Buying a used car can feel like opening a mystery box. And when it comes to large purchases, you don’t want any surprises. So dust off your magnifying glass and put on your detective cap, because you’ll want to open a thorough investigation before you buy a used car.

First, let’s look at the facts:

  • According to Edmunds, nearly 40 million used cars are exchanged every year
  • 22 percent of all vehicles sold at the dealer are used cars
  • Average age of vehicles on the road is nearly 12 years

Used cars make up a sizeable portion of the auto industry. So you have options! The average age of cars on the road is also an indicator of how long you can expect a car to run.

Time to narrow down your search

The next piece of the puzzle is your budget. The last thing you want is a car that breaks the bank. With used cars, you should be able to get a deal.

When a new car leaves the lot, its value depreciates immediately. New cars lose about 20 percent of their value after one year, 30 percent after two years and over 50 percent after four years. If you spent $30,000 on a new car, that’s a lot of money you won’t see again if you ever need to sell.

On the flipside, if you bought a car that’s two years old – instead of buying right off the lot – you’d save almost $10,000. It’s likely that vehicle would have relatively low mileage, too.

But you’ll need to look at more than just mileage and age to determine value. You want a car that fits your lifestyle. Once you find that car, the real detective work starts.

How to examine a used car

So you found a lightly used car of your dreams – it’s the model you want and it’s listed at a fair price. Now it’s time to grab that magnifying glass and inspect the vehicle.

According to the DMV, here are a few key details you should look for:


  • Windshield free of cracks
  • Body panel colors match
  • Free of body scratches and dents
  • Windshields wipers and blades fully functional
  • Headlights and directional lights intact and fully functional


  • Tires are all of the same make
  • Tires are of free of any cuts, bubbles or cracks
  • Tread worn evenly (uneven wear indicates alignment and suspension problems)


  • Free of fluid or oil leaks
  • Battery terminals free of corrosion
  • Oil dip stick free of dark, black oil
  • Free of odors while engine is running


  • Vehicle rests levelly
  • When bouncing the vehicle’s corners, no creaking noises are made
  • All corners respond the same when bouncing


  • Vehicle steers straight and does not pull to one side when applying brakes
  • Parking brake engages and disengages freely
  • No grinding noises when applying


  • Vehicle is stable; no shaking or vibrating
  • No resistance in the steering wheel when turning
  • No clicking or clunking when turning

For a comprehensive list, check out the DMV’s used car checklist. Since the condition of your car will affect its value, it’s important to know what you’re getting.

Working with the seller

Speaking of value – working with the seller is an important part of your used car hunt. Here you can put your negotiating skills to good use and really get an idea of what the car is worth.

The first clue is how you’re treated by the seller. Work with a seller who is reasonable and open to your questions. They should be fine with you inspecting the vehicle and taking it for a test drive. If you get any hesitation on their end, you may want to walk away from the car.

If anything is wrong with the vehicle, use this for negotiating the price. You shouldn’t pay asking price if something isn’t right and wasn’t disclosed upfront.

Lastly, make sure the seller has service and repair records, a car title and a car manual. These items can come in handy down the road.

Case closed

Just as a detective would, keep a notebook handy to jot down notes throughout the search. This could help in case you look for a used car again later on. Don’t forget about online resources like Kelly Blue Book and Carfax – these are great tools to help you compare prices and look into vehicle history. And remember – research and due diligence are the most important clues to help you solve the mystery of used car buying!