Selecting the right used car is often times more difficult than purchasing a new one. You have all of the standard manufacturer features and benefits to weigh, but then you must consider the nuances of previous ownership and how that may have impacted the life of the automobile. Our dealership grapples with this very topic everyday, so before you go and get advice from a friend of a friend who knows a guy, here is our check-list for previously owned vehicles.
Before diving into the details of a used car inspection, access information from industry authorities on the matter. Consumer reports have been compiled over the decades to deliver reliability reports that will provide you with a general accounting of which makes and models have the best track record. For example, a recent release from ConsumerReports.org shows that when looking for a used sedan, small car, or SUV that Toyota makes the top list of recommended used cars.
Are you focused on a buying a previously owned hybrid yet find the prospect of researching this new type of vehicle too daunting? There is a wealth of consumer information on this as well, with industry authority Edmunds giving the Toyota Prius an "A" grade in the Used Hybrid/Electric category. Considering a used compact crossover SUV? J.D. Power's consumer review tool evidences that the 2013 RAV4 gets a 5 out of 5 rating on predicted reliability. Irregardless of the type of used vehicle you're looking for, there is valuable information available that will help you take the 'best guessing' out of the car buying equation.
Every used vehicle has a paper trail. Follow it. Start with the vehicle's registration documents to obtain the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). The VIN is a unique series of letters and numbers (17 characters long) assigned by the vehicle's manufacturer. The VIN will be located on the car's dashboard identification plate, on the doorpost, and on the engine firewall. The VIN on the automobile must exactly match that found on the vehicle's registration documents. Once you have confirmed the match, it's time to look into the car's insurance claims history. In British Columbia, ICBC has provided this free online tool to review the status assigned to a vehicle on the province's vehicle registry. Within minutes you can access whether an automobile is registered as normal, rebuilt, salvaged, altered or even classified as non-repairable. With that out of the way, you can proceed to request (from the seller) the documented history of maintenance, repairs, and service performed on the vehicle. If the vehicle has no service documentation for over one-year long periods (6-month preferred) you may have cause for concern.
3. Find Out if There is an Existing and Transferable Warranty (and is it enough)?
The previously owned vehicle that you're considering may have an existing manufacturer's warranty. Find out of if that warranty is transferable and will carry over to you. If it does, find out how many miles/km or years remain before it expires. If you're buying a car with an existing 80,000 mile (over 128,000 km) warranty and it has 20,000 miles (over 32,000 km) on it that's far more enticing than buying the same vehicle with 70,000 miles (over 112,000 km) on it. This may seem obvious, but it indeed plays into your next consideration - whether or not you should buy (or even have the option to buy) an extended warranty. For example, Toyota's Extra Care Protection plan for used vehicles is transferable and offers an unmatched level of confidence for those buying a previously owned vehicle. When the car (purchased directly from the owner) does not come with a transferable warranty the wise decision of purchasing a used automobile from a dealership comes into play (see item #6 below).
4. Judge a Used Car by its Cover
You can tell a lot about a previously owned vehicle by inspecting its exterior. The care provided it's surface speaks volumes about prior ownership and the implications that may lay within (engine, etc.). Check the paint. Are there noticeable chips, and/or scratches? Does it look like it's received a very recent yet somewhat unprofessional paint job? If so, was this done to cover up something such as rust? Remember, the color and finish should be an exact match on every panel. Rust can be covered up by paint in some instances, but also look at the hidden areas such as the wheel wells and rocker panels (beneath the doors) for oxidation concerns. The make of the vehicle can also hedge rust risk, so if your look at a RAV4 for (example) the knowledge that is manufactured with materials that inhibit the formation of rust makes a big difference. Also take a look at the windows. The tiniest nick in the pane can turn into a real pain weeks after taking over ownership, having you replacing an entire windshield and incurring unexpected expenses. On a similar token, inspect the light lenses and reflectors for cracks and give them a shake to see if they are on the verge of popping off. Pay close attention to the visual alignment of the fenders and doors to ensure that there are no misalignments of significant gaps, both of which are indicative of shoddy repair jobs.
A "surface level" inspection also involves the interior, which again speaks to the care given the automobile by the previous owner. First, check for odor within the car and trunk. It can be darn near impossible to get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke so open up the ashtray and take a peek. If the car smells of alcohol, you can assume the car may not have the best road record. Have a look at the upholstery for stains, rips, or scratches and lift up the rugs on both the driver and passenger sides. Don't forget to look up too. If you see stains on the roof (especially near the edges of the sunroof, where applicable) it's a safe bet that the roof leaks during bouts of rain.
5. Perform a Professional Functional Inspection
When buying from an unlicensed dealer (more on this in item #6 below) have your mechanic perform a complete inspection of all elements that impact the performance of the vehicle. Ensure that all bases are covered. Engine and transmission are a given, but also have the inspection "check all boxes" to include suspension, tire tread wear, pedals, brakes, axle, instruments and controls, hoses and belts, radiator (including fluid), battery, muffler, tailpipe, and even the auto-infotainment system. Finally, don't forget to check for the oldest and most unfortunate trick in the book - odometer manipulation. This article from CNN provides 10 tips to checking for odometer fraud.
6. The Car You're Looking for is at a Licensed Dealership
Purchasing a used vehicle from a dealership takes a lot of risk out of things. Private purchases, whether through Craiglist, Kijiji, or that friend of a friend who knows a guy, tend to be more risky and can leave a hole burning in your pocket. If you are looking for a used Toyota, every used car in our fleet goes through a meticulous 127-point inspection by our service department before being listed for sale. Our Toyota Certified Used vehicle program includes:
Minimum 12-month/20,000 km Powertrain and Roadside Assistance coverage
Warranty honoured at over 1,500 Toyota Dealers in Canada and the U.S.
We also recommend that you purchase an extended warranty when you buy a used Toyota from a licensed dealership. Warranties not only secure additional years of coverage on critical vehicle parts, it also ensures a better trade-in value on your next used, or new vehicle.
* See dealer for details
** 6 months / 8,000 km (whichever comes first)