How To

How to buy a good used car

Jil McIntosh offers up some advice on how to go about buying a good used car.

It can be tough enough figuring out which new car to buy; it can be even more difficult with a used one.

Not only do you have to figure out what model is best for you, but then you have to determine if the specific vehicle you’re considering will bring happiness or a headache.


When shopping, make and follow three separate checklists: first when you’re looking for a car, then when you’ve decided on a specific one, and finally, when you take delivery.

It’s a good idea whether you’re buying privately, from a used-car lot, or from a dealership.

Remember that a car that’s certified only has to meet minimum standards for specific safety-related items. It’s no guarantee of how good the car is overall, or that non-safety items such as the air conditioning are working.


Write down what’s important: perhaps you want fuel economy, cargo space, towing capacity and a roomy interior. Also figure out where you’re willing to compromise. It may sound silly, but it can help keep you focused when something catches your eye.

The true cost of a car isn’t just the price, but what it takes to keep it running. Include insurance and repair costs in your budget. A prestige brand might be inexpensive on the lot, but pricy in the shop: call a dealer to find out the cost of common repairs such as brakes or water pump.

Ask if the car has any balance of factory warranty, or has had any recent repairs. One with warranty coverage or new parts may be a better buy than a cheaper car that could need those repairs done.

If you use a child seat, take it with you. Some vehicles have tether systems that are difficult to use.


Consider buying a vehicle history from a company such as Carfax or CarProof, which will tell you if the car has any liens, has ever been written off, or used as a commercial vehicle. You can also visit the Canadian Police Information Centre, at, to see if the vehicle has been reported stolen.

If you can, take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic to be checked over. Be wary if the seller doesn’t want you to do that.

Check the tailpipe for exhaust that’s black, blue or, when the engine’s warm, white. The engine shouldn’t make knocking or ticking noises, and the transmission should shift smoothly. Check the dipsticks: watch for oil that’s very dirty or creamy white, and for transmission fluid that smells burnt.

Try everything: the heater and a/c (all fan speeds); rear defroster; the CD player; power accessories such as seats, windows, and locks (check at each door), including the keyless remote; and make sure any folding seats can be folded. Check anything movable, such as the glovebox door or storage covers. All doors should open and close easily. Look at the carpet near the dash: a large stain could indicate a leaking heater core, an expensive repair.

Check for rust around the door hinges, bottoms of the doors, and around the strut towers and shock absorber mounts. Push down hard on each corner of the car. It should spring back and then stop; bouncing several times indicates worn shock absorbers.

Make sure the body seams and doors line up, and watch for differences in colour, which could indicate repairs following a crash.

Test-drive the car thoroughly, including on the highway if possible. No stereo – you’re listening for unusual noises. Watch for the car pulling to one side when driving or braking, any warning lights on the dash, steering that feels loose, or vibration. Ensure the cruise control works.

Make a list of everything that’s included with the vehicle but could be removed: floor mats, extra keys, spare tire and jack, owner’s manual, aftermarket stereo, etc. Have the seller sign and date the list.


Bring that list of included items, and make sure everything on it is with the car before you drive away. If it comes with wheel locks, be sure you get the key wrench for them.

Look at the vehicle identification number, or VIN, which is visible through the windshield on the driver’s side. Make sure it matches the ownership and all paperwork, even if you’re buying from a dealer: mistakes can happen, especially if there’s a similar car on the lot.

Check the safety certificate. The VIN and mileage must match and there should be no blank areas. The date should be current. The certificate is only good for 36 days, and while it’s rare, it’s not unheard-of for an unscrupulous seller to forego a proper inspection and simply write up a certificate that will expire shortly after delivery.

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