Used car buying guide
Buying a used car is an investment. Whether you are buying a car on payments, leasing a car, or purchasing a used car outright, many of the same principles apply. Here are some tips from a mechanic. Select a used car that you are comfortable in, and one that reflects your personality, as you two are going to be together for a while. If a second-hand car breaks, you need to love it enough to want to fix it. If you are a Mercedes or BMW type of person, no other car will do, and a VW just isn't going to cut it. Another person may stick with Volkswagon through all seasons.
If you know that it's a sports car you are going to get, that's fine. If not, browse through thousands of used car listings at Craigslist.org. You can also visit a used car lot near your college, but watch out for used car salesmen, who work on commission, and will pressure you to make a quick purchase. That;'s not a good idea, because you need time to compare cars, and think about your requirements. If you are commuting to school on a budget, a used VW with good gas mileage might be the answer, but beware repair issues. If you have slightly more money, consider leasing a newer car that you can trade in after the lease period.
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Checking a car's condition
Even if you are not a mechanic, there are many tests you can do to check the condition of a used car. Some of the basic systems to check are the steering, tires, brakes, ignition, engine, transmission, and body. The steering wheel should not have more than one inch of free play, before the wheels start to turn on the road. Even an inch to the left or right is considered kind of loose. Try to take your hand off the wheel for a moment when going straight ahead. Does the car keep on track, or does it start to veer left or right? If it drifts, that's the alignment, or uneven tire wear. The tires should be wearing evenly across the tread face, and not be cracked on the sidewalls.
To test the brakes, just tap the brakes at speed, and see if there's any noise or a spongy feel to the pedal, which indicates either air in the brake lines, or leaks. Does the car start right up when you turn the key? If not, it could be the battery is low, or worse, a short in the charging system. Don't believe the salesperson who says it has been sitting a while, and the battery just needs a charge.
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Engine and transmission
The engine is easy to test also. Just find a hill, and try to accelerate up it. Or, if no hills are available, start from a standing stop, and stomp on the gas pedal. An owner who won't let you do that doesn't really want to sell the car, or is afraid of the smoke or backfire noise that results from incorrect ignition timing, valve wear or ring problems, deep within the engine. How does the car shift through the gears? Is it smooth, or do you feel a "clunk" as it shifts? That could mean an expensive transmission repair not too far down the road.
Finally, open the engine oil filler cap and look at the engine. Is it clean? Also, what do you feel when you rub the engine oil between your fingers? It should be smooth, and not gritty, even if it is a black color. With the car running, put your hand over the exhaust pipe. Does the exhaust come out steadily, or is it irregular? A jumpy exhaust, or smoke of any color coming out, can indicate engine problems such as a worn timing belt, or rings. If a car starts right up, sounds great, speeds up a hill, and has tight steering, that's a great start. One of the best bets you can make when buying a used car is to take it to your local mechanic, who will do a used car check-up for you, at a reasonable cost. If you are buying a new car, read the warranty carefully, and understand just what it does and does not include.