Used Car Shopping Essentials, Part One: What To Look For On The Outside

Each time I turn the key to my 2006 Kia Rio, I keep expecting it to never start again. We’re past the 100,000-mile mark, the air conditioner no longer works, and I have to press on the gas every time I start it after filling up at the pump. All these issues are fixable, I know, but there comes a point where you have to ask yourself whether the issues are worth fixing.

Unfortunately, I’m thinking a car payment is in the future for me, but I won’t buy new, which leaves me with a used car. But here’s the question I’m left with — how do I know whether a used car is worth it?

For answers, let’s turn to Joe Campanella of Allstate. Joe admits that he can’t tell you point-blank whether a used car is a gem or a lemon just at a glance. However, there are a few things he advises to watch out for.



The paint job will tell the story of dents, scratches, or rust. Campanella advises you to “Feel along edges between panels for any roughness from masking tape, which would be there from a paint job. Rust should be fairly easy to spot, as long as you take the time to specifically look for it. Also, look at the sides of the car from the front or back to see if there are any waves in the body of the vehicle. This means that paint work has been done, which you’ll want to ask the owner or dealer about.”



A car’s performance can get knocked off track in a hurry if something is wrong with the hoses or belts. For this, Campanella cautions you to check under the hood and make sure everything is in good condition. “This means they have no cracks and the radiator hose is not soft,” he notes, adding that “the most important (and therefore most expensive) belt to replace is the timing belt.”

“This belt regulates the engine’s valves allowing the engine to work properly.”

If the car has a timing belt, it will need to be replaced every 60,000 to 100,000 miles. “Find out if the car’s timing belt has ever been replaced, and if so, when. … If the car has a steel timing chain, you’ll want to talk to your mechanic. Some manufacturers say the chain is good for the life of the car, while others say it should be replaced at a certain mileage. Timing chains will last much longer than timing belts but if it fails, it can be catastrophic to the engine and the parts around it as well.”



To ensure the vitality of your tires — and you should, since this is a used car we’re talking about — it’s best to check them out while the car is parked on level ground. Also, “make sure that the number of miles matches the wear unless they’ve been replaced,” Campanella says. “If the tires are worn or bald but the car mileage is low, this means the tires are from another car or the mileage display is incorrect.”

He continued: “For a quick check before you take it to the mechanic, try the coin test. Take a penny (or other coin) and place it in a groove of the tire tread on several different spots on the tire. If part of President Lincoln’s head isn’t always covered by tire, the tires will need replacing soon.”

One should also check the alignment and the models of the tires. Even if they all look good, four tires of different models can be a red flag that the car has had a rough past.


In Summary

There are many other things to look for on the inside of the car, but for now, the above recommendations offer a good starting point. Of course, you’ll also want a trusted mechanic to look over the engine and frame to ensure everything is in smooth working order and that the car hasn’t been in any accidents with extensive damage. Never let the seller determine the mechanic who does the once-over. By adhering to these steps, you stand a much better chance of ending up with a quality used car. Stay tuned for our next post, where we tell you what to look for on the inside of a used car.

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