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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.