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Beyond CarFax: Tips for Buying Used Cars

by Ryan Guina

I am a big supporter of buying used cars instead of new cars. Buying a used car will save you money not just on the price, but can also help in finding affordable car insurance options because used cars are typically less expensive to insure. Unfortunately, used cars don’t always come with the same guarantees that come with new cars.

Here are a few tips to help you find a quality used car:

Check the Vehicle’s History

An important part of a used car purchase is to obtain the car’s history, making sure title is clear and there were no serious accidents that haven’t been disclosed by the owner. You should primarily be concerned with issues regarding the vehicle’s title, accident history, and ownership history.

Vehicle title history. Before purchasing a used vehicle you want to ensure there is a clear title, and that the vehicle has not been totaled due to a severe accident or flooding. You also want to verify the odometer readings on the title if applicable.

Accident and service history. Has the car been well taken care of and are there service records that show routine maintenance? Has the vehicle been written off as a total loss, have the airbags been deployed, is there frame damage, etc.

Ownership history. It’s also a good idea to know the ownership history of the vehicle you are considering buying. Key information to look for includes the number of previous owners, and the type of owner (rental company, fleet vehicle, etc.). Many vehicles used as fleet vehicles or that are rented out are not taken care of as well as a vehicle owned by an individual.

CarFax is the industry leader for this type of “vehicle background check,” but even CarFax reports aren’t always 100% accurate. For one thing they only cover reported information, and as of two years ago, they still didn’t include information from insurance companies – so there are some other things you should do before you seal the deal, especially if the seller is an individual and not a dealership or used car lot. Also keep in mind that it may take some time before information is made available to CarFax, allowing dishonest people to sell a lemon before it can be reported.

Check for Telltale Signs of Damage or Repair

CarMax recently released a report about how to spot hidden vehicle damage. As part of the associated survey, most people responded that they though a fresh paint job was the best indicator that a car has undergone major repairs. But according to CarMax professionals, clamp marks on a vehicle’s frame are the biggest sign that the car may have been involved in a serious collision.

In addition to looking for clamp marks, you want to pay attention to the feel and sound of the engine while taking a test drive, ensure doors and windows close properly, and observe the functionality of all the electronics and the odometer.

Check out this video produced by CarMax for more tips:

Check the Odometer

This is especially important on an older car, and can be an important gauge of how much wear and tear is really on the vehicle. A general rule is that there should be an average of 10 – 20,000 miles per year. If you have a car with a low number of miles that seems to be in poor condition, or if the odometer reading seems overly low when compared to the age of the car, these are red flags, and you may want to reconsider your purchase.

Check the VIN

The Vehicle Identification Number for any car should be located on a plate under the dash, on the doorpost, or on the firewall of the engine, and is often in all three locations. Check all of them, and make sure the number is the same in all three, as well as checking, not only with CarFax but with the local crime database as well (in some places you can do this) to be certain title is clear. Mismatched numbers? You may not want to take on that risk.

You can also perform a free VIN check with the National Insurance Crime Bureau. NICB’s VINCheckSM is a service provided to the public to assist in determining if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a previously declared total loss vehicle by cooperating NICB members. All you need to perform the search is the VIN. Keep in mind that a maximum of 5 VINCheck searches can be conducted within a 24 hour period.

Inspect the Car in the Daytime

If you do it after dark you won’t really be able to assess the condition of the vehicle. Bring a mechanic or knowledgeable person along, if possible, and be sure to look at the following:

Upholstery: Check for excessive wear and tear on the seats, but also examine the accelerator and brake pedals – if the latter are either over-worn, or obviously new there could be a problem with the braking system.

Tires: Make sure they’re all in decent condition, and confirm that the spare is in the trunk, along with a jack, if one came with the car.

Shock absorbers: Lean on each corner of the car, and then release it, and watch to make sure it returns to position quickly, and without excessive bouncing.

Body: Do a visual inspection of the entire body of the vehicle, looking for dents, rust, patched pain, or ripples in the metal, all of which may point to undisclosed body work having been done.

Take it on a Test Drive: You’ll want to be certain that the car starts immediately, idles smoothly, and changes gears well. Steering and braking should be smooth and responsive, with no squeaking or squealing.

If all this seems like a lot to do for a used car, remember that car accident statistics show that poor maintenance is one of the four major causes of car accidents, leading to five percent of all accidents reported. Knowing the history and condition of a used car before you buy it can go a long way toward helping you choose a vehicle that has been well-maintained, and is therefore safer to drive.

Good luck finding your next used car!


Published or updated July 24, 2011.
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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Heather @ CarfaxReports

Thanks for posting these helpful tips. It’s true that while we do report a lot we may not know everything that’s happened to a car. Besides getting to know a car’s history, we recommend taking the car for a test drive and having it inspected by a mechanic.

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2 Ryan

Heather, I agree. I think CarFax reports provide very valuable information, but car buyers need to go beyond the report and inspect the car as much as possible before purchase. :)

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3 Blake Cain

Buying a used car is very stressful. It helps to have somewhere to find information to help you make the best decision.

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