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How to Buy a Used Car

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Karel Kosman photo December, 2003

A great trick when looking at used cars is to look very hard at the paint job. A key way to tell if a car has been re-built is to open the gas tank and look around the tank for putty or scratches. If there is putty or an abnormal amount of scratches, this can mean that the car was in an accident with the gas tank affected. One thing to stand clear of is a builder or a vehicle that has been in an accident and has been re-built. Generally, you tend to have more reoccurring problems with vehicles that are re-built.

It is always a good idea to take it to another dealership for an inspection (by private mechanic). This will generally cost anywhere from $20.00 to $50.00, but can spare you a dud vehicle. The mechanic will do a run through of all the major parts and see how well the car was taken care of. They will advise if the car is in good condition, or if they foresee any problems. Any mechanic will generally be fair and tell you honestly if the car is worth the asking price. Taking the vehicle to a mechanic for a second opinion on the quality of the car is a great idea and will be worth it in the long run.

Be sure when you arrive at the residence of the seller that you take good notice of the appearance of the dwelling. Someone who takes meticulous care of a house and yard is more likely to take meticulous care of a car, changing the oil when necessary and maintaining the vehicle on time.

Ask the owner to see the maintenance records of the vehicle. If he/she cannot or will not produce this paperwork, then fuggedaboudit. This is a warning sign that the vehicle may have trouble that the owner is trying to hide from you.

Negotiate carefully. Every private seller should expect to get less than they ask. Do not accept the first offer unless it is too good to be true (and in that case you want to be very careful). In the same respect, do not insult the seller either. Offer a fair price below what they are asking and work from there. If your inspection of the vehicle has revealed some minor problems, use them as bargaining chips to lower the price even further.

Another name for an unlicensed dealer is a curbstoner (they sell cars from the street-curb instead of from a car lot). Curbstoners are people who make money from buying a used car and reselling it. Here are some tips for identifying a curbstoner:

1. The vehicle is parked along the street or in a vacant lot.
2. The person selling the car asks you to meet them at a location other than their residence.
3. The seller wants a cash transaction, no checks or money orders.
4. The title to the vehicle is not in the name of the seller

Buying from a curbstoner increases your risk of not being able to get the vehicle title transferred, or of getting a car which has been previously wrecked or which has a "rolled back" odometer.


You should ask these questions on the phone to help decide whether you want to go and see the car.

* Are you the owner of the car?
* How long have you owned the car?
* What is the mileage? (You might want to ask what the mileage was when the person bought the car.)
* How has the car been driven? (Around town vs. long trips)
* What are the car’s best features?
* What major work have you done on the car? Any receipts?
* Did you buy the car new?
* Why are you selling the car?
* Has the car ever had problems with rust? Has the car ever been repainted?
* Has the car ever had body repairs?
* Do you have the title?
* Are you a vehicle dealer?
* What would I need to do to put the car into top shape?


The brakes. While driving 30 to 40 mph, being certain there is no one behind you, apply the brakes three or four times. If you get a consistent pull, either left or right, while the brakes are being applied, there is a problem. Check brake fluid level. A low level may indicate a brake problem.

The tires. Check the tread for depth of wear, the tire sizes for matching, and for any other obvious damage. All the tires should be evenly worn. Uneven wear could mean neglect, abuse, improper wheel alignment or bent front-end components.

Under the hood. Check all hoses. Examine the battery for leaks. Check the oil dipstick (if the oil is dark and dirty, the car may not have been properly maintained). If the car has an automatic transmission, check the transmission fluid to see if it is dark colored or has a burned odor (it should be a reddish color). Is the engine oil pressure too low at idle? Does it look very dirty under the oil cap? Does it smell with burnt oil under the hood? Any warning lights come on while the engine is running? "Check engine" light?


* Check to see if the numbers on the odometer line up. Rolled back odometers sometimes have misaligned numbers.
* Have a mechanic check the engine compression and look for worn struts or ball joints and transmission problems. These are all signs of high use.
* Check the wear on the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals. If the odometer reads very low miles the pedals shouldn’t show signs of any excessive wear.

