Things to Look For When Buying a Used Car: A Comprehensive Guide

Things to Look For When Buying a Used Car: A Comprehensive Guide

There are many things to look for when buying a used car. After all, the advantage of buying a new car is a great warranty and knowing exactly what you've bought. But with used cars, there's uncertainty. Still, good used cars are out there and it’s best to know how to find them before you start looking.

Engine health, body integrity, interior condition, and a transparent history report are key factors that signal a good deal. This article cuts through the uncertainty and lists ways you can find a better used car, offering a no-nonsense guide on how to thoroughly vet a pre-owned vehicle. Let’s look at ways you can drive away with peace of mind and a reliable mode of transportation.

Used Car Shopping Checklist

  • Exterior and Engine Inspection: Begin with a detailed examination of a prospective used car’s exterior for any damage, and check under the hood for leaks or unusual engine noises.
    • Pay special attention to signs of serious issues, such as white sludge under the oil cap or blue smoke from the exhaust, which could indicate a blown head gasket.
  • Interior Evaluation: Inside the car, assess the comfort level, ensure all infotainment systems are functional, and look for any signs of flood damage.
    • A thorough test drive is essential to evaluate the car’s engine, transmission, handling, braking, and suspension.
  • Documentation and Valuation: Before proceeding with the purchase, review the vehicle’s maintenance records, OEM recall notices, and conduct a pre-purchase inspection like a CARFAX Vehicle History Report.
    • Use valuation tools like our used car pricing calculator to determine the car’s worth, negotiate the final price, and finalize your investment with the necessary insurance approval and applicable warranties.

This checklist serves as a summary of the key steps in the used car shopping process, providing a structured and professional approach, based on our experience as a group of companies in the automotive industry, to help you make a well-informed decision. The rest of the article explores each area in detail and what to do once you’re ready to buy!

Evaluating the Car's Exterior

exterior car damage

For a detailed review of a used car’s exterior, it’s good to start by examining its initial appearance and work your way in

When you first start looking at pre-owned vehicles, you’ve got to remember that a car can tell a story of its past ownership and spell out its future reliability. If the exterior has hidden defects, there could be other warning signs.

For a detailed review of a used car’s exterior, it’s good to start by examining its initial appearance and work your way in; it's crucial to thoroughly inspect its body panels for any indications of damage or repair, such as scratches, dents, rust, or inconsistencies in paint, and the functionality of headlights and taillights. Here are a few indicators to look out for!

At first glance, the exterior of a used car may catch your eye. But sometimes exterior problems can escape your notice. Body panels can reveal damage or repair, from scratches or dents to rust or inconsistencies in paint.

In our experience as a group, and on the frontlines of our car dealerships, we recommend carefully examining every component you can while assessing potential issues with buying a used vehicle.

Sealed Hatches: Doors, Trunks & Hoods

Open and close each door repeatedly and examine hinges, rubber seals, and glass condition. These seemingly minor details can reveal significant information about the car's history, and whether any replacement parts didn’t properly integrate with the system.

Check all the moving parts that seal shut when driving, like doors, trunks, and hoods, especially their:

  • Functionality
  • Squeakiness
  • Stickiness

It’s best to look at how these components shut, which might reveal indications suggesting past accidents, hastily made repairs, etc. Paying attention to these small cues will always give you valuable insights into buying a good used vehicle.

Rust or damage are easier to spot, and spotting these warning signs early ensures the car has been appropriately handled. Bottom line, it's worth checking every part of the car's exterior; doing this part first can tell you much about its history and whether it's worth your money. How well the hood opens or closes can also tell you a bit about what’s inside, like the engine!

Performing Your Own Engine Inspection

a concept of a vehicle engine

When examining the engine, it is important to also check for any indications of a blown head gasket

Before you start the car, you should open the hood, and have friends or family with you to be your eyes and ears. Have them turn the engine over and while you observe what’s under the open hood from a safe angle.

Checking A Running Engine

Once you have them start the car, be sure to look out for any smoke or leaks in the engine compartment and also keep an eye out for those ticking or knocking noises.

Keep an eye out specifically towards fluid leaks by looking at spots, drips or puddles under your vehicle that may suggest issues with engine oil leakage, transmission fluid leakage, or any other kind of leakages.

A clean-looking hood doesn’t always guarantee a trouble-free ride. Dirtiness can reveal previous fuel spills while cleanliness could potentially hide some underlying problems so stay vigilant during this stage of testing!

