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Consumer Protection

Consumer Tips

Used Cars, Before You Buy


  • Look for unmatched paint or poor body fit (may indicate collision damage).

  • Check for body filler (use a refrigerator magnet on suspicious spots).

  • Look for rust all around, especially at wheel wells, under doors, in trunk.

  • Musty smell or dampness in trunk may indicate collision damage.

  • If car appears newly painted, why?

  • Wear should be even on each tire and among the set.

  • Tires must be the same size.

  • Wear should be consistent with odometer mileage.

  • Insist on a spare, jack, and lug wrench.

  • Push down and release each corner of the car. If it bounces more than once, car may need shocks or struts.

  • Push and pull on each wheel from beside the car. If wheel moves in or out, bearings or CV joints may be in bad condition.

  • Remember that uneven tire wear may indicate suspension problems. If car has new tires, be extra careful in checking suspension.

  • Check for "dog tracking" by having a friend follow you while you drive the car. If rear end of car seems to be sliding to the side, car may have serious frame damage from collision.

  • If front-wheel drive, check CV joint boots on either end of front axles (should be a total of four). If torn or missing, expect to have trouble with expensive joints!

  • Wear of seats, steering wheel, etc., should be consistent with odometer mileage.

  • Pay special attention to amount of wear on pedals.

  • Musty smell or new carpet may indicate flood damage.

  • Make sure windows, safety belts, etc., all work.

  • Check glove box contents. You should have an owner's manual.

  • Look for repair orders, which may show the car's mileage. Make sure mileage makes sense with current odometer.

Under the Hood
  • Check for proper fluid levels.

  • Oil should not smell burnt or contain water.

  • Coolant should be green, not rusty.

  • Automatic transmission fluid should be red or pink and not smell burnt.

  • Look for leaks around radiator hoses.

  • Spots on the ground under the car may indicate leaks. To be sure, place a clean newspaper on the ground under the car after driving it. Check in a few minutes for spots.

Test Drive

  • Acceleration should be smooth.

  • Pinging may indicate a needed tune-up or may be poor fuel. Some pinging under hard acceleration may be normal.

  • Blue smoke indicates burning oil.

  • There should be no delay between engine speed and speed of car. If there is a delay, car may have transmission problems.

  • If car has manual transmission, clutch should engage smoothly and should not slip.

  • When safe, take hand from wheel. Car should not pull to one side. It is okay to drift slowly to the right due to crown of road.

  • In a parking lot, make a few slow, tight turns in each direction. Turn radio and everything else that makes noise off and roll windows down. Listen carefully for any noise coming from front wheels that might indicate CV joint problems. CV joints are expensive to replace and a bad one can be dangerous.

  • Remember to check for "dog tracking". The inspection checklist explains how.

  • After a quick stop, car should not rock back and forth separately. If it does, car may need new struts or shocks.

  • Make both slow and hard stops.

  • Car should not pull to one side under braking.

  • A spongy or low pedal may indicate leaks or other problems.

  • Squeaking may indicate need for new pads or may be caused by glazed-over pads.

  • If car shudders under braking, it probably needs new, expensive brake rotors.

Comfort Equipment
  • Check air conditioning for proper operation. A/C repairs and refills aren't cheap anymore!

  • Make sure heater and fan work properly. Drive car long enough for engine to warm up.

  • Check operation of defrosters.

  • Make sure all power options work.

If you still want the car after the test drive and inspection
  • Take the car to a mechanic and have it checked. Make sure compression is tested.

  • Attempt to contact previous owner.