, which is also something good to know. A seller trying to save a few bucks by not getting the report may end up sticking you with not only the cost of getting the report when you try to register your new wheels, but the nasty surprise of what’s in it.


Get under the car

Even if you will get your shirt dirty, and don’t really know what you’re looking for, get under the car. Anybody can see if there is a gaping rusted out hole in something, or if there are leaks that should be addressed.

Besides which, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing, which will put a shady seller on guard.



Take it on the highway

While test driving your potential wheels-to-be (we don’t have to tell you to test drive it, do we?), take it on the highway if at all possible. Cruising residential streets will only give you a partial picture of how the car drives. Get it to highway speeds and you may discover a terrible rattle or shake, or misalignment that could be dangerous but that would be missed in a general mechanic’s safety check.


Test everything

And I mean everything. All windows. All doors. Trunk latches. Key holes. Seat adjustments. Seat belts. Lights. Wipers. Turn signals. Radios. Dash functions. Odometers and speedometers (a pitiful lesson learned from personal experience). There’s nothing worse than buying a car, and then experiencing the slow and agonizing discoveries that your new wheels really aren’t all that new, nor are they fully operational.


Take it to a mechanic

I’ll admit, I’m the first person to want to skip this step. It’s costly, it takes time, and I don’t have a mechanic I trust. And if you are buying the car in a place where a safety or road-worthy certificate is required, you don’t need to also run it by a mechanic, do you?

Yes. Yes, you do. Personal experience: The mechanic who checked off the car I bought as being road-worthy (a certificate obtained by the seller more often than not, read: they work for the seller, not you) managed to miss the simple fact that the odometer doesn’t work. So much for the low mileage on the car I purchased.



Most sellers price their car expecting to be talked down at least a little bit. So try to talk them down. The worst they can say is no, at which point you can decide if you still like the car enough to accept their asking price. There’s no harm in asking for a discount.


Trust your instincts

When I was buying my little piece-o-junk, there were some small warning bells going off in my head. Although the couple seemed very nice, there were a few times when their stories didn’t match, or they contradicted themselves during our negotiation period lapsing a few days.

I managed to find excuses for every contradiction though, without addressing them. Maybe I was afraid of confrontation, or maybe I just wanted this deal to work. Either way, I’m stuck cleaning up the mess. And if I had heeded my instincts, I might have walked away and saved myself a bunch of heartache.



It bears noting that if you are purchasing a second hand car from a dealership, there are often rules in place to protect you if the car is a lemon. But with a private sale, much of the liability (or at least the pain of eliciting justice) rests in your hands. Do the right thing, and you’ll end up having a car you love, not one you can’t stand.



What tips or personal experiences do you have for our readers on buying a second hand car?

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Guest's picture

A "certified" used car means only what the dealer wants it to mean. Get their claims about the car on paper and take it to your own mechanic, no matter what the dealer tells you.

Carfax, etc. are a must, but even with a clean report the car you are looking at could have been in an unreported accident. Mine was.

I recently bought a used car that has a bent "knuckle" where the strut attaches to the frame. It pulls right -- just a little. It's $800-1000 to repair. Of course I didn't notice that when I bought it, and I have no recourse with the dealer because I can't prove he knew about it.

Be careful.

Guest's picture

Our method is not very scientific. We work with two used car dealers. They both have good track records in the community and have been in our small town area for some time. We tell them what we need and how much cash we have. Both have accomodated our finances, backed up their promises, and followed through on repairs etc. as needed.

Guest's picture

This is a very timely process. If you are in a rush it is difficult to go through all of these steps. My car died and I was forced to quickly find a new car. Come to find out it was an expensive mistake. The car ended up being a lemon because I didn't check it out. I think the number one thing you should look at is 1) where the vehicle is from and 2) Take it to a mechanic. Nora is right. This is a costly step but in the longrun it will save you big bucks.

Guest's picture

I love the 'history report' approach that the first commenter mentioned... I always get one.

Although, really, I usually buy used cars from people I know at church. Then, if they turn out to be lemons, the pastor can pay a call to them.... *evil grin*

But seriously, if possible to purchase from someone you know then you'll know the history. Other than that, I always take it to my mechanic, even though I do most maintenance myself.


Guest's picture

Whatever you do, don't rush into a car--used or new. Every time I've rushed into a used car I've been disappointed. Comparison shop so you have an idea of the price spread and the different options available. Take a look at and to learn about the car and possible alternatives.

If you decide to buy from a dealership, read some of the articles on the above mentioned websites for some really good insight (such as negotiating the buying price instead of monthly payment). If you buy from an independent seller, be sure all your paperwork is in order and, like the article stated, take it to a mechanic first. Even if you don't have a mechanic you rely on, bring it someplace and simply ask the mechanic if he thinks the car is worth it. I could have saved thousands on stupid mistakes if I had figured this out when I was younger.

Guest's picture

Your picture scared me at my first glance. :)
And if I can contribute anything it would be try to locate a trustworthy private seller when it's possible. Base on that, you can get a lot of extra useful information beside the history report.