Checking for a Blown Head Gasket

When examining the engine, it is important to also check for any indications of a blown head gasket. One possible sign is finding white or light brown sludge underneath the oil cap, which can suggest contamination from coolant and often occurs with this type of issue.

If blue smoke is coming out of the exhaust, this could be indicative that oil is burning due to a potential failure in the head gasket. Remember to continuously monitor your vehicle’s exhaust for abnormal colors as this will help you catch any potential problems related to a blown head gasket early on.

Interior and Comfort Features

car interior

Don't just pay attention to the exterior; after all, you'll be spending most of your time inside the car

When you're looking at a used car, don't just pay attention to the exterior; after all, you'll be spending most of your time inside the car. You’ll want to make sure the interior is comfortable and suits your needs.

A great place to start is the infotainment system; it should be easy to use and the screen must be in good condition. Don't forget to crank up the air conditioning to full blast to ensure it's working properly.

It can’t hurt to do the same thing with the heat, once you've warmed up the vehicle. You should also remember to pay attention to the screen when you test the rear camera feature on reversal (if it has that feature).

Next step is examining the upholstery, watch out for tears, stains or cracks in particular, while also ensuring that all electronic features are functioning properly. Be aware of any indications within the car’s interior that suggest flood damage.

Look closely at trim pieces for signs like water marks or stains left behind by dirty water. That way, you can make sure your vehicle won’t leak water inside.

Checking Underneath the Hood

There’s more to examine under the car hood than just the engine. And you’ll want to know what to look for as part of your inspection before and after a test drive. Below are some items worth checking after your engine performance check.

  • Fluid for transmission: It ought to have a bright red color and should not emit a burnt smell.
  • Coolant and oil levels of the engine: Evaluate their condition for any abnormalities.
  • Power steering fluid level: Ensure it is at an appropriate amount and look out for indications of dark discoloration or particles.

Take sufficient time to investigate all belts, as well as hoses, carefully in order to spot evidence of wear or cracks that could signal a need for prompt replacement, avoiding potential breakdowns down the line.

If you can, take note of rubber seals found around your vehicle’s engine bay. They must be firm when touched but still retain some flexibility. Remember that thoroughly inspecting these areas can prevent unexpected malfunctions in later stages.

Assessing Mileage on a Used Vehicle

car odometer

While 20,000 km per year is considered average, there are other factors that might affect that rate

The mileage of a car and how long it’s been since it rolled off the factory floor is more reliable information than its age alone. It reflects the amount of life it’s got left.

On average, an annual vehicle mileage is about 20,000 kilometres or 12,400 miles per year and anything higher than that could be considered above normal but not excessive. While 20,000 km per year is considered average, there are other factors that might affect that rate.

Cars with over 160,000 kilometres on their odometer are arguably high-mileage vehicles. But brands like Toyota, Mazda, and Honda, for instance have quite a bit of longevity, often surpassing the 320,000 km or 200,000-mile mark with proper maintenance.

Mileage should always take into account several factors such as its maintenance history, the current condition, and, as mentioned, mileage relative to its age. It’s worth noting that lower mileage doesn’t necessarily equate to better quality if the car has been both underused and under-maintained.

The Importance of a Test Drive

It may well be that the most fun part of shopping for a used car is the test drive. So, what should you pay attention to during this experience? When testing out the vehicle, make sure to try driving at various speeds and check how responsive the brakes and clutch are.

During your test drive:

  • Listen closely for any unusual noises such as engine noise or rattling from under the hood or dashboard,
  • Monitor transmission shifts and brake performance
  • Note the suspension if the road is at all bumpy
  • Test out how well the vehicle handles different speeds, in reverse and up hills.

By considering these factors during your test run of potential vehicles with realistic performance expectations.

Keeping these factors in mind, you can assess the condition effectively before making a decision about which used vehicle fits your needs best.

Checking Tires

a concept of car tires

Uneven wear patterns like excessive shoulder wear or irregular tread can signal suspension or alignment problems

Ever heard of the toonie test? The tires of a vehicle are often overlooked but play an important role in the car buying process. Get some measurements! Checking tread depth with a gauge (or a looney if you don't have a gauge) can really help, as worn down treads indicate the need for replacement.

Finding Uneven Wear

A tire should wear down evenly with proper use. Uneven wear patterns like excessive shoulder wear or irregular tread can signal suspension or alignment problems that require maintenance.

If there are mismatched tire brands on a car, it could suggest inconsistent upkeep efforts and potentially cost cutting at the expense of performance and resale value. Well-maintained tires contribute to safe driving, particularly during inclement weather such as rain or snow.

