A Guide To Buying A Second Hand Car

Cars, whether brand new or second hand, are practically the safest way to get from one point to another.  A family of four going out of town for a short picnic on a motorbike would be most uncomfortable for everyone, not to mention the high-risk to life involved. There’s nothing like being ensconced comfortably in a car that protects you from the outside elements. There is one catch though and its that a car costs more money than a motorbike. In some Asian countries, a simple motorbike is slightly modified to allow it to carry up to six or even eight individuals. These types of daredevils can be commonly found in rural areas where the roads are not paved much less resemble a decent road. I have seen them race against each other at one point (sans passengers of course) and its something that you don’t forget for quite a while. But that’s a different story.

The primary reason for buying a second-hand car is financial capability. There are those whose jobs take them from one place to another, oftentimes for half a year or more, that need a car on a temporary basis. These cars are commonly second-hand as well and the reason for this choice is usually pragmatic in nature. Nevertheless, second-hand cars, as long as they have been well-maintained by their previous owners, can do the job just as well as a brand new car. They can still get you from one place to another, protect you from the elements such as the heat of the sun,  biting cold of winter, wind and rain. There is a catch though. You can never know what is under the hood.

Unless the dealer or the previous owner allows you to open up the engine itself or tear up the carpeting to check the flooring, there is always a risk involved in the purchase. Unlike brand new cars where you have the full support of the manufacturer and car dealer to help you out if defects show up, second-hand cars are bought “as is” with hardly any support from anyone. You are on your own. So how do you make the right choice?

Know what you need

You would certainly like the big SUV with all the bangs and whistles that come with it; big cargo area, roomy interior, mag wheels, and the lot. Who wouldn’t, right? You can definitely picture out yourself driving a head higher than most individuals for a couple of miles to your office and back home again later in the afternoon, five times a week for practically the whole year. Wait! Is that the role of your SUV? A huge part of its existence is to ferry you to and from your office in the city? That would not be practical by any means at all. What you need in this case is a car that can do the same but wouldn’t gurgle as much fuel such as sedans and the variations thereof. A two-door hatchback would do all those things just fine too. You also would not need the muscle nor the speed either especially during rush hours.

Then again, the opposite would apply if you need the car for more challenging road conditions such as long high-ways and a few rough roads. Also, a bigger cargo compartment would be called for when traveling out-of-town all the time. In some line of work, pick-up trucks would be a more practical choice than an SUV. If you’re the out-going family, these types, or even a grand saloon type, would fit the bill.

Hence, knowing what you need a four-wheel vehicle for is always the first and most crucial step in choosing your car. Basically, if you want speed, then by all means go for a V6 or something equivalent. If you’re more pragmatic and only intend to use it lightly (within the city), practically any good condition 4-cylinder car would do. Bear in mind though that the faster your car goes, the higher the fuel consumption. To this end, almost all cars built from the year 2000 and up have engines designed with fuel efficiency in mind. You might want to look into that as well.

Again I can’t help but add my experience to this. There are actually cars out there that have been designed with fuel-efficiency in mind as far back as 1993! I’m talking about the second-hand hatchback I have with me, of course. Before it, I had a pick-up truck that would gurgle about $23 worth of fuel for a distance of 62 miles. When I got the hatchback and traveled the same distance, the cost was about $7 for the same distance! The time of travel didn’t vary much (about 1 1/2 hours) but there was definitely more fun with the hatchback. It practically glides effortlessly the whole time that my kids almost always fall asleep the whole way.

What to look for

Now that you’ve made up our mind on the type of vehicle that suits your purposes, its time to get your hands a little dirty. There’s simply no better way than to poke around here and there. However, before you see the car itself, familiarize yourself with the make or model through the Internet. Research on its specs when it came out of the factory. That way you have a good idea whether this car has been modified and if so, to what extent and at the cost of what. For instance, the stock engine of a particular model has its oil cap on the left side of the cylinder head but the car presented to you has its oil cap on the other end. It would be good to inquire about the change.

Here’s a list of  the basic things you need to keep an eye out for. This is ideal for second-hand cars worth around $3,000.00 maximum.

1. Check the oil cap – Recent smudges on the cap and around it would indicate that the oil may have been changed. Now that may sound beneficial to you but sometimes sellers do this to cover up the fact that the oil gets milky or gets mixed with water from the radiator. You can see this milky substance by checking out the dip stick, but if the oil has just been changed, chances are you won’t see the problem, if any exists.

2. Check the radiator – You will have to open the cap to see if the radiator is filled up. Do not do this if the engine is still hot or has just been switched off. Give it about 20 to 30 minutes to cool down enough for you to place a rag over the cap and open it. It should be filled to the brim with coolant. If it isn’t, that could be a good indicator that there could be a leak somewhere. This can be expensive to fix.

3. Check around the engine itself – Most sellers clean out the engine area with degreasers and things like that but if the car has been running, you should be able to see if any of the oil seals have been damaged. See if you can find any oil leaking from the crank case joints. Again, this would be easy to spot as long as the engine has been running for some time. If you don’t find anything, kneel down and check the spot right under the engine or any drips. Note that if the car’s air conditioning unit is working there will be water dripping. Just make sure its coming from the air conditioning unit and not from the radiator. If there’s any oil, usually black splashes on the floor/ground, its time for you to leave and move on to the next prospect.