Mismatched colors? Painting over spray? Any other evidence of a body repair? Has the car been repainted? Why? Accident? Corrosion.

Any previous transmission repair? Was it rebuilt?

Does the transmission fluid smell burnt?

Is the tranny fluid on the dipstick too dark/dirty?

Start the engine and try to switch from P to D and from P to R holding the brakes -

Is the time between switching the shifter and the moment transmission kicks in too long?

Any strong noises or jerks during shiftings?

During a test drive -

Any delays or troubles on changing gears?

Does the transmission slip or jerk harshly?

Is any speed missing (for example, the transmission shifts from 1-st to 3-rd speed)?

Is the transmission getting stuck in one gear?

Any shifting problems on the cold engine?

Does the kick down function work?

For manual: Is the clutch slipping?

The most reliable type of automatic transmission is rear-wheel drive.
! If the automatic transmission is already rebuilt, avoid buying such a car - rebuilt transmission usually doesn’t last much longer than rebuilder’s warranty.

Checking transmission:

Remove the automatic transmission dipstick and wipe it out with the tissue. Then pull it back and then take it out again. Wipe it with the clean white tissue or a paper and look at the paper (tissue) more closely. The fluid on the paper should be clean and transparent, without any metal filings or black flakes. The color of the fluid may vary from pinkish - red to brown but it shouldn’t be black. It should not have a burnt smell.

! If there is any strong jerk or noise while shifting, avoid buying such a car.

! If there is a long delay (more than 1 - 1.5 seconds) between the moment you shift the lever and the moment the transmission engages, such a transmission is either too worn or has some defect, avoid buying such a car.

When the transmission is extremely worn it may shift with quite a strong jerk (jolt) or shudder (especially from first to second speed), it feels like someone kicks the car in the back.

Driving at a speed of 40-50 km/h or 25-30 mph, if you press down the accelerator pedal for a few seconds, you should feel downshifting to the lower gear, if the automatic transmission works properly.

The next step: check overdrive.

While driving at 60-70 km/h or 35-45 mph on a level road, without using the accelerator, switch overdrive ON. You should feel an upshifting to the next speed. Switch it to "OFF," and you should feel a downshifting.

Another thing that may indicate the transmission problem is the slipping. When the transmission is excessively worn it may slip - which means you press the accelerator, the engine rpm increases but the speed remains the same.

If you feel during the drive test any problem such as transmission seems to be slipping or shifts with a jerk or shudder or a speed seems to be missing, or if the transmission got stuck in some gear, or has trouble shifting into a particular gear (for example, from second to third), no matter the engine is cold or hot, etc. avoid buying such a car.

Test drive the car as long as possible. Often the transmission may work well when it’s cold but when it’s warmed up it starts giving troubles. So, it’s better to spend more time checking the transmission than later fixing it endlessly. Normally there should be no shudder, no noises or any kind of strong jerks at any speed and at any engine temperatures while any shiftings. If the salesperson tells you that the jerks or shudder or any other abnormal transmission behavior is "normal" for this car or it’s just because the car is cold or anything alike, never trust them. Believe only to your eyes. You’re the one who’s going to drive this car. The warranty they give you doesn’t mean that the transmission won’t brake. It only means that may be the dealer will take care of the car if it breaks. Plus, a rebuilt transmission in many cases doesn’t last too long.

How to check manual transmission

Now, (with caution - safety first!), shift the transmission lever into neutral. Apply the parking brake. With the engine idling, press the clutch pedal all the way, hold it down, and listen for noises. Then release the pedal and listen for noises again. There should be no loud noises at both positions.
The next step is the driving test.
Try to drive the vehicle at all speeds one by one. Every speed should shift smooth and easily without any noises or jerks. While driving at the second or third gear, press down suddenly on the accelerator pedal for a moment. The transmission should not slip.

