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Search Secrets: How to Find the Best Used Car

Looking for a pre-owned vehicle? These expert pointers will help you avoid being saddled with a lemon.

Woman looking in window of car with for sale sign

Buying a used car can be nerve-racking. But if you take your time and do your homework, you should be able to find a ride that will last for years. With that in mind, here are seven tips that will help make the buying process a breeze.

Establish a Budget

Determine the amount of money you want to spend right off the bat; this number will become extremely important while you’re searching online or exploring the lots, and will keep you on track. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of potential repairs down the road (such as mechanical inspection fees, rustproofing, dealer documentation fees and so on).

Assess Your Needs

Ask yourself a series of questions to set your vehicle priorities straight. You don’t want to end up with something that was a great deal but is completely wrong for your lifestyle. What kind of driving will you be doing? Think of your usual passengers. Factor in child seats, desired cargo space, level of maintenance, engine capacity and anything else that is important to you.

Do Your Research

Leaf through Lemon-Aid or Consumer Reports for a list of the best and worst used cars. “Most of the better, more reliable vehicles are Japanese or South Korean,” says Phil Edmonston, author of the Lemon-Aid guides on new and used vehicles. He suggests buying a four- to five-year-old vehicle because part of the warranty will remain. At that age, Edmonston advises paying approximately half of its original price.

Examine the Vehicle

When inspecting a car, Josh Bailey, former vice-president of research and editorial at Canadian Black Book, recommends checking that the tires match, as they may have different grip characteristics. “This is an often overlooked safety item,” he says. In addition, look for rust under the bottom of the trunk and around the bottom of the doors.

“Check out the seller of the vehicle as much as the vehicle itself,” Edmonston adds. Ask about repair history and for the sales contract. “If the seller cannot give you any maintenance [information] or the sales contract, run away.”

Get in the Driver’s Seat

When taking it for a test drive, be present when the car starts. “Cars will often exhibit certain things when they’re first started,” Bailey says, such as knocking or kicking noises or a puff of smoke. When driving, Edmonston suggests asking the seller “to please be quiet” so you can keep an ear out for unusual noises made by the engine or transmission, as these are expensive repairs.

Get an Expert Inspection

“Now that you’re ready to seal the deal, take the vehicle to an independent garage,” says Edmonston. He adds that you can also ask the mechanic to pay particular attention to areas that independent surveys report as problematic.

Do a Background Check

Finally, before buying the car, Edmonston recommends ordering the vehicle history report from CarProof (carproof.com). It will inform you of past repairs, even if they haven’t been done through insurance.

CAA’s Consumer and Technical Services (CATS) team provides Members with free automotive advice on topics like buying a new or used vehicle. You can speak to a specialist by phone at 1-866-464-6448 or by email at cats@caasco.ca.

For even more essential tips, check out CAA’s guide to Buying a Used Vehicle.