7 Steps to Buying a Reliable Used Car

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That shiny used car you're eyeing may not be such a good deal after all. Here's what to look for before you buy.

Edmunds.com recently compared the cost of buying a new 2013 Honda Accord EX, leasing the car, or buying a used 2010 Accord EX. After factoring in the true market value of both cars, leasing charges, and current loan terms and rates, they found the total out-of-pocket cost after six years came to:

  • Leasing – $24,768.
  • Buying new – $28,830.
  • Buying used — $20,960.

When you’re considering what will cost less to drive, buying used wins, but only if you can keep the car on the road. If you buy a lemon, getting it used doesn’t seem like such a good deal. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson tells you what to look out for when you’re shopping for a used car. Check it out and read on for more.

Now, let’s hash out your used car buying checklist:

1. Order the title history

Reports like a Carfax history can help you pick between a lemon and a gem, but saying “Show me the Carfax” might not be enough.

ABC News met with a driver who had bought a used truck with a clean Carfax report. Not long after buying the truck, he spun off the road and learned the truck had previous major frame damage. ABC News spoke with Carfax communications director Larry Gamache:

“We have a database of 12 billion pieces of information,” Gamache said. However, he added, “we don’t know everything about a used car’s past.”

Carfax reports come from police departments and insurance companies, as well as other sources, ABC News says. While the information shown on the report is certainly helpful, it isn’t the full story.

To better protect yourself, order a car title history report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which shows the full history of a vehicle.

2. Watch out for rentals and demo cars

Rental cars may not have a lot of miles or any obvious damage, but the engine likely has a lot of wear and tear. Be sure to ask the dealership or owner if the car you’re considering was ever a rental.

Also watch out for cars previously used as manufacturer test or demo cars. These cars were driven by journalists, public relations professionals and others who are putting the car through its paces, testing its limits and performance. You can ask the dealer if the car was a test or press car, but Car and Driver says to be on the lookout for the phrase “executive demo” – a fancier way of saying the same thing.

3. Ask for a service history

Ask for a service or maintenance history for any car you’re considering. A good service history includes detailed records of maintenance work like oil changes, tire rotations, air filter replacements and other small jobs that keep a car running longer.

4. Inspect the outside

Walk around the outside of the vehicle and look for any dings, scratches, rust or mismatched paint. Open and shut all doors, the trunk and the hood. If you see rust, the car might have flood damage. Mismatched paint and off-kilter doors can mean collision damage. Don’t forget to check the roof and inside the doors for paint damage.

Consumer Reports provides a list of signs to look for to make sure the car hadn’t been in a wreck. For example, it says a CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on parts may be a sign of collision repair.

5. Kick the tires

Insert a penny in the tread of each tire with Abe Lincoln upside down, facing you. If you can see the top of his head, the tires probably need to be replaced. All four tires should have even tread wear. If they don’t, Consumer Reports says, the wheels might be misaligned.

6. Check the fluids

Open the hood and check the engine fluids. The oil should be a golden or amber color. Dark or clumped oil is a warning sign. The brake fluid should be clear, and the coolant reservoir should have color-tinted coolant or antifreeze up to the “full” line. If you’re not sure how to check the fluids, have your mechanic do it.

7. Ask a professional

Finally, if the used car passes all of the other tests, have a professional mechanic check out it. A mechanic can find engine damage and look for other needed repairs that you won’t be able to spot on the lot.

Stacy Johnson

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