How To Not Get Screwed When Buying A Used Car

In a perfect world, every car seller is perfectly honest and knows every fault with the car he or she is selling. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so here’s how to act and what to look for so you don’t get screwed buying a used car.

Donut Media put this little explainer video together with a number of excellent step-by-step points. The first would be that only dorkwads buy E36 M3s BMWs and real macho makers get E34 M5s. Haha, I kid. Seriously, here are their points.

  • Call The Owner: Ask about any leaks, vibrations, or noises. Ask if they have the car’s pink slip, if they smoke, or if they have a dog. Everything sound good? Cool.
  • Get The VIN: Run a CarFax on the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (it’s right at the base of the windshield) and find out it’s real mileage, history, and so on.
  • Bring A Bill Of Sale: You can print this off of your DMV’s website.
  • Be Normal: The seller isn’t your friend, so you’ll be asking things you normally wouldn’t ask about a car, but that’s totally normal. Be cool.
  • Look For Dents And Scratches: Remember these for bargaining later.
  • Check Under The Hood: Look under the hood for the engine oil level, the color of the brake fluid, and the color of the coolant. Then check the belts and hoses. They may be broken. Think about the time and cost to fix ‘em.
  • Check The Underside: When you check out the car, you really want to check the car. That means getting under it, which means bringing a working jack and two jack stands so the car doesn’t crush you. Look for cracks or welds down there. They mean the car has been in an accident. Look for cracked CV boots and ball joints. They mean they’re broken. Look at the shocks. If they’re old and grimy, they’re probably broken.
  • Check The Interior: Push every button, check every switch. Figure out what works and what’s broken before you buy.
  • Tell The Owner To Shut Up On The Test Drive: You should listen to the car and feel the car to check, again, on what’s broken. If it wallows around on bumps, the shocks are broken. If the revs rise when you stick it in fifth gear but the car doesn’t accelerate, the clutch is busted.
  • Ask Yourself If You Love The Car: Are all the repairs you are going to have to do worth it? Now is the time to ask yourself.
  • Bargain: Start low every time. Point out every flaw to the owner. Work towards something in the middle. Always.
  • Get All Your Documents Signed: Get the seller to sign everything owner then and there. The longer it waits, the harder it gets.

The idea is to learn what the car can tell you so that you don’t have to trust the inherently untrustworthy seller. If you do all these steps, you either buy a good car or walk away from a crapcan—but either way, you won’t get screwed.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



Check forums and popular vendors for buyers guides for certain cars with more details for what to watch for between years. I.e. Slee off-road has good buyers guides for land cruisers