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Oct 23, 2020

8 min. read

After weeks of hunting and an internet browser history full of searches, you've finally found a used vehicle that checks all the boxes. Reasonable price? Yep. Decent mileage? Of course. Runs well? Check!

Still, putting down your hard-earned money on a used car can be daunting. Most of us are not professional mechanics so spotting hidden defects or problems that aren't obvious can be difficult.

Here's the good news: if you do some good research and have a critical eye, you should be able to find the car you’re looking for.

Budget matters.

It's important to set a budget and stick with it. The temptation will always be to increase the amount of money you’re willing to spend, especially when emotions take over after you find “that car” in ”that colour”. Remember that used vehicles may need repairs more quickly than a new one, so setting aside some money for repairs is always a good idea.

CAA Auto Advice can provide you with appraised car values as well as average selling prices. Plus we can provide consumer reports on older models so be sure to check in with us.

Study up.

Now that you've selected a specific make and model you can turn to the internet and do a bit of research. Is this particular car known for frequently causing problems with a certain mechanical component? Is it a common car with plenty on the market? Does the vehicle hold an especially high (or low) resale value? The answers to questions like these will help guide your inspection and conversation once you see the car in person.

Test drive.

If the vehicle seller won't let you take the car on a test drive, that’s a red flag. After all, drivetrain and suspension issues will likely only reveal themselves while the car is in motion. Resist the urge to keep the stereo and fan on for the duration of the drive, as those sounds can mask the noise of what could be expensive problems with the engine. Be sure to test all electric items like power windows and the infotainment system. It's also worth taking the car to a vacant parking lot if possible, where you can sample the brakes and make low-speed turns while listening for potential problems.

Look around.

While you're in that vacant lot, take the opportunity to peek up in under the car, checking for obvious issues like corrosion or damage. At a glance, you should also be able to see how the different body panels fit together such as the hood, doors and the trunk. When these panels are closed they should be flush with other panels. If there are gaps or they're misaligned, it can indicate that repairs were done on the vehicle. And while it does require a mechanic's experience to spot some problems, it doesn't hurt to see if something is glaringly wrong like a drooping emergency brake cable or a rusty floor pan.

Inspect it.

Speaking of mechanics, it’s an excellent idea to take the car to a mechanic for a full inspection. They'll have the tools and knowledge to find issues that aren't immediately noticeable or might cause further problems down the road. CAA approved facilities offer a 139-point Vehicle Inspection Service that meet our strict standards, taking the guesswork out selecting a shop since only these shops are entitled to display the CAA Approved Auto Repair Service sign. Beware of private sellers who refuse to let you take the car to an independent mechanic. You’ll also want to check CarFax® - the trusted web-based service that supplies vehicle history reports to you on used cars.

Negotiate price.

Remember that budget we spoke of at the beginning of this post? Try and leave yourself some breathing room beyond the actual purchase price of the car. Depending on your province, the government will demand taxes when you register it in your name for the first time, plus there's insurance and other incidentals. Don't leave yourself short after driving away with your new wheels.

The CAA Auto Advice team provides Members with free automotive advice. If you have questions about car care, buying a new or used vehicle, auto repairs, vehicle inspection, driving costs and more, contact us by phone at: 1-866-464-6448 or email us at: autoadvice@caasco.ca