Thurston Car Talk: What To Look For When Buying A Used Car

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Brons Automotive is located in the heart of West Olympia. Photo credit: Bron's Automotive.

Submitted by Bron’s Automotive

I have been asked many times what I look for when buying a used car.  What might you look for to decide if the vehicle you’re considering buying is worth taking to a mechanic and paying for a used car evaluation? (Which I always recommend, by the way.)  Here is my usual routine to qualify it for a trip to the shop for a more serious inspection.

First, walk around it and get a feel for it.  Is the paint the same color all the way around?  Body panels with a slightly different tint indicate that it may have been in an accident.  Are there dings and scratches all over it or does it look like someone cared about it?  This is important because folks who don’t want to spend money fixing something like a broken mirror often can’t afford to change oil or do other maintenance.  You are looking for a car that was owned by someone who could afford to do the preventative maintenance that keeps major failures from happening.

Open the hood and take off the oil fill cap.  Is there a lot of crud and crust in there?  Cars that have had regular oil changes do not have much buildup in there. Feel the big hose going to the top of the radiator.  If it is cold, take off the radiator cap and look at the level and condition of the coolant. It should be right to the top if there are no coolant leaks.  There are a lot of varieties of coolant of different colors, but none of the approved coolants looks rusty.   If the upper hose and engine are warm, ask why.  I prefer to be able to watch a motor start up cold, as worn engines sometimes smoke or run rough for the first minute or so before they get warmed up.  You may want to tell the owner you want to come back when the engine is cold. Look over the engine as much as possible to see if you can spot any fluid leaks.  Get on your hands and knees with a flashlight and look for drips forming under the motor or anywhere else.  While you’re down there, look at the tires and see how the wear pattern is.  I won’t get technical here, but basically they should all look the same and the wear bars should not be showing.

Now take it for a test drive.  Look for smoke when you start it up and make sure the engine feels smooth.  I recommend getting on the freeway so you can test cruise control, watch all the gauges, see how the transmission feels when it shifts, make sure the engine runs smoothly, etc.  If the steering wheel is off center or the car pulls to one side, it is likely to be in need of front end work. I also like to charge up a hill in high gear and watch the temperature gauge.  I have found a few cars with bad head gaskets on this hill.  Listen and feel the brakes when you come off the freeway.  They should be quiet and smooth.  Turn on the A/C no matter what time of year it is.  You should get 45 degree air from the vents.  Test all the power windows and locks from every switch, as well as the power mirrors if equipped.

The last thing I always do is feel under the floor mats and in the trunk to try to find any water leaks.  Water leaks are very hard on a car’s electronics and can be difficult to fix.  Look for stains that indicate past leakage.

The absolute last thing to ask the owner, (you can also do this first), is to ask “Why are you selling this vehicle?”  Then look directly in their eyes and don’t look away.  Trust your instincts next.  I just look for an answer that sounds reasonable, but mostly I am looking to see if they seem uncomfortable.

Please understand that if you are looking at a car and find some minor issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good buy.  You might offer a lesser amount, however before you make an offer, ask if you can take the vehicle to your mechanic to have it inspected. If they say no, WALK AWAY.  Everyone understands the need to have a mechanic check over a vehicle, after all it’s usually the second most expensive thing most of us will ever buy, after a house.

At Bron’s Automotive we do a very thorough used car evaluation.  We will also print out for you the estimated value according to the National Auto Dealers Association.  (This is what dealers use to figure out trade in value)  Most of the cars I buy or sell go for “average value” if they test out OK.  If you want to look yourself, the website is

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