Buying a used car brings up a lot of concerns. Did I get a good deal? Why is it really being sold? Whats the story? What information should I have, and how should I weigh it all out? What is it really going to cost to fix it up? Is it a lemon, a maintenance nightmare, or a find that I can brag about for years?
If I could answer all of that definitively, I would be wiser than Solomon and more prescient than the Oracle of Delphi. Not the case, but I can give you some rules to protect your wallet, and more importantly, your sanity:
#1: First and foremost, get the car history and make no exceptions on this. I did once, because the dealer swore the report just wasn't coming across their fax. They assured me it had spent its time in the sun, not the snow. They were wrong. They took it back, but a private seller - not so much. No car history available? run, do not walk. Is it worth the cost of obtaining it? Oh, yeah.
#2: Now that you have the ownership history, actually look at it. Here is what you are looking for: A car may have spent its life in the Rust Belt instead of the Sun Belt. It may have been garaged all winter, and be just fine - or it may be a bucket of rust. At least now you know to double check the undercarriage. This can be a deal breaker or not, but would warrant an even tighter inspection.
#3: Does the chain of title indicate it was used as a fleet or rental car? Additionally, the mileage may be the giveaway, if the odometer has not been reset. No need to tell you to think twice about buying cars with broken odometers.
#4: What you really want to know is if it has been in a bad accident or suffered water or fire damage. A salvage title will result from one of the above. For me it is an absolute deal breaker as you can not get obtain collision coverage on a car with a salvage title. I know someone who bought an expensive truck with a salvage title. It had been repaired but they could only obtain liability coverage no collision or comprehensive. When it was stolen, they were out thousands of dollars. The other ways to tell are a) Look at a Carfax or other similar report b) Have a good mechanic check it out and c) Look at it yourself do body panels not line up? Is the paint mismatched? Do some parts look suspiciously newer than the rest? When you test drive it, does it pull or shimmy? Does it smoke? Are the brakes so soft you use your feet to stop Flintstone-style? Are tires worn unevenly or excessively? Do they match? Does it sound like an episode of Ghost Hunters going down the street?
Keep in mind when doing your initial visual inspection, that there are always exceptions to the idea that trashy interiors equals bad mechanicals. Some people are messy, and wont wax or clean their car but are obsessive about servicing the vehicle. Others will roll out a gleaming car with a perfect interior that has missed its last three major services and has oil so old you can tell what dinosaur it came from. But usually a trashy looking car has been neglected all around, and vice versa. Usually that is.
#5: Ask why someone is selling. Perhaps they just need the cash. Perhaps they cant afford the repairs. Or perhaps they have been told it can't even be fixed. Ouch. That would be worth knowing. This is actually the most valuable - and the most useless question to ask. Why? Because if you really knew it would be of great help, but there is no way to ascertain whether or not someone is being straight with you. Remember, you are on opposite sides of the transaction why should they show their hand? So that you can beat them up more, or walk away? Horse trading has not changed in centuries we just trade metal horses now. So what to do? Get it inspected by a professional mechanic. Any seller should let you, at your expense, check out their vehicle. Huge red flag if they don't.