Buying a Sound Used Car

Shopping Savings
on August 13, 2000

New cars cost $26,000 on average and depreciate rapidly, so many people turn to the used car market where you can find great value by doing your homework and following a few simple rules.

First, pay cash if possible. Most lending institutions will lend only up to 48 months on a vehicle a year or two old. The older the car, the shorter the term, so monthly payments can be substantial. Also, avoid financing a used car for three to four years if it might give up before the payments do.

Mileage isn’t everything, but its a key to auto life. Major repairs tend to occur above 90,000 miles, and 120,000 miles is the average life expectancy of a well-maintained car.

Before shopping, determine what makes and models you would consider. Check classified ads and the Internet to gauge average market prices for your makes and models. Consult the National Automobile Dealers Association Official Used Car Guide, available online and at most libraries, or Consumer Reports online.

Take any vehicle to an independent mechanic before purchasing it. This might cost $75-$100, but it can save thousands.

Before investing in this, however, check the following on your own.

  • Look along both sides of the car for non-aligned panels that could mean the car was in an accident.
  • Check carefully for rust, under the carpets and everywhere.
  • Test brakes by stopping quickly on a quiet street or highway. Brakes should be quiet and not pull to either side. Nor should the vehicle pull to one side while driving, which could mean a front-end problem.
  • Check the automatic transmission dipstick for cherry red fluid, with no bubbles or burned smell.
  • Check for interior signs of a rain leak, such as rust or moldy carpeting.
  • Ask where the car was serviced.
  • Push down on the front and rear, then let go. If the car bounces up and down, instead of rising smartly back, it may need new shock absorbers.

This article was originally published as Buying a Sound Used Car on

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