If these three tests have been passed, you would have saved yourself a few thousand dollars in replacement and repairs in the future already. From here, you can go about checking the minor stuff.

Lights – Do the headlights function correctly? Check the high and low beams. If you’re doing this in daylight, you could try and move the car to face a wall as you go through its various light modes. This also includes checking the hazard signal, left and right blinkers, stop light and reverse lights. While you’re at it, check if the interior lights go on when any door is open and whether you can leave it on if all doors are closed.

Dash board lights/indicators – These may be minor lighting but they do stand for something quite possibly big. Just keep in mind that RED means serious. Not that its detrimental to the car but they are there so you can check on it.  Here are the most important ones that you definitely have to pay attention to should any go red.

1. Malfunction Indicator Light (MIL) – Characterized by an engine icon, this indicates that the computer (yes, there is an engine computer on board especially for later car models) has made a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC) and this would be best handled by a professional using a scanning tool. If its lighted red, it could mean that your engine’s oxygen is not fully burned up leading to more fuel consumption (this can also be set off by the mass airflow sensor), spark plugs or its wirings need replacement, catalytic converter replacement, or loose gas cap, which can lead to fuel loss even while your car is parked.

2. Coolant Temperature Warning – This is usually indicated by a thermometer-dipped-in-water icon. When red, it indicates that the engine temperature has exceeded the normal limits. When blue, it means the engine is not performing to its optimum capacity because its too cool. Check if the fan is operating well, that radiator cap may be loose, that the coolant is sufficient and there aren’t any leaks.

3. Battery/Charging  Alert – This indicator looks like a car battery. When this goes red, it could mean that your alternator isn’t charging your battery or there might be a problem with the terminals of the battery. If the alternator’s the problem, this could cost you a bit.

4. Oil Pressure Warning – This is usually symbolized by an oil can or the word OIL. When it is continuously lit, there is a loss of oil pressure. Most often than not, this means that there’s an oil leak somewhere especially if the seller claims to have just changed the oil.


This is crucial, in connection to the negotiations, if his asking price is unrealistically high, you could ask him to shoulder the costs for the deed of sale, transfer of registration and other pertinent documentation. Good luck with that though.

You do have to be sure that all legal documents are there and up-to-date. In some countries, there are laws that require dealers or sellers of second-hand cars to show documents pertaining to the car’s history. These documents may often include dates and times of repairs and what kind of repair was performed and by whom. Other documents may be required so know what these are and ensure the dealer or seller has them all in order.

Check that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) matches the car. These numbers are engraved in a visible area usually under the hood. While you’re at it, check that there hasn’t been any tampering with the numbers. You wouldn’t want to end up with a stolen vehicle, believe me.

Also look into the car’s insurance history. If there’s a report about previous accidents and other similar documents, scrutinize those. It can tell you a lot about how the car was previously handled and, thus, gives you an idea of what repairs or modifications, if any, have been made. To this end, check out my article about car insurance here.


There are other indicators that should be working too but aren’t really that significant. These could be the seat belt indicator, fuel gauge, door open indicator, oil change reminder, hand brake on, and others.

Of course, there should be an over all inspection of the body tires and chassis of the car and ensure that whatever defect you may find can be easily covered by your budget.

Now stop there. This is my advise. Stop right there and do not proceed further. I need to inform you that there are checklists available online specifically for checking second-hand cars before a purchase. They would advise you that EVERYTHING should be checked unless you want to end up scrapping the car after a couple of months. Personally, that’s too extreme a scenario and you can tell right off the bat if a car would go for a couple of months or more. What almost everyone fails to consider is the human aspect.

First of all, a second-hand car will always have some sort of defect one way or another and you will always have to do some repairs anyway. What you want is something that would not gulp a substantial portion of your finances. Once you have that, proceed to establishing a good rapport with your seller or dealer.

This is quite easy to do. For instance, you could point out a few minor problems here and there and say that its not a big deal and can be easily fixed. That alone will put you into good light. It would be a lot easier for you two to negotiate the final price.

Regarding pricing, it is absolutely normal to haggle a bit but my advise is that you play around the 15% to 20% margin. If you ask to lower the price more than 20% of what is asked for, it could come across as an insult and the seller can deftly stop the negotiations right then and there and call the next interested buyer. This is assuming that the dealer or seller is being fair with his quotation. If you’re sure he is being unfair, you could tell him about it straight to his face or try and haggle beyond the 20% margin. In any case, insult notwithstanding, the steep price is practically a closed door to your negotiations anyway.

When all is said and done…

Drive your newly purchased car as soon as possible to a mechanic’s shop that you trust, have it looked over by the experts and tune up everything.  For instance, you can’t check if the wheels are balanced or not on your own. Also, these professionals have the necessary tools to “communicate” with the car and see what’s really under the hood. It would be preferable that you do this before you close the deal but the, you risk losing on the human factor mentioned earlier. Your call, my friend.


  1. http://www.qbe.com.au/Personal/Insurance-News/The-6-point-used-car-checklist/index.htm
  2. http://www.qbe.com.au/Personal/Insurance-News/The-6-point-used-car-checklist/index.htm
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  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/consumer/24653352
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  7. http://www.theguardian.com/direct-line-fixology/2014/oct/17/buying-used-cars-second-hand-wisdom