Just as our shoes’ soles reveal much about our own journeys, and even problems that a chiropractor might find, so do cars’ tires show signs of their own history and possible challenges to future performance.

Essential Documentation Review

Buying a used car is not just about the car itself, but also about its past. That’s where the vehicle’s history comes in. Examining a vehicle history report, which includes checks for any reported accidents, liens, or instances of theft, can save you some headaches owning it down the road. Check out for pricing on comprehensive vehicle history reports!

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is like a car’s social security number. Having this information allows access to information about the car’s past with its own manufacturers, including any recalls, and for ensuring the match of vehicle history against records. It’s also an important part of police reports of incidents or crimes the car has been part of.

Service records are important for confirming regular maintenance, revealing potential issues, and assessing the completeness and reliability of the car’s upkeep history. Accurate documentation ensures transparency, validates the car’s pricing, and helps outline the responsibilities of the buyer and dealer during the purchase.

It's highly recommended that you familiarize yourself with the car’s history before deciding if it’s the right car for you. Obtaining a history report can be a crucial step in this process.

The Pre-Purchase Independent Inspection

Conceptual vector image of an online vehicle document service on a laptop screen divulging information about a used vehicle

Vehicle history reports are are important parts of the process of buying a used vehicle and can help you decide the risks and overall reliability of the car you’re looking at buying

When considering a used car, it is wise to seek an independent opinion before making any commitments. A pre-purchase inspection (PPI) evaluates the overall condition of a vehicle in terms of its appearance, mechanical functioning and safety features.

This assessment plays a crucial role in helping buyers make informed decisions about their purchase. While basic PPIs rely on visual examination, choosing a comprehensive inspection is highly recommended for thorough evaluation.

This type of safety check is available with member discounts from organizations like Alberta Motor Association as well. Negotiations with the seller may result in them covering these expenses if you both agree on it.

If during PPI undisclosed damage or issues are uncovered that could potentially affect the value or reliability of the car being sold. Once you have a better idea of the car’s reliability, its true value is much easier to determine.

Determining A Used Car's Worth

Kaizen Automotive Group’s built-in used vehicle pricing calculator

Our custom built trade-in value calculator reliably translates key details about your vehicle into money you can put towards a new or newer used vehicle.

Assessing the value of a used car goes beyond its price and involves understanding its overall value. Tools such as our car value calculator, Canadian Black Book, Kelley Blue Book, and National Automobile Dealers Association Guides offer estimates for pre-owned vehicles to help determine their fair market value.

These services consider the make, model, year, and local market trends. Remember, the listed price reflects not just the vehicle's condition but also its maintenance history and potential for future reliability. Car value calculators are only a suggestion, however. You’re always going to have to negotiate based on whom you’re dealing with and what the vehicle’s future looks like.

Negotiating and Closing the Deal

Having all the necessary information at your disposal, it is now time to negotiate and finalize the deal for your desired vehicle. Negotiation can be intimidating, especially if you’re not used to it, but it’s well worth the challenge!

Before entering into negotiations, you’ll have all the information you gathered through the inspection, test drive, and document review. Research on its history and condition gives you a strong case for your proposed price.

Start off by offering a lower amount than what you are willing to pay so that there’s room for negotiation. If the private seller does not seem open or receptive to negotiating, do not hesitate to walk away if necessary. Having pre-approval for financing can significantly boost your position when dealing with dealerships specifically.

Once you reach an agreement regarding the price of purchase, ensure secure payment methods such as cash or bank drafts are used during transaction with the seller. Ultimately, purchasing a previously owned car should be viewed as an uncomplicated process rather than one filled with risks.

Private Sales vs Auto Dealerships

Out of focus closeup shot of key held in hand of person in suit, with used cars in the background at a dealership

In our experience, dealerships use their resources to home in on the fairest market price for a used vehicle so that buyers get their money’s worth on a reliable vehicle

When it comes to buying a used car, one of the crucial decisions you’ll face is whether to opt for a private sale or head to a dealership. Each option has its unique advantages and drawbacks, and understanding them can significantly impact your car-buying experience. In our experience managing multiple dealerships, dealerships have a lot to offer, and some excel in different areas than others, including:

  • Reputation
  • Service Packages
  • Inventory Size
  • Central Location
  • Brand Values
  • OEM Vehicle Categories
    • Trucks
    • SUVs
    • Cars
  • Budget Ranges

Deciding between a private sale and a dealership is an important step in the used car buying process. Each option has its unique advantages and challenges you should know about.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Used Car From a Private Seller


  1. Price Negotiation: Typically, private sellers have more room for negotiation than dealerships. This can result in a lower purchase price.
  2. No Dealer Fees: Buying from a private seller means you avoid dealer fees.
  3. Direct Communication: You can ask direct questions about the car's history and ownership, getting answers straight from the source.
  4. Potential for Better Care: Sometimes you can find private sellers who have maintained the car with more personal care than a dealership might, potentially leading to a better condition vehicle.


