Donald Harris

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Expert Advice: What to look and listen for when buying a used car.

Advice for Buying a Used Car

With the high prices of new cars nowadays, most of us are looking at used cars for reliable backup or student transportation. How can you be sure the car you choose will be reliable? Look and listen to these five ways to check out your auto find: 1. LOOK!!! Don't just look at the color and body style. Look at the paint. Look for things like slightly mismatched paint on the car and don't mistake sun-fade for body work. Some colors on some cars just simply fade. This doesn't hurt the car; just its appearance. But, be sure to deduct the price of a paint job if you decide to purchase the car. Look for other appearance details like quarter panels, fenders, and doors that aren't as "weathered" as the rest of the car (things such as rock chips and parking lot scratches, cracked or chipped glass and dented trim).

2. Now look some more! Look at the tires. Are there any wear patterns? Is the inside or outside worn more than the rest of the tire? If so, there is an alignment problem. If both the inside and outside are worn, the tire has been driven while under-inflated and conversely, if the center is worn, it has been driven while over-inflated. Check for dishing or similar wear patterns that usually signal worn front end parts (ball joints, tie rods, idler arm, etc.). Check all four tires, not just the front ones.

3. Now look under the hood! Look for oil spots on the frame and in the engine compartment. Look for damp areas around the master cylinder and brake lines, Also, look for rust on lines and the frame. Flakey-looking rust means trouble. Rust on brake lines in the engine compartment usually means all the brake lines are rusting and unsafe. Check the engine oil. Is it dirty and thick? If it's black and seems to be thin, check for a oil change sticker or ask when the oil was changed. It may just be time for service. If the oil is thick and sticky feeling, it usually means that oil additives have been used in the engine. This is usually done to reduce oil consumption. Pull the dipstick on the transmission fluid and look at the fluid and smell it. The fluid should be clean and clear. Transmission fluid is usually red or amber depending the make and model of the vehicle. If the fluid seems dirty and smells like something has burnt, the vehicle may have the beginnings of transmission problems.

4. Now get inside the vehicle and look! Look for damage to the dashboard, the carpet, the seats and headliner. Start the vehicle and try the accessories (the radio/tape/cd player and the air conditioner). Try the turn signals and look at the indicators on the dash to see if they blink. You should also check the emergency flashers. When you start the vehicle, pay attention to the exhaust. Did you see smoke and if so, how much? A small cloud of smoke, then no more smoke, usually indicates worn or broken valve seals.

5. Listen! Do you hear any noise from the engine? Clicking or knocking or rattling? Did it last or go away quickly? Do you hear any squeals that sound like a belt slipping? That could be just a loose belt or a component malfunctioning. Turn the steering wheel right and left. It should turn smoothly in both directions until it hits the turn stops. Any jerks or "hard" spots indicate power steering issues.

6. Now leave the engine running and look under the hood again. Look for signs of hoses swelling and look for any signs of coolant on top of the engine and under the vehicle as it is idling. Then check the fluid level in the automatic transmission. Most vehicles recommend to check with the engine at operating temperature and on level ground. Pull the oil fill cap off with the engine running. A trace of smoke is normal in many engines but a steady stream of smoke indicates PVC problems or worse.

These easy steps will allow you to make a better evaluation of any used vehicle that you look at. If you still aren't sure, take it to your local mechanic and ask him to test the car. Its is better to spend a little money getting your car checked out than to be saddled with a lemon! Happy Driving!

Donald Harris is a former mechanic and used car dealer. He continues to tinker under that ol' shade tree. His website has car repair tips and links to parts, manuals and classic cars, trucks and tractors. cars trucks and tractors.com.

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