Bad used cars can turn what should be a happy occasion--fresh wheels in your driveway--into a nightmare.
But buying a used car has all of the pitfalls of buying a new car, plus many of its own, not the least of which is inheriting someone else's problems. “Let your mechanic look it over” is good advice that you might not hear from a seller of a car, unless he is very confident of the vehicle’s road worthiness. But it's absolutely necessary.
The question for any used-car buyer then becomes, what should your car guy be looking at to keep you out of trouble? It might be a moot point if you have a relationship with your repair facility, since he will most likely treat the assignment as though he were screening a purchase for a family member. But what if you need to give some guidance to the shop? What are the conditions that would prevent you from buying that car which goes down in family folklore as “the” big mistake?
These problems should be major warning signs you're about to buy a bad used car:
Fluid leaks. Wear and tear are not kind to vehicles, especially to those which have suffered from neglect or trauma. So consider evidence of fluid leakage as a concern and possible evidence that the vehicle did not have problems corrected in a timely fashion--or that the car had experienced some critically damaging episodes like overheating or a lack of lubrication.
Noises. An experienced technician can tell from the way an engine sounds whether it is worthy of your purchase dollars. On a road test he might detect a worn axle shaft, worn brake pads or a sound alerting him to worn struts or other suspension problems. While all of these are sort of maintenance items that would not necessarily be deal-breakers, their detection is important so that you can factor their replacement cost into your offer.
Drivability issues. You definitely want your expert to drive the car you are considering. Besides being able to check it for noises, the road test will give your person the opportunity to feel how it handles and how responsive it is. Drivability problems are some of the most difficult to diagnose and repair, so by catching one prior to purchase you can avoid a hassle down the road.
Big-money items. There are some components that are deal-breakers and these should be checked for their integrity. These would include the engine, transmission and exhaust/emissions system. You really don’t have enough money and the garage doesn’t have enough time to do an in-depth analysis of these major items, but in conjunction with the other things that are being checked, an experienced technician can arrive at an overall “feel” for how good the car is.
Purchasing a used car can be gamble if you go into it without sufficient knowledge of the vehicle. Having it checked out prior to purchase by a qualified automotive person can drastically reduce the chance of buying a lemon.