choosing, buying, financing and insuring your new or used car

Not Mechanically Inclined? Avoid Buying a Bad Car with These 4 Tips

Buying a used car is always a gamble, but it helps if you have enough mechanical knowledge to be able to spot potential problems when you look under the hood, or hear or feel them during a test drive. However, if you don't know a gasket from a gearshift, you won't have any idea what is a serious problem and what isn't.

If you don't have a mechanically inclined friend to bring along with you when you go car shopping, you're going to have to find another way to determine whether that cool car in your price range is an awesome deal or too good to be true. Here are some tips that can help.

Check the Fluids

Just because you're not familiar with the more complicated workings of the engine doesn't mean that you shouldn't look under the hood. Checking the fluids is easy, and what you see can let you know whether or not the car is worth further consideration.

To check the fluids, you'll either pull up the dipsticks placed in the car for that purpose (oil and transmission fluid) or unscrew the caps on the fluid reservoirs for a look at the fluid (brake fluid and coolant). Different makes and models of car have the dipsticks in different locations. 

If you're not sure where to find the oil and transmission fluid dipsticks and the brake fluid cap, ask the dealer to show you the car's owner's manual. Inside, you should be able to find a diagram that will direct you to each fluid resevoir and dipstick or cap. It's a good idea to bring an internet capable phone or tablet with you just in case the seller doesn't have an owner's manual so that you can look up a map of the engine online.

Usually, the oil dipstick has a yellow loop you can pull on, the transmission fluid dipstick has a red or orange grip or loop, and the brake fluid and coolant can be found in a marked plastic reservoir. Oil and coolant are best checked after the car has cooled down, but the engine should be running and warm when you check the transmission fluid. 

Brake fluid should range from pale yellowish to tea-colored. If it's muddy or coffee colored, it means that the brake lines need to be bled. Don't buy the car unless you don't mind putting some cash into fixing it right away. Thick, chunky oil is a sign of a blown head gasket, and that means that the engine's days are numbered—move onto another car. Black or oil transmission fluid could mean that the transmission is shot. You want to see red or purplish transmission fluid instead. If all of the fluids look good, you can go ahead and take a test drive.

Drive on the Highway

Just driving around the block may not tell you anything that you don't already know about the car—you need to put it to the test. That means taking the car out on the highway where it will have to perform at high speeds and under more challenging conditions. If a dealer or a private seller won't allow a highway test drive, it could mean that they know that it won't pass the test—and you should pass on the car.

During your drive, watch for obvious warning signs that will tell you this car isn't for you. Does it shake at high speeds? Do the brakes feel spongey or stiff? Does the car jolt into gear when you accelerate? These symptoms can all signal a need for expensive repairs, which you should avoid if you're not in the market for a fixer-upper. While you're driving, keep your eye on the oil pressure and temperature gauges as well. Any car that overheats during a short test drive is definitely a lemon and not worth your time.

Check for Diagnostic Trouble Codes

Bringing along some technological assistance can help you make the right decision about a used car. Consider purchasing an OBD-II scanner. This is a device that all mechanics have to help diagnose car problems by reading the information on the car's internal computer. At one time, these devices were only found in mechanic's shops, but today you can find portable OBD-II scanners that can hook right up to your tablet or smartphone and give you diagnostic information about the car.

An OBD-II scanner is a worthwhile investment if you plan on driving a used car; it can save you money when you need to take the car to the mechanic later, by telling you exactly what you need to have fixed before you go. So why not get one to help you pick out the car as well? Just plug the device into the OBD-II port, usually located behind the dashboard and above the brake pedal, hook it up to your Bluetooth enabled device, and let it tell you all about any problems with the vehicle.

Get a VIN Report

Even if the fluids look good, you don't notice anything troubling on the test drive, and the OBD-II reader clears the car of any major issues, you still aren't completely finished. Before you make a deal, find the car's VIN number, which should be visible from outside the car, where the dashboard meets the windshield. If it's not there, you can find it by opening the driver's side door and looking in the area where the door latches when it closes.

Once you have the VIN number, you need to get a VIN report on the vehicle. Many companies offer free VIN history reports or for only a nominal fee. A VIN report will let you know whether or not your car has ever been in a major accident. It will also let you know what city, state, or country the vehicle is from.

Be wary of vehicles recently imported in from a city that's recently had a disaster, like a flood, because it could mean that your car has water or other damage. The VIN can also alert you if the car you're considering is stolen, or if it has outstanding liens against it that could complicate your ownership of the car.

Even without extensive knowledge of how to spot or diagnose car problems, these tips can help ensure that you choose a used car that won't turn out to be a lemon.