Remember when buying a used car was so much simpler? If it didn’t smoke, sputter, or stall, it was probably a sound investment. Today, automobiles have become much more complex. There are numerous other danger signs to watch for on test drives and during that first inspection. Unfortunately, unless you know a little bit about cars today, you’re very likely to pass over some important aspect of a used vehicle, which may turn out to be a danger sign that could alert you to future troubles. Missing these danger signs can do a lot more than cost you some extra cash; they can make you downright mad. Mad at the car, mad at the car lot, mad at the salesperson, even mad at the poor unknown worker at the factory who installed the faulty part(s) that is causing you so much grief. It really isn’t worth the headaches. Instead, have a look at some of the biggest danger signs of a used car, then take your test drive confidently.
1. Bald/Worn Tires
Not only will bald/worn tires cost a pretty penny to replace not long after you purchase your used vehicle, but they are also signs of other dangers. The first danger is that the previous owner didn’t care enough about this vehicle to replace the tires or even check to see what was wearing them unevenly. That should spark the question: What else is wrong with this machine that went ignored? The second danger is that uneven tire wear can be a sign of the car being out of alignment, or having some serious issues with its steering or suspension parts. Tires are the first thing that should be looked at on any used car.
2. Hard Shifting/Slipping
If you’re taking the test drive and you hear the engine’s rpm get higher, but it doesn’t shift right away, and then…bang!…it jerks into the next gear, that’s called hard shifting, and it’s a sign of some very serious transmission problems. If the engine just revs extremely high and nothing happens for a moment, and then it kicks into gear, that’s called slipping, and it also is a serious sign of problems. Don’t just listen to the rev and purr of the engine on your test drive, pay close attention to how the vehicle shifts. Transmission problems can lay a vehicle up for weeks.
3. Fluid Leaks
Pop quiz! Never be afraid to a) ask if you can look under the hood; b) get dirty and crawl underneath the car; c) ask to look at the vehicle from underneath while it’s on a lift; or d) all of the above. Remember high school when you had the choice of “All of the Above” on tests? Ninety percent of the time, it was the correct choice; same case here. Take a good look at the engine from all angles. Look for black sludge built up on it. That’s a sign of leaking oil. Look for any signs of colored fluid coming out underneath. Better yet, look to see if the engine is completely clean. If it is, chances are that the car lot has had it steam cleaned to erase the sign of leakage. Ask if you can take it on a test drive for 10 minutes or so, then see it up on a lift. That’s the best time to check for leaks, when all the fluids are hot and have been circulating.
4. Unusual Smells
When driving, turn on the heat and the air conditioning, no matter what the temp is outside. See how long it takes for the vehicle to begin blowing both warm and cold air, and keep a keen sense of smell for anything that smells burnt or sweet. If it takes a while to heat up or cool off, chances are that the thermostat is getting bad (if it won’t blow good heat) or the A/C needs recharged (if it won’t blow cold). But the smells can alert you to much worse dangers. Obviously the smell of something burnt is never a good thing, especially on a car, and can usually be attributed to electrical problems. The sweet smell will usually come through the vents when the heat is on, and it signifies a coolant leak somewhere. Many coolant leaks are just hoses leaking coolant down onto something hot, where it is burning off; but, several times it is a sign of a more serious issue like a bad head gasket or intake gasket.
5. Prior Owner/Past History Discrepancies
Never be afraid to ask for a vehicle history. If it is missing, or has blank areas, it’s correct to be wary. There’s a saying in the automotive business: “Once a car is wrecked, it’s never the same again.” It’s the old Humpty-Dumpty theory. Something broken can never be put back together exactly the same way again; and it’s true, at least with cars. Knowing if a vehicle has been in an accident can alert you to issues that may spring up wherever it was hit. Knowing the vehicle has a clean title history will also save you tremendous hassles down the road.
Keep in mind through the entire process that you are the consumer here. You’re in control, not the salesperson. Never be afraid to ask questions or to see/touch/test anything on the vehicle. If there’s nothing to hide, you’ll never get an argument.