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Your Used-Car Buying Checklist

spinner image Buying a Used Car: 10 Things to know
There are ten questions you should always get an answere to before buying a used car.
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You're buying a used car to be smart, knowing that the biggest depreciation already has taken place and that several years of record and near-record new-car sales have created a good inventory of used vehicles for sale.

A report from industry analyst cautions, though, that prices of both late-model and older used cars have begun to rise.

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So you'll want to give any car or truck you're considering a serious going-over to be sure that you're not paying for somebody else's troubles.

Here are 10 things to check when buying a used car. The first two are probably obvious, but they're worth emphasizing. The others aren't so obvious, and those could be the costliest to ignore.

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Is it sound?

Do all the dashboard warning lights go off when you start the engine? Are there stains on the pavement or the underside of the vehicle showing that it's leaking fluid? Do all the switches and controls work? Do the brakes and steering feel right? Do the tires have at least 1/16 inch of tread? (Stick a penny upside down in the tire grooves. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, it's time for new rubber.)

Is the price right?

An array of websites —,,, — will show you what others in your area are paying for similar models.

Is it stolen?

Not something most shoppers consider, perhaps, but it's probably the worst possible scenario. If you unknowingly buy a stolen vehicle, the police can confiscate it, leaving you with no car and no refund of your purchase price.

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Consider asking the police — before you buy — whether the vehicle identification number (VIN) matches one on the "hot" list.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) also operates a website that will check a VIN against lists of stolen and unrecovered vehicles, provided by insurance companies.

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The VIN is on a dashboard plate on the driver's side, and it's visible from the outside through the windshield.

Photograph the VIN plate with your smartphone, or save the number some other way. You'll want it handy for some of the other checks listed here.

If the VIN plate on the dashboard is loose or scratched, that suggests it's not original and could signify a stolen vehicle. Check that the seller's name matches the name on the title and registration.

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Has it been in a flood?

A flooded car is usually considered a total loss, and the title so noted. But sometimes a flood-damaged vehicle will be cleaned up, not registered as salvage and sent outside the flood area.

If you buy a flood-damaged car, expect electrical and mechanical problems.

Use the NICB website to see if the car's been listed as salvage. Even if it isn't, it still could be suspect.

Use the VIN to consult CarFax and AutoCheck to see if either shows the car as flood damaged. Those sites have big databases but aren't definitive.

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If the vehicle is on no lists, check anyway for water marks on the exterior and in the engine compartment, mold or dampness on the carpet or upholstery, rust underneath and in unusual spots elsewhere, odors and odd dirt buildups.

Have all the recalls been completed?

Some are relatively minor and you probably wouldn't mind handling them yourself. Some, though, involve serious safety issues, and you might not even want to drive the car unless those are fixed.

See Also: The Dreaded Car Recall

Plug the VIN into recall sites from the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or from the automaker's own recall-information site. To find an automaker's site, simply search the internet for the name of the brand (Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, etc.) and "recalls."

What's the service and repair history?

The CarFax and AutoCheck sites will show (for a fee) not only routine service but also nonroutine repairs on many vehicles, including body repairs following accidents. Auto dealers and previous owners sometimes have the service and repair records; ask for them.

Are any big fixes imminent?

Knowing a good independent mechanic or repair shop is priceless. If you don't know one, ask friends what trustworthy shops or technicians they use. The important point is to find one that has no stake in whether you buy the car.

Also, check websites that rate services and shops, such as Angi. Beware of internet ads or sponsored sites that look like rating sites but aren't objective.

Expect to pay for the exam. In return, you'll get a list of pending issues and their costs, so you know what outlays you're facing if you buy the vehicle. And perhaps even double-check with a second shop to see if the estimates are similar.

Is it reliable?

You'd hate to dump money into a car that, once it's yours, bedevils you.

Consumer Reports is a go-to site for many shoppers because it not only lists cars in various price ranges that it believes are reliable but also warns you which ones not to buy — info that could be just as valuable. Other sites can be helpful, too., Kelly Blue Book and Popular Mechanics are among the places where you can find lists of reliable used cars.

Does it have good crash-test scores?

You're probably not thinking about having an accident when you're car shopping, but crashworthiness is worth putting on your radar screen.

Major providers of the scores are the government ( and the trade group Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (

(More about how cars are crash-tested and scored.) .

Does it use much fuel?

You might care only a little when gasoline's $2.50 a gallon, but you'll care a lot if it's $4.

You can check out a vehicle's expected fuel mileage at The mpg numbers for older models, before mileage tests were made stricter, have been adjusted to approximate what the ratings would be using current mileage-test methods.

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