7 Steps to Buying a Reliable Used Car

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Looking for a new car? A used model almost surely will cost you less to drive — but only if you can keep the car on the road.

A used car isn’t such a good deal if it’s a lemon. Use this checklist to make sure you get a good deal on a great set of wheels.

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.

Carfax reports come from police departments and insurance companies, as well as many other sources. While the information shown on the report is certainly helpful, it isn’t the full story. As Carfax itself says, the companies reports “may not include every event in a vehicle’s history.”

To better protect yourself, order a car title history report from the federal government’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

2. Watch out for rentals

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

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.

Are you looking for help financing a car? Start your search on our Solutions Center personal loans page.

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.

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, 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 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.

For more tips on buying a used car, check out:

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