When purchasing a pre-owned vehicle, you're unlikely to get a perfect car, but you want to make sure you're getting the best car for your money. The last thing you need is to buy a car only to learn it has a spotty history or serious mechanical issues. 

To ensure you get a high-quality pre-owned vehicle, you must know what to look for when buying a used car. We'll cover the most important things to look for in your next used car below. 

A Clean History

Before buying any vehicle, you want to know its history. You want to know if it's been in any serious accidents, been flooded, and if it has a clean title. You can get all this information from a Carfax vehicle history report

This report will tell you if a previous owner submitted any accidents or other claims, such as flood damage, to an insurance company. It'll also alert you if the vehicle has a salvage title and inform you of how many owners it's had. 

Minor fender benders are nothing to be alarmed about, but watch out for serious damages and flooding listed on the report.

Well-Documented Maintenance 

Maintenance is key to a car's longevity, and you can't go back to make up for poor maintenance. Ask the owner if they have documentation of the maintenance the vehicle's had. If the owner has this documentation, compare it to the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual. 

If the documents align with the schedule or are at least close, you can rest assured the vehicle has a good maintenance base for you to continue. 

If the owner has no maintenance records, it's not a deal-breaker, but you'll want to keep a more skeptical eye during the car buying process. It may even be a good idea to schedule a professional pre-purchase inspection to ensure the vehicle is mechanically OK.

Low Kilometres

The average car owner in Canada drives 15,200 kilometres per year. A low kilometre pre-owned vehicle is any car driven fewer than the average kilometres per year. These vehicles generally have less wear and tear than one with high kilometres, and you may have a longer time before major service intervals come around. 

To determine a vehicle's approximate average kilometres per year, divide the number on its odometer by the years the vehicle has been in service. Calculate the years in service from the year before the model year, so a 2016 model year vehicle has likely been in service since 2015.

For example, if you are at a car dealership looking at a 2016 Chevy Colorado with 40,000 km, that truck has been in service for approximately six years as of 2021. With the 40,000 kilometres it has, you can estimate previous owners drove it 6,666 km per year, which is well below average, making this a very low-kilometre vehicle. 

Matching Vehicle Identification Number

When buying a new car, it's critical for the vehicle identification number (VIN) to match the registration. When inspecting and test driving the vehicle, ask to see the registration and title. Compare the VIN on those documents to the VIN on the plaque near the bottom of the windshield. 

If these numbers don't match, there could be serious problems registering the vehicle. 

Warranty

If you're shopping at a used-car dealer, verify the vehicle you're looking at has at least a short warranty to cover any issues that crop up after buying it. Any reputable dealership should offer at least a 30-day warranty to cover any short-term issues and offer peace of mind. 

If the vehicle is from a private seller, ask if any balance of the factory warranty remains. Many newer cars include longer-term powertrain warranties that are transferrable to a new owner. In some cases, even extended warranties are transferrable. 

If there is a warranty in place, ask to see the documentation so you can verify it's transferrable and what it covers. 

Rust and Corrosion

As cars age, especially in Canada, where roads are covered in salt to melt the ice in the winter, rust and corrosion can occur in areas where bare metal is exposed. What starts as minor surface rust can grow into large holes that can make the vehicle unsafe. 

Check any used car thoroughly for rust and corrosion issues. Pay special attention to areas where salt and water can become trapped, such as door jambs, rocker panels, undercarriage, and wheel wells. 

Fixing surface rust can be relatively simple, but holes require specific automotive know-how to fix that most car buyers won't have. 

Signs of Neglect

Sometimes, a car may seem in good condition from afar, but a deeper inspection shows clear signs of abuse or neglect that can be a sign of more serious issues to come. These issues can also impact your future trade-in or resale value

These signs can be inside the vehicle or on the outside. Here's what to look for.

Exterior Neglect

A car's condition on the outside can signify how well the previous owners cared for it overall. Some red flags that indicate a car was neglected may include: 

  • Cracked or peeling paint: If the paint is cracked or peeling off the vehicle, this is a clear sign a previous owner neglected it. Whether it was using an incompatible cleaner on the paint or just a lack of maintenance, like washing and waxing, this is a red flag that there may be additional neglect issues. 
  • Numerous scratches and dings: Scratches and dings happen, but someone who truly appreciates their vehicle will aim to avoid them and repair them when they do occur. If a car has a countless number of them, this is a sign of carelessness that should raise red flags about a used car.
  • Environmental debris: Just from being outside, environmental debris — pollen, dust, chemicals, and other items — will fall on the body. A responsible car owner keeps their car looking new by washing this debris away with normal car washes and waxes. If you run your hand down the body of a used car, and the paint feels rough, this is a sign the owner rarely washed the car, which is a big red flag. 

