So, you are in the market for a pre-owned vehicle? If so, let us walk you through some basic things that you should be looking for. First, look up reviews and check to see what others are saying about the make and model. After that, arrange to drive the car. Keep in mind as well that Certified Used is different than Used because Certified Used cars have passed the dealer’s standardized tests and they have their reputation backing that up. Regular Used is still fine to look through though. Last, look for the CARFAX report if you are really serious about the car. Sometimes dealers will provide this for free. (The folks at Easterns Automotive, DC/MD/VA often do.)
OK, so you’ve budgeted and spent time online agonizing over which cars to test and then hoping they are at the dealer when you get there! Take a moment to look around the lot and see if you can start the car of your choice yourself. A lot of dealers will start the car themselves because it runs better after being warmed up a bit, but that’s a place where you want to see what’s happening because if there’s an engine churning to get started, belts whining, or black/blue/green exhaust trust us, you want to know!
In colder climates, most dealers will want to have the car started, not because they are hiding anything, but for convenience, and the same goes for courtesy, as some customers expect that the dealer prep the car and bring it around like a valet service.
Now that you see the car, take a full walk around and look visually for things like door alignment issues, minor dents, and rust (especially underneath!). Open the hood and use your nose to smell anything odd like mold or mouse nests, burning oil (due to a leak that the hot engine burns off), and that acrid smell of electric components that are overloaded. Look around at fan belts and hoses for dry cracking, visually check fluid levels, as well as rust or cracks on brake rotors.
A key part of this process is to remember to slow down your actual movement, as you slow down, your eye will notice more about the car that you otherwise would have rushed right past trying to beat the salesman inside. Also, soaked or watery carpets are not a good sign, indicating either an accident that resulted in a leaking door or windshield gasket or possibly rust underneath the car eating a hole upwards. Not good. Make sure you check the trunk for space and oddball issues, like a key that doesn’t work with it or a latch that doesn’t work anymore (same with the gas cover lever).
Inside, it’s a similar focus: use your nose for signs of mold or exhaust, trying both the A/C as well as the heater. Test out the sound system but turn that off for the drive so that you can hear the car’s engine and any noises that happen when going over potholes and turning sharply.
Note to your test drive dealer rep that you are doing a lane change, a brakes test, or a 3-point turn so that they know you can drive ok, of course! We recommend spending about 10-20 minutes on your drive, and feel free to say at the end of it that you want to test drive it further than the pre-programmed route, like up a hill or down one freeway exit, for instance, to make sure you get a sense of the car. Keep within speed limits of course, and on the braking test, listen for a whine and feel the steering wheel and/or brake pedal for any wobbles! If the car pulls to the left on this test, that is an issue to bring up (no pull or slightly right is OK).
On a sharp turn, even in a parking lot, get the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then switch) while turning slow and with your windows down. Clicking or whining noises indicate CV joint repairs may be needed. Another thing: bring a friend, someone knowledgeable about cars, if possible (but not a know-it-all that gets in your way of a fair assessment), because they can give voice to questions you hadn’t thought of and notice things you may have missed. Oh yeah, if the transmission jumps or lags way behind normal, walk away now as you don’t want to replace a CVT or any other transmission honestly!
This should be a straightforward process, with your main goal to be to listen, look, smell, and get a solid feel for the car. This is not a social hour with the salesperson, although they can certainly be helpful with information about technical specifications and feature operations.
Don’t negotiate while on the drive, wait to talk about it fully on the sales floor when you are ready. Feel free to check a few other cars as well and rank each car from 1-10 as you go. It’s ok to bring a notepad to jot down issues and questions for later as well. Anyway you slice it, you can do this, and we are on your team to get it there.