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How to Test Drive a Used Car

By Katie LaBarre

Posted: Apr 13, 2011 09:49 a.m.

Buying a used car might make you think of pushy salesmen conning unsuspecting shoppers into a bad deal. Whether you’re buying from a certified pre-owned dealership, a general used car dealer or a private seller, these worries only add to the stress of an already nerve-racking experience. Below are a few tips to help you keep your wits about you and keep the seller honest, no matter where you buy the car.

What to Know Before You Go

The expression “knowledge is power” is especially true when you’re getting ready to go check out a used car. If you show up armed with the car’s repair history, a fair price and your financing options, you’ll be better prepared for negotiations. To check out the car’s crash and maintenance history, websites like are a great resource. For about $35 you can run a report using the vehicle’s identification number, which could save you thousands in repairs down the road.

Always arrive with a firm idea of how much the car should cost. Use online resources like Kelley Blue Book and NADA Guides to get an idea of what your car is worth and what similar cars go for in your area. While the exact price of the particular car you’re considering still depends on the kind of shape it’s in and any after-market options that have been added, it will be helpful to go in with a good starting point.

You should also have a solid idea of what you can afford to pay, whether in monthly payments or in a lump sum. Whether you’re buying from a private seller or a used car dealership, it’s best to show up pre-approved for a loan by a bank or credit union (we tell you all about used car financing here).

Before you head out the door, get together a bag of things you usually use in your car, like a car seat, an iPod, or your dog’s crate. It’s important to make sure the entertainment system works with your electronics and the front and back seats fit your family.

Beware of Love at First Sight

Once you get to the car, take a slow walk around to check for any scratches, dents or inconsistencies in the paint job. Different paint colors or a different finish on a part of the hood or fender could indicate that the car was in an accident, fixed and repainted. Take stock of the kind of shape the car is in. Check underneath the car for puddles before and after you drive it to make sure that there are no leaks. Look to see if the tire treads are worn out so you don’t get stuck buying a new set of tires far sooner than you had planned.

Next, hop inside. After adjusting the seat and mirrors so that they’re comfortable, start checking features to make sure they work. Here’s where your bag of stuff comes in handy: You can get out your music player

to make sure it’s compatible with the audio system, and that the system works. Also, check the climate control you’ll be using in the opposite season. Even if it’s winter, test the air conditioning. Some dealers may assume you’ll only check the mode you need during your test drive, and you could end up with a climate system that only works for half the year.

When you turn the car on, listen hard for any squealing, clacking or rumbling. Out-of-place noises are a strong indication that something is wrong underneath the hood.

Testing it Out

While you’re driving, pay close attention to the way that the car responds when you press the brake and accelerator. Don’t be afraid to push the car a little harder than you normally would when you’re driving, but don’t go overboard. The salesman expects you to test the car some. When braking or accelerating, listen for noises as you did before, and pay attention to the car’s responses. If it pulls to the left or the right when you let go of the steering wheel, the car may only be misaligned, or it could be a more serious problem. Any vibrations or other things that feel off to the touch may be signals of disrepair as well.

Also, try to find a road similar to those you’ll be driving on most of the time. If you spend most of your drive time on the highway, see how the car acts when you’re merging, passing or cruising. If there are a lot of back roads where you live, see how your car performs through twists and turns or how it absorbs bumps in the road.

One Last Look

When you get back to the dealership, take a final look around. Grab a flashlight and stick your head under the hood to see if any leaks accumulated in the engine bay. Keep the car running while you listen for any noises you may not have been able to hear while you were inside the car, and check the exhaust. Is it thick or discolored? If everything meets your expectations, you can start the buying process.

Of course, if anything doesn’t seem right to you, don’t be afraid to ask the salesperson. That’s also a good opportunity to check what they’re telling you against the vehicle history report you brought along. Plus, if you notice something like peeling window tint, a broken interior feature, or a dent, it might mean a few dollars off the sticker price.

You should always have your regular mechanic evaluate the car before you commit. Remember that buying a used car is a business transaction: You should stand up for your own interests just as carefully as the seller is standing up for his. At the same time, conducting your test drive in an aggressive or unfriendly manner will only alienate the salesperson and make the whole process harder for you in the long run. If you’re still worried, check out some common used car scams to keep an eye out for as well.

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