  1. No Warranty: Private sellers rarely offer warranties, meaning any problems discovered after purchase are your responsibility.
  2. Limited Legal Recourse: If issues arise post-purchase, you may have fewer legal protections compared to buying from a dealership.
  3. Vehicle History: It might be more challenging to verify the car's history, as some private sellers may not keep thorough records.
  4. Financing: If you require car financing, it’s generally more complicated and not as readily available as with a dealership.

Pros and Cons of Buying a Used Car From an Auto Dealership


  1. Warranty Options: Dealerships often offer warranties on used cars, providing peace of mind and protection against unforeseen repairs.
  2. Reputation: Established dealerships have a reputation to uphold, which can lead to higher standards of vehicle quality and customer service.
  3. Variety: Auto dealerships typically have a wider selection of vehicles, allowing for more options to find the perfect match for your needs.
  4. Financing: Dealerships usually offer a range of financing options, making it easier to purchase a vehicle without having to pay the full price upfront.
  5. Trade-Ins: You can often trade in your current vehicle, simplifying the process and potentially reducing the cost of the used car.
  6. Legal Protections: Buying from a dealership comes with consumer protection laws that may not apply to private sales.


  1. Potentially Higher Prices: Dealerships may have higher operating costs, which sometimes can lead to increased prices for used cars compared to private sales. But then you know that a professional has appraised the vehicle you’re looking at!
  2. Impersonal: The experience can sometimes feel less personal than buying from a friend or family.
  3. GST and Other Taxes: In Alberta, the Government Sales Tax (GST) and some other smaller taxes will be added to the bill.
  4. Limited Negotiation: The negotiation process at a dealership can be less flexible, with less room to haggle on price compared to a private sale. But dealerships are better at finding the most accurate market value.

Choose from Hundreds of Used Cars At Kaizen Auto’s Dealerships

Sunflared photo of a smiling couple speaking to a friendly car salesman at a dealership standing beside a red SUV

Dealerships are a great place to go to avoid scams and uncertainty when buying a used car. We can appraise your used vehicle fairly on a trade-in or sell you a used car that you can feel great about

Purchasing a pre-owned vehicle involves more than just finding your ideal car. It is a process of thorough examination, negotiation, and verification. We hope this article has helped you on your car buying journey.

Once you’ve assessed exterior , engine performance at rest and while test-driving, mileage on the odometer, test driving experience, tire conditions, and the vehicle’s history—you’ll be well equipped to start the negotiation process.

It’s probably useful for you to know that our dealerships’ professional appraisal staff look for a lot of the same things when buying or trading-in used cars from customers!

Kaizen Auto is your choice for auto traders, and we coordinate with great dealerships to bring you exactly what you're looking for, with trustworthiness in mind.

Browse used cars of your preferred make or visit a conveniently located dealership of ours near you—so we can assist you on your path towards buying or financing the ideal used car.

Frequently Asked Questions

When buying a used car what mileage is best?

When purchasing a pre-owned vehicle, it is best to look for one that has a mileage in line with the average annual usage of 20,000 kilometres (12,400 miles). This means that a car from five years ago with 100,000 kilometres would be considered to have good mileage.

Can I return a car after I bought it Alberta?

No, you cannot return a car after buying it in Alberta. There is no legislated “cooling-off period” for vehicle purchases and cancellation is only possible if the seller has a specific policy allowing it.

How can I determine the worth of a used car?

In order to establish the value of a previously owned vehicle, it is recommended to utilize resources such as Kaizen’s value-based used car price calculator, or other sources like the Canadian Black Book or Kelly Blue Book and online sources for an estimated amount.

It’s also advisable to compare prices for identical makes, models, and years from various valuation services while taking into account any relevant factors within the local market.

Why You Can Trust Our Opinion?

Kaizen Auto, with over 20 years in the auto industry, is a name you can count on. Our team, made up of skilled sales personnel, technicians and knowledgeable finance advisors, has a deep understanding of cars.

We offer honest, straightforward advice, drawing from a rich history of working with a wide variety of vehicles. Our expertise means we can guide you through the process, ensuring you make a well-informed decision. We’ll always help you find the right used car with confidence.

Categories: Used vehicles