What Should You Look For When Buying a Used Car?

What Should You Look For When Buying a Used Car?

What should you look for when buying a used car? 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, offering a no-nonsense guide on how to thoroughly vet a pre-owned vehicle, ensuring that you drive away with peace of mind and a solid purchase.

Key Takeaways

  • Inspect the used car thoroughly, including the exterior for damage and the engine for signs of leaks or unusual noises; also be vigilant of potentially serious issues such as a blown head gasket indicated by white sludge under the oil cap or blue smoke from the exhaust.
  • Examine the vehicle’s interior for comfort, infotainment functionality, and signs of flood damage, and ensure that you test drive the car to assess its handling, braking, and overall performance.
  • Before purchase, review the essential documentation such as vehicle history reports, conduct a pre-purchase inspection, accurately determine the car’s worth using valuation tools, negotiate the final price, and secure your investment with the appropriate insurance and warranties.

What to look for when buying a used car

Evaluating the Car's Exterior

When looking at a pre-owned vehicle, think of it as more than just a means of transportation. The initial impression carries weight, but there are many hidden factors. At first glance, the excellent exterior of a used car may catch your eye. Yet, 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.

When evaluating a secondhand car, open and close each door repeatedly and examine hinges, motorized rubber seals, glass condition, and functionality of headlights and taillights. These seemingly minor details can reveal significant information about the car's history.

It is essential to take advantage of carefully examining every piece while assessing potential issues with buying a used vehicle. Check all aspects, including hood operation, functionality, lubrication, freshness, and any indications that might suggest past accidents, hastily made repairs, etc. It takes paying attention to these small cues to get valuable insights into buying a good used vehicle.

Pay attention to any rust or damage, and ensure the car has been appropriately handled. It's worth checking every part of the car's exterior – this can tell you much about its history and whether it's worth your money.

Engine Inspection

On your test drive, really focus on the engine. It's important to listen for any strange noises, like ticking or knocking. These sounds can be a warning that something's not right with the engine.

Once you start the car, be sure to look out for any smoke or leaks in the engine compartment and also keep an eye out for unfamiliar noises. Moving on to under-the-hood inspection is crucial too. Keep an eye out specifically towards fluid leaks by looking at spots, drips or puddles under your vehicle that may suggest issues with oil leakage among other things.

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

Inspecting the engine is a crucial step to take when buying a used car

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

When you're looking at a used car, don't just pay the attention to the exterior—remember you'll be spending most of your time inside the car. So, make sure the interior is comfortable and suits your needs. Start with 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.

Next up 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. This way you can make sure your vehicle will be a warm and welcoming home away from home.

Inspecting Underneath the Hood

There’s more to examine under the car hood than just the engine. Below are some items worth checking.

  • 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 on rubber seals found around your vehicle’s engine bay. They must be firm when touched but still possess some flexibility. Remember that thoroughly inspecting these areas can prevent unexpected malfunctions in later stages.

What to look for when buying a used car

Understanding Odometer Readings

The mileage of a car is comparable to the age of humans. It reflects the journey taken. 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. Speaking of cars, cars with over 160,000 kilometres on their odometer are considered high-mileage vehicles regardless of how old they may be.

However, a low mileage should always take into account several factors such as its maintenance history, the current condition, and also relative to its age. It’s worth noting that lower mileage doesn’t necessarily equate to better quality if the car has been underused. Determining whether a vehicle falls in the low or high category can easily be done by dividing its current odometer reading by how long it has been used. Additionally, it helps compare this result against typical yearly averages for improved understanding regarding fuel efficiency.

When it comes to high-mileage vehicles, not all brands are created equal. Some manufacturers have built a reputation for producing cars that can endure the test of time and distance, maintaining performance and reliability even as the odometer climbs. Brands like Toyota and Honda, for instance, are often praised for their longevity, often surpassing the 200,000-mile mark with proper maintenance. On the other hand, some luxury brands, while offering performance and comfort, may not fare as well in the long run without rigorous upkeep. It's crucial to consider the brand's track record for durability when evaluating a high-mileage vehicle to ensure that your investment remains roadworthy for years to come.

And always remember, that a used vehicle that's been well looked after, will last much longer, regardless of the brand.

The Importance of a Test Drive

The most crucial step in 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 rattles,
  • Monitor transmission shifts and brake performance,
  • Test out how well the vehicle handles different road surfaces, parking situations, reversing maneuvers, and other complex moves.

By considering these factors during your test run of potential vehicles as if rehearsing your daily commute route.

You can assess their condition effectively before making a decision about which used vehicle fits your needs best.

Check The Tires

The tires of a vehicle are often overlooked but play an important role in the car buying process. Checking tread depth with a looney or a gauge is crucial, as worn down treads indicate the need for replacement. Signs of 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 cutting costs at the expense of performance and resale value. It’s essential to keep in mind that well-maintained tires are necessary for safe driving conditions, particularly during inclement weather such as rain or snow.

Just like how our shoes’ soles reveal much about our journey, similarly do cars’ tires show their own history.

what to look for when buying a used car - check tires

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 the vehicle history report, which includes checks for any reported accidents, liens, or instances of theft, is essential. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is essential for accessing information about the car’s past, including any recalls, and for ensuring the match of vehicle history against records.

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 delineates the responsibilities of the buyer and dealer during the purchase.

It's highly recommended that you familiarize yourself 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

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.

The cost of conducting this type of safety check typically ranges from $100-$200 and usually falls under the responsibility of the buyer. Negotiations with the seller may result in them covering these expenses as well. If during PPI undisclosed damage or issues are uncovered that could potentially affect the value or reliability of the car being sold - this may reflect negatively on the car being sold.

Determining the Car's Worth

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.

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. Before entering into negotiations, be sure to do thorough research on its history and condition while also determining its market value in order to present 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 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 an agreement has been reached 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.

What to look for when buying a used car

Private Sales vs Auto Dealerships

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. Higher Prices: Dealerships may have higher operating costs, which sometimes can lead to increased prices for used cars compared to private sales.
  2. Impersonal: The experience can sometimes feel less personal, as salespeople often juggle multiple customers and transactions.
  3. GST and Other Taxes: In Alberta, the Government Sales Tax (GST) and some other smaller taxes will be added to your purchasing cost.
  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.



In summary, purchasing a pre-owned vehicle involves more than just finding the ideal car. It is a process of thorough examination, negotiation, and verification. We hope this article has helped you on your car buying journey covering topics such as body panel conditions, odometer readings accuracy, test driving experience and tire maintenance history. These suggestions aim to assist you on your path towards acquiring the perfect used car.

buying a used car checklist

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 the Canadian Black Book and online sources for an estimated amount. It is 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 technicians and knowledgeable sales advisors, has a deep understanding of cars. They 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. Trust us to help you find the right used car with confidence.

Categories: Used vehicles