How to Buy Your Dream Used Car

Learning about car maintenance can get you out of a lot of tricky situations, even if you do not currently own a vehicle yourself. But let’s say you were in the market for one: What would your next steps be? Your friendly neighborhood car care column is here to break it down for you. 

How do you plan on using your vehicle?

Start with a list of everything that your dream ride would need to be able to handle. This will help you figure out if you need a reliable daily driver or a fun adventure rig. I would stay away from narrowing your search to a specific make and model for now. This can really pigeonhole you into passing on a vehicle that would have met all your criteria, except having the correct logo stamped on it.

How much work are you prepared to put into your vehicle?

On one hand, the more sweat equity you are willing to put into your vehicle the lower your upfront cost could be; on the other, you do very much get what you pay for. In my opinion, jumping into a project headfirst is the absolute best way to learn about how cars work. Whatever your answers to these questions are, remember that all vehicles take some work to maintain.

Finding Your Vehicle

Once you have a good concept of the kind of vehicle you want, you can start searching for it. Look in those corners of the internet where you buy second hand items from other people in your neighborhood. Maybe a certain list or some kind of virtual marketplace, if you know what I mean. These are great resources that can help you determine what kind of vehicles are out there in your budget and meet your particular set of requirements. There are also quite a bit of turds out there too. You want to look for listings with photos and a detailed description of the vehicle, including engine size, transmission information, and a list of recent repairs. It doesn’t really matter if you know what any of those things mean yet, but it does show that the seller has some knowledge of what they are selling. Finally, remember the number one rule of looking at anything on the internet: If something looks too cheap to be true, it usually is.

Still no luck? Time to hit those used car lots. If you haven’t found a vehicle through the magic of scouring the depths of owner-posted classifieds, I’m guessing you have a sizable budget and you do not want to ever look at a wrench even if your life depended on it. This is great! You know exactly who you are and you won’t let anybody tell you otherwise! You are just the right kind of person to deal with car salespeople. If dependability and convenience are your top priorities, paying a premium can be worth it, if you’re able to swing it. Stay far away from brand name car dealerships, at least in New Orleans, as I have heard too many horror stories. Those big box used car companies usually do a really good job of fixing the vehicles that come into their lots, but that doesn’t mean you have to take their word for it. No matter where you find your vehicle, you won’t be able to afford skipping the essential next step.

Vehicle Inspection

This will always be the scariest part of any car buying experience. It’s like Schrödinger‘s dream vehicle: Did I really just find the perfect car for the perfect price or is this another lemon in the sea of greasy car salespeople? Don’t let your brain play these mind games. You have the power. You can walk away at any point when something doesn’t feel right. If it helps you, bring a friend, especially if that friend is a mechanic or knows a little about cars. The best tip I can give you is to ask as many questions as you can. This person wants to sell you this vehicle and should be motivated to answer you.

Before you get in the vehicle, walk around the car and see if there are any scrapes or dents or weird discoloration in the paint color or finish. Look for anything that looks even remotely like a floodline and ask about it. If the seller tells you the car has been flooded, that is a big red flag.

Have the seller pop open the hood. You don’t own this car, so don’t feel like you have to know how to do this yourself. Take note if the hood is hard to open or if there is a particular trick to it. Ask the seller why this might be the case: Do they think it was involved in an accident? If the answer to that question is yes, you can ask some follow-up questions: How long ago was it? How bad was it? Was anything else on the car affected? Even if there are no issues you can still keep questioning. Some of my favorite ones are: How long have you owned this car? Do you know who owned it before you? Do you know how many owners this car has had? When was the last time this car was serviced? Has this car had any repair work done? If the seller tells you there has been repair work or even service on the car recently, always ask for receipts. If they cannot provide you with any, do not trust that this work was done at all.

If you’re brave—and you should be—crawl under the car and check for leaks. A leak does not always mean gushing or even dripping. It might just be a greasy looking spot. You don’t have to know what is leaking, you just need to be able to point to it and ask the seller if they have noticed that leak before. While you’re down there check for any major rust spots. A little rust isn’t so bad, but any large patches of rust with metal flaking off and disintegrating in your hands is not good. Again, point it out to the seller and ask questions. ABAQ: Always Be Asking Questions (it’s the antithesis to Always Be Closing).

Have the seller start the car for you while the hood is open and let the engine run for a few minutes. This is my favorite part: You can just stand there looking at the engine, making all kinds of faces. That really freaks out people who are trying to pull one over on you. The engine should sound like it’s running smoothly, no big clanking noises. The engine should not sound like it’s struggling to start or stay running. If it’s a problem, it will make a noticeable sound. Check the temperature—the vehicle should not be overheating after only a few minutes. Ask the seller about anything that sounds off to you, even if it’s just to make them sweat some more. Get back under the car and see if you can see any leaks. Sometimes major leaks can become more obvious when the car is running. Get in the driver’s seat and press all the buttons. Anything that doesn’t work can be a way to get a lower price, even if you don’t plan on using the tape deck from 1982.

The Test Drive

Alright, you’re ready to actually test drive the damn thing! Take ‘er for a spin! Make sure to really hit the gas to see what happens. Don’t be shy, press the pedal to the metal (safely). The acceleration should be smooth and not choppy. Hit the brakes, hard! If there is squealing or squeaking that might mean it’s time for new brakes, which is not a cheap repair. Be sure to really push the car to its limits—that’s what test drives are for. If there are any issues, they will usually reveal themselves in the extremes. Take note of any weird sounds or smells, when they happen, and where they are coming from. Do they happen only when you accelerate, or when you are going at a particular speed? Is it coming from the engine or the tires? If the seller is in the car with you, question them about every little thing you notice.

Now all that’s left is to decide whether you want this car or you want to keep looking. A very wise mentor once told me, “If you’re not looking back every time you walk away, you bought the wrong one.” Either way I hope you learned a little something and gained a little confidence that it’s possible to buy a used car and feel good about it. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!

Got questions about your car, truck, SUV, or other engine-powered vehicle? Email

illustrations by Deanna Larmeu