Buying a used vehicle is a great way to save money when you’re shopping on a budget. In 2019, retail sales of used car dealers in Canada amounted to approximately 12.34 billion dollars. A used car that’s in good condition can go for a fraction of the price of a new vehicle, but making an educated purchase takes time and research. If you’re in the market for a used car, keep these tips in mind throughout your search.

Choosing the right used vehicle

The first step when shopping for a used vehicle is deciding what’s most important to you and your lifestyle. Of course, it’s nice to have a car that comes with all the bells and whistles, but being clear with yourself on what’s a luxury versus a necessity will help streamline the process. Some factors to consider are fuel economy, how many kilometres are on the car, size and storage capacity, buying price and resale value.

Because certain makes and models of vehicles are more reliable than others, it’s a good idea to do some research into models that have good reliability. There is lots of research online looking into the best and worst used vehicles; Consumer Reports is one good resource.

Is the price right?

Once you’ve found a vehicle that you’re interested in, find out its market value using price guides. Compare the asking price to vehicles of the same make, model and year with multiple sources to ensure that you’re getting a fair price.

There are a number of factors that will affect the price of a used car, including accident history, how well it’s been maintained, damage, age and mileage. Don’t be afraid to negotiate; in fact, it’s probably expected.

Check the mileage

The vehicle mileage will certainly affect its value and price. The average vehicle racks up 20,000 km each year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a car with higher mileage is in worse condition than one with lower mileage. Consistently-driven vehicles are healthier than cars that go unused for long periods of time. That being said, parts of the engine deteriorate over time. If a vehicle has a lot of kilometres on it, it’s crucial that it’s been well maintained and serviced regularly.

If the mileage looks too low for the age and shape of the car, it could be a sign of ‘clocking’ — a term used when a vehicle’s mileage has been tampered with to increase its value.

Vehicle history check

A vehicle history check is an important step when you’re considering buying a used car. This report tells you information about the specific vehicle, including whether it’s been stolen, recalled or previously written off.

You can find the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) on the base of your windshield or inside your driver’s side door. There are several websites that offer vehicle history checks, including CARFAX.

Ask the right questions

The more you know about a vehicle, the more leverage you have when negotiating price. With that in mind, there are a few questions you should ask the owner, such as why they’re selling, how and when they acquired the vehicle and how often it has been serviced.

Vehicle inspection

Interior check

  • Make sure all the electronics in the vehicle are working properly, including the air conditioner, heating, defroster and sound system.
  • Take a few seconds to test out each seat in the vehicle for comfort. Make sure the seat belts buckle properly and check the seat adjustments while you’re at it.
  • Scan the interior of the vehicle, including the roof, for signs of water leakage, stains, wear and sagging. Pay attention to odour in the cabin and trunk — a musty or mildew smell might be a sign of water leakage.
  • Test all the doors to make sure they open and close properly.
  • Check for indications of use — telltale signs of wear include the rubber on the brake, clutch and gas pedals. Pedal rubber that’s brand new or worn through indicates that the vehicle has been driven a lot. Another clue is the tightness of the door hinges. You can test them by gently lifting and releasing each door.

Exterior check

  • Scan the car exterior for dents, scratches and paint chipping. Minor dings aren’t cause for concern, but bigger defects could be and signs of rust are a red flag.
  • Check under the vehicle for fluid leaks.
  • Check the tire wear. Unevenly-worn tires are an indication of misalignment.
  • Look to see if the car sits level on the pavement. If it sits unevenly, it’s a sign of warping in the frame.

Under the hood

Pop the hood of the vehicle and check the engine for leaks and corrosion. Belts and hoses should feel supple; cracks are a sign that they need to be replaced. It’s also a good idea to confirm when the timing belt was last changed, as that can be a costly repair. Check the oil and transmission fluid for discolouration — oil should be light brown, transmission fluid should be pink.

For more tips on what to look for when inspecting a vehicle, see our blog on Performing Basic Vehicle Maintenance.

Test drive

Once the vehicle history and inspection check out, it’s time to take the car for a test drive. Before you start the engine, turn on the ignition and look to make sure all the warning lights light up. Take the opportunity to check that all the locks, windows and exterior lights work properly as well.

Drive the car around for a good half an hour, testing it on different types of roads at different speeds. Pay attention to how the vehicle feels while turning and how the steering, brakes and gears shift. Keep your ears open for any strange noises.

Pre-purchase inspection

Before closing the deal on a used vehicle, it’s highly recommended to get it checked out by a mechanic. A professional eye can help identify any existing conditions and forecast potential issues that might come up in the future. A professional appraisal of the vehicle will give you peace of mind and could give you negotiating power in terms of pricing.

Finalize the sale

Congratulations, you found the right vehicle! Now how do you finalize the sale? Each province has its own specific protocol for finalizing a private sale, you can find the guidelines for BC here.

Above all, never feel rushed into buying a new vehicle. Take the time to do your homework and inspect the vehicle before negotiating price and making a final decision.