If you feel any slipping (e.g. the engine rpm increases but the speed remains the same), the clutch most likely has to be replaced.

Try to drive with acceleration and deceleration - there should be no whinning or humming noise under any condition. All the gears should shift easily and noiselessly

To do:

* find an inspection company

What to ask the dudes:

* where is the van located? City and country.
* in whose name is the title of the vehicle?
* can you help me with registration, transfer of ownership, and everything else required to transfer the vehicle over to me? I am a Czech citizen (and Canadian), and therefore an EU citizen, so I assume it should not be such a problem as before.
* do you have the maintenance records of the vehicle? A log of all repairs and investments into it. Any major work done on the car? Any problems with it? Any body repairs?
* Has the car ever been repainted?
* I guess you are a vehicle dealer?
* What would I need to do to put the car into top shape?

And finally, do you think there is any chance of negotiation on the price?

Thank you,


I found this information on the internet when I was looking for a travel van for my Mexico trip, which was the pilot test trip for my big world tour which I launched in my Europe travels.

* * *

Travel Tour Guide in Europe

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See Karel Kosman's Articles at
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46. The ONLY Thai girl I am attracted to
45. Miscellaneous letters
44. I have always felt I will be a writer one day...
43. About freelancing and travelling
42. Thai girls are like demon possessed little witches
41. Living on a mystical island of Koh Phangan in Thailand
40. From Malaysia to Thailand
39. From Laos back to Thailand
38. How to publish a book
37. Back in Thailand
36. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable here on the island in Malaysia
35. My belongings
34. Staying in Malaysia
33. About running a blog
32. A short travel update
31. Planning to publish a book about my travels
30. In Thailand, God’s hand
29. Getting ready to go to Asia. In the airport
28. Escaping from Galia’s place
27. About Bulgarians, earnings, plans
26. Starting to earn more after approaching thousands of translation agencies
25. About writing and publishing content online
24. How to find really cheap plane tickets
23. The girlfriend: would like to find THE ONE
22. Still staying in Bulgaria but planning to go to Thailand
21. Travel outline
20. About translation industry
19. About female friends
18. About computer, online marketing, translation, CAT tool
17. About blabber - waste of time. About wanting to be a writer.
16. About God
15. More about software sales
14. More travel updates
13. Staying at a pension
12. About borders etc.
11. Software sales
10. Travel update
09. Translation job industry
08. Partying is a waste of time
07. How much they pay etc.
06. Translator charges, programming etc.
05. Working as a translator and travelling
04. Travel life
03. Why NOT to cheat Google...
02. About opportunities for working as a freelancer
01. About advantages of working as a freelancer
Working While Travelling
26. Gone treeplanting (September 8, 2008)
25. First friends visiting me to Cyprus (February 29, 2008)
24. Staying in Cyprus (December 09, 2007)
23. Escaping the Cyprus heat (February 8, 2007)
22. Escape from boredom (February 8, 2007)
21. Barelling to Bodrum (November 20, 2006)
20. Staying in Stoliv, Montenegro (October 2, 2006)
19. Arriving to Montenegro (August 22, 2006)
18. Traveling through Croatia (August 9, 2006)
17. The trip begins - off to Croatia! (2006)
16. How to Live in a Caravan
15. How to Connect to Internet While Traveling
14. How to construct a caravan - Beautification
13. How to use solar panels to electrify your caravan
12. How to construct a caravan
11. Designing the caravan
10. Back to Czech - buying a travel van (April 10, 2004)
9. Mexico Trip - Off to Yosemite and Beyond (December, 2003)
8. Mexico Trip - Getting a Driver’s License (December, 2003)
7. How to Buy a Used Car (December, 2003)
6. Mexico Trip (December 14, 2003)
5. Traveling through Bulgaria (July 20 - Aug. 4, 2002)
4. Czech Republic: My Reflections
3. My life in Prague
2. My flat in Prague
1. Dream of working while travelling

Published - June 2010

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