Used car buying guide

by Aivaras Grigelevičius
May 16, 2021
by Aivaras Grigelevičius
May 16, 2021

What’s more stressful – buying a new or used car? When going for a new one, all you need is to have the money to buy it. Since it’s new, it is unlikely that anything is going to break down. And even if it does – the warranty takes care of repairs. However, used cars have way more surprises, most of them being unpleasant.

You don’t know how previous owners treated that car, what has been done to it, etc. So, it’s up to you to check it properly before buying. It is advised to take the car to the nearest repair shop for a check-up, but you still have to perform a primary inspection yourself. Stay with us and learn when, where, and what to check when buying a used vehicle.

Look for the best conditions for car inspection

How would you like to buy a nice and shiny car, which reveals a bunch of scratches, mismatching paint, and even corrosion the following day? This is very common when ignoring various conditions before buying a used car. Here are a few circumstances you should take into account when purchasing a used car.


The perfect weather for inspecting the vehicle is dry and sunny. You can easily see every small dent and scratch in direct sunlight. However, even more important is how wet the vehicle is. Have you noticed how beautiful and shiny cars are right after wash? That’s because water is like a temporary layer of coat – it fills all spider scratches, and the paint shines like new.

Time of day

Never ever go to inspect a used car in the dark. Doesn’t matter whether it’s morning or early afternoon – daylight is a must. You won’t find all scratches, bulges, paint drips, and other imperfections using a torch. Why? Because a torch only covers a limited area at the time, it’s not as powerful as daylight. The torch produces only one source of light – some defects can only be seen when exposed to different lighting angles.


Convince the seller to get the car out of tight garages or parking spaces. You’ll want to have a few meters to walk and look around the vehicle. Many defects won’t be visible when the vehicle is packed among other cars, walls, or other objects.

Calculate the running and maintenance costs

Unless you’re buying a new car, running and maintenance costs will add up quickly. These depend on the car’s type – while small economical hatchbacks have loads of cheap parts available on the market, refined luxury sedans and SUVs are much more complicated and pricey to run. 

It also depends on how well the car was looked after in the past. Proper maintenance really extends a vehicle’s life, but missing oil changes, avoiding various repairs, and saving money on quality parts only brings more expenses in the long run.

Read more here.

Remember 4 hidden dangers in used cars

Surprisingly many people have to deal with costly problems after buying a pre owned car just because of their own fault. Thanks to The Information Age, loads of information about each car is available on the internet. The problem is that people still don’t get used to using car history reports during a usual used car check. Because of that, many used car buyers are left with broken or even stolen cars.

Read more here.

Do your homework – look for consumer reports of that car

Would you bother checking whether the trunk wiring harness is in good condition when buying a used car? Well, you should if you’re buying a BMW 5-Series (E60) – because of poor hinge design, trunk wiring wears out prematurely in these models.

That’s why you should take some time to find out what other owners think about the car you’re interested in. How often do they have to face problems with each system? How does the paint hold up? What are the most common areas for corrosion to start? Write down the most common issues and use them to your advantage when checking out used cars.

carVertical vehicle history reports also include data about recalls and common problems of each model.

Risks of buying a low priced used car

Everyone dreams about buying a mint condition car for a meager price. But is it possible?

Sometimes. There are situations when people desperately need money for treatments, paying off debts, or they just want to quickly sell the car before going abroad. These are the cases that buyers hope for.

The reality is different. Usually, cars are cheap for the reason you don’t want to deal with – the car is going to need expensive repairs soon, maybe there are some legitimacy issues, etc. In other words, there’s probably something that the seller knows and doesn’t tell you. That’s why every car buyer should learn about the most expensive issues and frauds, which aren’t worth dealing with.

Read more here.

Perform a proper test drive

According to multiple pieces of research, almost 20% of used car buyers don’t do a test drive before buying a car. But it’s nearly impossible to test the transmission and suspension of a stationary car. Moreover, many engine performance issues reveal themselves only while driving.

Taking the car for a spin is a vital part of a check. It lets you know how the car feels like – the ride may be too firm, or the engine may be too loud. We prepared a short guide on everything you need to know about performing a proper test drive… Don’t skip this step!

Read more here.

Buyer’s checklist

Missing at least a few essential things when inspecting the car without any plan is guaranteed. There are multiple engine, suspension, body, and interior spots that you must check to avoid unpleasant surprises later on. Here’s a short checklist for any car buyer to follow and get the best deal possible.


Make sure the seller provides all needed documents and that they are legitimate. To ensure legitimacy, first, you should check if VIN numbers in papers and on the car match. Then, if possible, check the car registration in your country – it should show whether the car is registered, etc.. Any unmatching numbers or information may be the case of fraud.

Many sellers don’t provide insurance. You shouldn’t drive a car without it, so you’ll have to get the insurance right after buying the vehicle.

Car history check

It is highly recommended to check the car’s history. It may reveal not only mileage rollbacks, accidents, but thefts and other frauds too – these are widespread reasons for faking car documents. All you need to do is enter its VIN here. The complete car history report will provide valuable data collected from state registries, insurance companies, auto repair shops, connected vehicle fleets, and so on.


