How to Test Drive and Check a Used Car

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, count yourself lucky.

Most of us have bought a used car, thinking that it was a good deal, only to realize a couple of miles down the road that the car was a piece of junk.

Certain dealers are very much aware that they are selling you a “lemon” and will hide the fact with some mechanical ingenuity.

Used car hunting requires objectivity and don’t fall in love with the first car you see (unless, of course, it is of exceptional quality, a great deal, and falls within your financial parameters).

Buying a used car can be quite daunting, but you can reduce the risk and still come away with a good deal if you do a bit of research and follow these tips.

Price check and budgeting

When you are in the market to buy a used car, start with a budget—figure out how much you can spend on a down payment and how much you can pay monthly on a loan.

When you start browsing the web and dealerships, your eyes might start to wander and before you know it, you are looking at cars that were never in your budget range. Decide on a budget beforehand and stick to it.

The temptation is always going to be there to overshoot and buy something that you don’t need or can’t afford. With your budget in check, start doing price checks on the models you are interested in to get a rough estimate of what you’re likely to pay and if it suits your budget. Adjust accordingly.

Appreciate the art

If at all possible, don’t rely on web searches alone. Go to a dealership or private seller and start looking. Move slowly around the car and soak up every detail. The slower you move, the more you will take in.

It is like looking at art, the more you stare at it, the more aware of the details you become. You will soon start to notice little dents, scratches and other imperfections in the car. The key is to take your time.

Open the doors

Open every door, the trunk and the engine hood, and inspect the door movements carefully. As you open the doors, listen for any creaks and also look for irregular movements. If you spot something off, the chances are that the car has been in a crash and the body was bent out of shape. You don’t even have to bother continuing your check as you are in for some serious headaches.

The initial check of the car is based on the outside aesthetics of the car. When you see that the car is in good nick, it puts your mind at ease and you can move onto the next phase.

Open your mouth

The seller should be upfront with you about everything because if something goes wrong after you buy the car, and they did not reveal something, you can insist on a complete refund. So, don’t be shy to ask all the questions that you can think of, especially concerning the service history and whether the car has ever been in an accident.

The one thing that you should try and avoid is being rude. Remember, you are the one in need of a car and you could screw yourself out of a decent deal if you insult the owner.

Push those buttons

A used car will have something that is not working 100% and you need to establish what it can be. Getting in the car and playing around with the buttons will save you a couple of trips to the auto electrician.

Open all the windows, check the AC and play around with the radio. If there is a button that you don’t know the use of, then ask and make sure it works. The electronics of a car will tell you a great deal about how the car was used by the owner.

See what is hiding under the hood

This is one of the checks that most people tend to avoid because they feel that they are not experts. You don’t have to be a mechanic to do a quick overview check of the important bits, though.

If you see any oil buildup around the engine block, then you know that there is a leak somewhere and this could point to maintenance costs that you don’t want to bare. As the engine runs, listen for any irregular sounds and look at the coolant level. If you can’t find any fault from that check, then the car is probably in good nick. If you have any doubts or want to have a piece of mind, check with your mechanic first before you buy the car.

Check the steering

There are two steering checks that you want to do, the pre-test drive check and the one during the test drive.

When the car is stationary, turn the steering wheel all the way to both sides, if there is any noise or irregular tension, then the warning signs should go off.

When you take it out for a drive, notice how the car responds to your commands and beware of any vibrations when you hit higher speeds. This could point to misaligned tires or unbalanced tires.

The test drive

If all went well up to here, you are in for a good deal. The test drive will reveal any other issues if there are any. Drive with the windows both up and down and listen for any sounds that are out of place.

Be sure to do both highway and stop and go traffic driving as cars often respond and sound different under these circumstances. When you are ready, tell the owner that you are going to brake sharply. If anything vibrates, squeaks or grinds, then you need new brakes.

When you buy a used vehicle, be aware of the fact that there might be minor maintenance might be part of the package, but engine replacement in a month after purchase is not.

When you do your initial check and still want a second opinion, speak to a mechanic and have him or her check out the car. Mention anything that you were wondering about and hopefully your mechanic can give you advice on whether you are getting a great deal or buying a dud.  

Becky Holton is a journalist and a blogger at She is interested in education technologies and is always ready to support informative speaking at best essay service. Follow her on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Photo attribution: order_24 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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