How to Buy a Used Car with Confidence [Free Checklist]
When figuring out how to buy a car, there’s an overwhelming amount of information to know—such as different types of auto insurance, what is an auto loan, car maintenance costs, and so much more. A good place to start is by determining if you want to buy a new or used vehicle.
If you already know that you’re in the market for a used car, you’re not alone. Pre-owned vehicle sales are usually about double the sales of new cars in any given year, but in 2022 the number of used car sales decreased by about 4 million, perhaps because of the records hit in the previous year.1
It's clear that many Americans are eager to shop pre-owned, but how do we know we’re getting the best deal on a used car? Behold: this used car checklist. Follow it and have peace of mind that you haven’t missed anything as you review your options. Plus, it could help you find the answer to "New vs. Used: What car should I buy?"
Follow the steps below to walk through how to buy a used car confidently. Feel free to download, print, and fill out this used car checklist as you go car shopping, too.
Used Car Checklist #1: Verify all Service Records
A huge part in questioning how to buy a used car the right way is making sure that you know the car's history. Ask the dealer to print out the vehicle history to see all service records:
- Oil and filter changes.
- Part replacements.
- Tire purchases.
- Previous accidents and damages.
Used Car Checklist #2: Review the Interior
- Turn the key to first position. Do all warning lights on the dash turn on?
- Start the vehicle. Do all warning lights on the dash turn off?
- Leave the car idling while inspecting the vehicle and go back at the end to check the temperature gauge on the dashboard – it should be in the middle (not in the red).
- Check the left and right turn signals.
- Check the function of the windshield wiper fluid.
- Turn the windshield wipers on to different speeds, then off.
- Turn on the heater.
- Turn on the A/C. A super important feature for driving in AZ.
- Adjust both side view mirrors.
- Roll all windows down and back up.
- Check the sunroof’s functionality.
- Check the stereo (radio, AUX, Bluetooth, etc.).
- Check the function of all seat belts.
- Lock and unlock while looking at each door for function.
- Open and close every door to ensure function.
- Adjust the seats – if automatic, check any electrical function with seat movement.
- Pop the hood and the trunk, leave both open.
- Check for a spare tire and jack. You definitely don't want to be caught without those!
Used Car Checklist #3: Take a Look Under the Hood with the Engine ON
- Open the hood while the car is running and leave it idling for a while.
- Look around for any drips.
- Listen for any loud clacking or grinding. An important tip to remember when learning how to buy a used car is to always, always, always keep an ear out. You don't want to end up paying for a big problem because you weren't listening carefully enough!
Used Car Checklist #4: Take a Look Under the Hood with the Engine OFF
- Check the date on the battery – the average battery lifespan in AZ is 4 years.
- Fluid levels – all of the following have indicators that let you know if it’s full or needs more. Use a rag or paper towel to clean the dipstick. Then, insert and remove it to get proper readings:
- Transmission fluid
- Steering fluid
- Brake fluid
Used Car Checklist #5: Review the Exterior
- Check for sun fading.
- Check the paint condition of the car. Are there chips or scratches? Was it repainted?
- Inspect the alignment of exterior panels for a uniform gap. This can help you see if the parts have been replaced.
- Check the overall condition of the tires.
- Examine the tread depth of the tires – got a penny? Insert the penny (head down) into a few of the tire’s tread grooves. If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, then the tires need replacing.
- Are the tires mismatched? If so, this is not recommended unless you plan on immediately replacing them. Different tires have different speed ratings, tread life, and traction.
- Check bottom of vehicle for rust.
Used Car Checklist #6: Take it for a Test Drive
- Turn off the radio to be able to listen for noises the entire time.
- Go over speed bumps to listen for noises and see if the suspension feels worn. A warning sign is that the car will bounce up and down several times when going over bumps—you’ll feel like you have less control over the vehicle.
- Drive at both residential and freeway speeds.
- Brake firmly from a higher speed and listen for noise.
- The Brake pedal should feel firm and not lower towards floor when holding it down.
- Drive in reverse and other gears if applicable.
- Accelerate through a corner and listen for clacking to indicate bad CV joints.
- After the drive, look at temperature gauge to make sure it’s within proper range (not in the red).
Finding out how to buy a used car is more simple than it seems. It's really just making sure there are no red flags and giving yourself the green light to buy. 😉
Used Car Checklist #7: Ask A Lot of Questions
Whether you're a first-time car buyer or a pro, inspecting a used car and making a car buying decision can feel overwhelming. Don't be afraid to ask the dealer lots of questions and research further on how to buy a used car. Double and triple checking can help save you from a few headaches down the road. 🙅
We hope this checklist has helped you learn how to buy a used car! And if you're ready to get pre-approved for a used auto loan, we do that too.
This article is intended to be a general resource only and is not intended to be nor does it constitute legal advice. Any recommendations are based on opinion only. Rates, terms and conditions are subject to change and may vary based on creditworthiness, qualifications, and collateral conditions. All loans subject to approval.