How to Safely Buy a Used Car

Andrew Koole
· 6 min read
Used cars are a hot commodity this year, thanks to the
shortage of chips
holding back production of new models. With prices being higher than ever, you want to be extra vigilant that what you buy is as advertised.
Whether you shop from
private sellers
or off a car lot, it’s important to make sure there are no hidden issues with the vehicle or paperwork. But if you’re new to the used car market, how do you know what to look for?
Thankfully, we compiled a list of tips (with the help of
Consumer Reports
) to let you know just that. Follow these steps and your car shopping experience will be much less stressful.
Buying a used car can be a tricky proposition.

Advice to follow for a safe used car purchase

1. Test drive before you buy.
Asking for a test drive can be uncomfortable, but it's worth it. Anyone selling a car should expect you to ask for one.
Once you’re in the car, use all your five senses (except for maybe taste) to analyze the vehicle’s functionality. Can you hear any worrisome squeaks or rattles? Does the steering wheel want to pull to one side? Can you smell mildew or burning oil? Do you see any paint touchups covering body work caused by accidents? All of these signs should indicate that you should look elsewhere for a new ride.
2. Read through the car’s title.
Whether you buy straight from the owner or from a used car salesperson, they should have the title of the car on hand for your perusal. Check for anything that reveals a history of wreckage, water damage, participation in lemon-law programs, or
outstanding liens
If anything pops up that the seller did not disclose, walk away. There should be no secrets kept during a car sale. Any future surprises are not worth the hassle.
3. Ask for the vehicle’s history report.
If you’re dealing with a smart, honest seller, they will purchase a history report for you to gain your trust. Take them up on their offer, but don’t bank on their virtue just yet.
You want to verify the info they give you with the service that got them the report. Consumer Reports says common providers like Carfax and AutoCheck will confirm the information given to you and let you know if there are any discrepancies. Any collision history, total-loss background or odometer tampering should be caught by a report like this.
Even after checking over the info, you should trust the report alone. If the driver didn’t report an accident, paid for repairs out of pocket, or if the car went through a recent accident that hasn’t shown up on the report yet, you might not have all the knowledge you need to make an informed decision.
4. Double-check for recalls.
MORE: New Law Would Ban Selling Used Cars With Open Recalls
Any recalls should come up in a thorough history report, but it’s a good idea to make sure the car you want to buy doesn’t have any outstanding ones.
Checking for recalls is easy: simply insert the vehicle’s 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN) into the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
’s search engine. Any recall history will come up, just like that.
If you’d rather go the analog route, you can always bring the VIN into a dealer for the brand of the car, and they will check for you. If any open recalls pop up, avoid the trouble and find a different car to buy.
5. Talk to the previous owner.
Whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private seller, connecting with the previous owner of the vehicle is a must. No one knows the car better, and you might find something out about the car that didn’t end up on the other info you collected.
If a dealer says privacy laws prohibit release of the owner’s information, the dealer is lying to you. Mark it as a red flag and walk away from the sale.
6. Pay for your own mechanic’s inspection.
Not every dealer will let you take the vehicle to a mechanic, especially in today’s hot market. But if they oblige, do it. Whatever the mechanic finds can help you negotiate a better price.
If the seller says no, factor that into whether you’re willing to buy the car. If other issues crop up in the process of your research, the vehicle might not be worth your trouble.
7. Always ask for a receipt.
Most dealers will give you proof of your purchase, but if you’re dealing with a private seller, you might have to make a specific request.
Make sure you and the seller sign and date the receipt, and that it indicates what you bought, how much you paid, and when you bought the car. If anything goes wrong after you complete the deal, the receipt will be crucial in any legal struggle between you and the seller.
8. Don’t pay with cash.
You want your purchase to be as trackable as possible. Paying with cash gives space for ambiguity.
Instead, use PayPal, a check, or a money-order from the bank. All of these options create the necessary paper trail you can rely on if things don’t go as planned.
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