Interior Neglect

Just like the exterior, a car's interior can reveal red flags that indicate the previous owners simply didn't care about their car. A few red flags to look out for include:

  • Ripped and stained seats: Small rips and stains can happen on seats, but when there are multiple rips and stains on each seat, this is a sign of neglect. In some cases, owners will hide these eyesores with seat covers, but you can easily remove these covers and inspect the seats. 
  • Broken and loose buttons and knobs: Some people are just hard on cars for some reason, and it can show. If a car has loose or broken buttons, like heating and air conditioning controls, this is a sign the owner was rough on them. If the owner was hard on the buttons and knobs, how hard were they on the entire vehicle?
  • Worn out carpeting: A car's carpeting, particularly the driver's side, takes a lot of stress, so it wears out over time. However, if you're looking at a low-kilometre vehicle, it should still look in good shape. Excessive premature wear indicates the owner rarely vacuumed the interior, which may show they cared little for the car as a whole. 

Signs of Potential Mechanical Problems 

When shopping for a pre-owned vehicle, you should always check for signs of severe mechanical problems. Below are some tell-tale signs that a used vehicle may be a future money pit. 

Warning Lights

Always look for warning lights when buying a used car, as these are the initial indicators something isn't right. Not every warning light is something to be concerned with, so here are the ones to pay close attention to: 

  • Check engine light: The check engine light is in the shape of an engine or simply reads "Check Engine." Contrary to its name, the check engine light may have nothing to do with the engine at all, as it could be a transmission issue or even just a loose or leaking gas cap. That said, the check engine light does indicate there is a fault somewhere in the powertrain that could lead to something serious. 
  • Check transmission light: Not every vehicle has a check transmission light, but those that do will have a light in the shape of a transmission or a light that reads something like "Check AT." This light can indicate an electrical, mechanical, or hydraulic failure inside the transmission, or it could also be a low fluid condition or overheating. 
  • Coolant light: The coolant light will be either in the shape of a thermometer or a radiator, and it usually indicates a vehicle is overheating or low on coolant. Both cases can mean serious mechanical issues that you'll want to check out before buying the vehicle. 
  • Brake light: Brakes are nothing to take lightly, so an illuminated brake light in a used car should be alarming. This generally means one of several issues is present, including low brake fluid, an electrical fault in the brake system, or the brake pad level is low. 
  • Low tire pressure light: Most modern cars now have sensors in the wheels that detect the tire pressure and warn you when a tire is low. This light looks like a flat tire with an exclamation point in the middle, but some simply read "low tire pressure." In this case, make sure to ask to have the tires inspected and repaired or replaced to rectify the issue before buying the vehicle. 

Unseen Mechanical Issues

You can test drive a vehicle and look it over from top to bottom, but there are still often issues that can go undetected. Be on the lookout for these telltale signs there is a larger mechanical issue brewing.

Frothy Engine Oil

Pull the engine dipstick and unscrew the oil cap from the engine and inspect both. Other than some oil, they should be otherwise clean. If you see a froth-like substance on the dipstick or underside of the oil cap, this is an indicator of water getting into the oil system. 

Water in the oil is often due to a cylinder head gasket leak or a cracked or warped cylinder head. Regardless of the cause, it's a pricey fix that you may not want to get mixed up in. 

Black, Stinky, or Sticky Transmission Fluid

Pull the transmission dipstick too and inspect the fluid. It should be bright red, smell like oil, and flow freely. If the fluid is black, smells burned, or is sticky, this indicates an issue inside the transmission. With transmission rebuilds ranging in the thousands of dollars, this is likely a repair you'd rather skip. 

Rust-Colored or Thick Coolant

Engine coolant should be a bright shade of its normal colour — green, orange, yellow, turquoise, pink, blue, or purple — and never appear rust-coloured. If it looks tinted by rust, this indicates a severe lack of maintenance has caused rusting within the cooling system, which can cause major issues. 

Also, the coolant should have a watery consistency. If it is thick and more slurry-like, this is another indicator that it severely lacks maintenance and may have serious issues. 

Brake Noise

During a test drive, pay close attention to any noise coming from the braking system. A faint squeal is nothing to be concerned with, but a nonstop squealing or grinding could indicate the brakes are severely worn and may have caused damage to other components, like the rotors or caliper. 

If you notice this noise, it's a good idea to get a professional pre-purchase inspection. 

Wheel Noise

Noise coming from the wheels is another thing to keep an ear open for. This can be a wide range of noises, from grinding to squealing to squeaking. Many problems cause wheel noise, including bad wheel bearings, bad brakes, bad tires, and more. If you hear this noise, it's best to get a pre-purchase inspection to ensure nothing is seriously wrong with the vehicle. 

Skip the Search With a Quality Clutch Pre-Owned Vehicle

There's no need to worry about what to look for when buying a used vehicle from Clutch, Canada's first online car-buying experience. All our vehicles have already been through a rigorous 210-point inspection and reconditioning process prior to being listed for sale. Plus, they all include a complimentary 90-day or 6,000-km limited warranty and a free Carfax vehicle history report. 

On top of these benefits, Clutch also offers a risk-free, 10-day test-own period. If you don't love your Clutch pre-owned vehicle, you can return it for a full refund in the first 10 days or exchange it for a different vehicle.