No matter warm or cold – the engine should start in about 1-2 seconds. Once started, any unusual clunking, ticking, squeaking noises aren’t acceptable as they might mean very high repair costs.

Check if all the fluids are suitable and topped up, especially the engine oil. There shouldn’t be oil residues on the engine sides, and if it’s visible anywhere near the oil cap – the owner might be topping it up regularly because the engine is burning or leaking oil. If the oil is white and creamy – it may be mixing with the coolant, which often leads to rebuilding the engine.

Ask the seller when was the last time he changed the oil, filters, and timing chain or belt. He should give you the receipt of such works if they’ve been done recently.

Any excessive smoke or smell is not acceptable – the engine may be burning too much fuel, the exhaust system may have a leak, etc.


The purpose of both automatic and manual transmission types is to change gears. Manual transmissions require you to use a clutch to change the gears, while automatic transmissions do all the work for you.

When testing a car with a manual transmission, make sure to try all gears. There shouldn’t be any resistance or unusual noises when changing them. The vehicle should start moving as soon as you begin releasing the clutch. Otherwise, it has to be replaced soon.

Modern automatic transmissions are very smooth. So, no delays or kicks are acceptable.


The purpose of the car’s suspension is to increase comfort, eliminate clunking noises when going through the bumps, and provide stability. So, the ride should be comfortable, smooth, and predictable.

If any suspension part is loose or worn out, you should hear clunking or rattling sounds. Such problems usually aren’t expensive to fix but worth noting.

If the vehicle has regular shock absorbers (not pneumatic), you can check if they are dry. As shock absorbers have oil inside them, they have to be replaced once they start leaking.


Make sure the tyres are correct and in good condition. They should be proper according to the current season. And don’t forget to check if the tyres are wearing out evenly. For example, if any tyre’s inner or outer side has excessive wear, the car will need a wheel alignment. The excessive wear on the center of the tyre is usually a sign of overinflation.


Most car body damages worsen over the years, so you shouldn’t always deal with what you see. Rust is one of the cruelest things that could happen to a car body. Even a tiny brown spot can turn into a hole in a couple of years.

Corrosion usually starts on the most vulnerable surfaces like wheel wells, door edges, the bottom of the car, areas around the front windshield. If you decide to fix the rust, you should do it right after the purchase.

Uneven gaps between fenders, doors, and other body panels mean that this car needed body repairs at some point, and whoever was responsible for them wasn’t a professional.

A peeling clear coat or paint is also a progressive problem. However, small dents and scratches can be pricey to repair but usually won’t do any harm in the long run.


Car’s interior is the best location to reveal signs of wear. The most affected areas are the driver’s seat, steering wheel, gear knob, and pedals. For example, if the steering wheel looks new but the driver’s seat is tearing apart, the steering wheel was probably worn out to the point of reupholstering it.

Any weird, musty smells might occur because of sunroof leaks, clogged drains, etc.

Also, the inside of the trunk should be dry. Sometimes trunks tend to leak, resulting in mold, damaged electronics, and corrosion.

Electrical systems

Once you’re inside the vehicle, take some time to test as many electrical systems as possible – electric windows, mirrors, seats, wipers, sunroof, exterior and interior lighting, air conditioning, parking assistance, sound and infotainment system.

Keep an eye on the instrument cluster when turning the ignition on – all the lights, including the check engine light, should illuminate for a moment and then go off. Otherwise, some bulbs may be blown or taken out for the reason that someone didn’t want to deal with.

Windows and lights

Cars with cracked windshields or headlights and taillights are illegal to use in traffic in many countries. Check for cracks in the front windshield – small chips also are risky as they tend to spread at some point. Don’t forget to lift the wipers because cracks may be underneath them too.

Check if headlight and taillight lens covers are in good condition because they are ridiculously expensive in some models.

Taxes, fees, and other expenses

Nobody likes taxes, but you’ll have to face them when buying a used car. Taxes and fees vary by country, but their size often depends on the engine’s power and the car’s weight. So, be careful when choosing big old land yachts. Here are a few standard fees that are being applied in many countries:

  • Insurance – you need car insurance to make sure you won’t break the bank in case of a car accident.
  • MOT – not all countries require drivers to pass an MOT test regularly. But if yours does, your car will have to pass detailed inspections every few years. These cost money.
  • Title transfer fee – this is the price of transferring the title of ownership. It can vary anywhere between 10 Eur and 50 Eur.
  • Registration and licensing – the cost of registering a vehicle may be similar to a title transfer fee. On top of that, emission fees are also applied in some countries.
  • Sales tax – this tax is mainly being applied in the USA, and it can be ruthless. It can go as high as 9% of a car’s value, which really adds up to the price.


There’s no way of getting 100% guarantees when buying a used car. It has been used already, and you can’t know when and which systems will fail next. But making a list of things to test and inspect when going to check a car helps reduce the risk to the minimum.

As cars have loads of spots that can be defective, buyers often forget to check all of them and end up buying a money pit. Moreover, some are even too lazy to test all the windows, switches, or taking the car for a test drive. 

Thanks to The Information Age, half of the vehicle checking work can be done by vehicle history reports. While you look for oil leaks, corrosion, and faulty electronics, carVertical finds out about previous titles, thefts, MOTs, mileage rollbacks, and various legitimacy issues.