In these times of economic crisis, the proposition of a pre-owned set of wheels is becoming more accepted, and many are rushing to used-car dealers to pick up a mid-90's vehicle at a giveaway price. Without doubt, a pristine second-hand car can be a more satisfying drive than many brand new cars, just as a 2.0 size car will almost certainly be more spacious, smoother riding and more powerful than most 1.6 liter class cars. (There are exceptions) In addition, the SUV's coming in are all 4x2's, and there are still some hard core enthusiasts that want a real 4x4, so they end up settling for a used off-roader instead of a new one.
So, if you think a used car is not as good as a new one, you may be wrong. A well-maintained car in good condition is as good as new at half the cost. If you have decided to buy used, make sure that you choose well, and defend yourself against many tricks of the trade that can really land you with a lemon.
1. Check the exterior of the car - many dents and bumps are covered by a putty that is locally known as 'masilya'. Knock the body of the car and if there are parts that don't sound like knocking metal, chances are, putty has been used. Better yet, place a magnet on different parts of the body. The parts that resist the pull of the magnet have probably been dented and fixed. Look for rust, deep scratches, uneven paint finish, the wheel wells and door bottoms (these are very neglected parts that speak lots about the condition).
2. Check all the rubber components like door seals, boot seal, and wipers, these should be in good condition - if the car is well looked after.
3. Check the condition of the tires and wheels. Tires that are in good condition reduce wear and tear on the suspension and driveline components, as well as ensure safety. Bald tires mean neglect. Check the condition of the spare as well.
4. All the lights and light bulbs, both inside and outside. Check the plastic lenses for cracks that could leak water in to the assembly.
5. The Interior - check the condition of seats, door sidings, dashboard, headliner, etc. A car with a very smooth steering wheel and transmission lever surface grain has been used a lot. Make sure it seems to correlate with the odometer. Look at the carpet and remove it if you can, to see the covered metal. Look for deformities, rust or excessive dirt build up.
6. Check all the controls inside the cabin, like wipers, lights, a/c, stereo, mirrors, windows etc. They should be running soundly. Electric motors are very expensive to replace (windows, mirrors, seats).
7. Lift the car; check the underbody for dents, scratches, loose parts (in the exhaust) and rust. If there is excessive amounts of dirt buildup on the under, and the body is clean, think twice about the condition. If possible, ask a mechanic to check the condition of the suspension (bushings, springs, shocks, arms and rods).
8. Look at the engine bay, inspect for leaks, cracks in coolant and fluid reservoirs. Check the condition and quantity of the oil it shouldn't be very dark, and the level should be correct. Start the engine and listen to it idle. Excessive vibration or noises usually spell trouble. If there is a very noisy clicking sound, expect camshaft wear. Look at the exhaust, at idle and while revving. (Bluish color means a blown gasket, engine damage, or dirty/mixed oil) It is best to have a good mechanic check this part.
9. Most importantly, test-drive the car. Try to drive it on a variety of surfaces and roads; from city traffic; to highway cruising and full throttle acceleration and high-speed runs.
* Drive with the stereo switched off, listen for any noises coming from the engine, suspension, steering, exhaust, tires and wheels, etc. Also listen for rattles and squeaks coming from inside the car.
* Test the acceleration of the car, (full throttle) drive the car at a different speeds, and see how it performs. It should pick up decently, without any harsh resonance or reluctance from the engine.
* Test the handling of the car on winding roads, or turn fast into corners, and see if the car is stable. Drive on bumpy roads and see if the suspension can take it well. Make sure the ride quality is acceptable for you. Listen for strange noises here.
* Turn the steering all the way from lock to lock; if there is a very loud gurgling or hissing noise, power steering could be a problem. Check that the alignment and balancing of the wheels is ok, and not very off. This could mean a damaged wheel. (Costly replacement) The steering should be well weighted and balanced.
* Check the transmission of the car. If it has an automatic transmission, check the smoothness of the shift, from low rpm to high rpm. If there is a considerable amount of shift shock, chances are the transmission needs work. If possible, ask a mechanic to check the condition of the ATF (or automatic transmission fluid) if there are a lot of metal/non-metal particles, there is a lot of wear. For manual shifters, check the smoothness and linkage of the gearbox, and the clutch. The clutch should be smooth and not sticky or too hard.
* The brakes - a very important part to check. The pedal feel and power should be to your liking. Accelerate hard and then brake hard several times. If there is a lot of brake fade (if the braking power seems to be a lot weaker after several tries) the brakes are not in the best condition. Squeaks can either mean a little dirt, or need for resurfacing, but also could mean big problems. Don't take a chance here, and check with a pro.
* If you can drive a couple of examples of the same model, flaws can be easier detected. Doing this will sharpen your ability to analyze the condition of the car, and help you point out the probs.
10. Make sure the car is legitimate with proper papers - not falsified. Stolen cars are rampant these days, so make sure the O.R. and the registration match. The three identifying marks should be checked thoroughly and look untampered. These are the Plate number, the VIN and the engine number. Check the owners' manual for the locations of these indicators. The best protection is to have bought the car from a trusted and reputable person. Precautions should be taken.
The Land Transportation Office (LTO) now has a SMS-based checking facility for verifying the legitimacy of a car. Simple send LTO<space>VEHICLE<space>[license plate] to 2600 (ex. LTO VEHICLE XYZ789).
Well, here it is, the ten-step guide to buying a used car, in full comprehensive form. Good luck and happy motoring!