Buying an older car: 5 tips


In 2018, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration said the average light vehicle driver put roughly 13,500 miles on their vehicle every year. In January of this year, consulting firm IHS Markit said the average U.S. vehicle was a record 12.1 years old. That puts the man in the middle in a 2010-model-year runabout with 163,350 miles.

The world’s current troubles have only exacerbated this, as people hold onto cars longer while waiting for prices to go down. Which means there are a lot of high-mileage cars out there.

And just like the three rules of buying real estate are location, location, location, the three rules of buying an old car are preparation, preparation, preparation.

Here are a few tips to help you bring home a peach instead of a project.

Tip #1: Research

Whether you want an old car because it fits your budget, your investment plans, or your style, booking a research date with the internet is the first thing to do after deciding on a make and model. Every car has its fan base somewhere, so you can find good buying guides and histories diving into the vehicle’s worth, what to look for, what to avoid, what it’s going to cost to keep running, what to fix or upgrade immediately after purchase.

If a seller mentions a car has been dealer-serviced, check the brand to see if you can get service records – some luxury brands do this. Spend the Benjamins on a CarFax for a car you’re really interested in, whether buying from a dealer or a private buyer. If a private buyer has receipts, great, but an objective third party is always a good call for an old car.

Find out where the car has spent its time. Did it spend a decade in the harsh, salty winters of the Northeast? Did it live outside in the paint- and rubber-destroying climate of the Southwest? Or has it been garaged all its life, but it “ran when parked?”

Finally, if there are title issues, especially with an out-of-state car, check with your bureau of motor vehicles and your insurance company to make sure you understand what you’re getting into.

Tip #2: The buyer’s guide

The Federal Trade Commission requires every dealer to put a Buyer’s Guide in every used car the dealer is selling — it’s usually taped to the window. Read it from top to bottom; the information and exclusions on the Guide supersede anything in the sales contract. If the Guide says there’s a warranty, the dealer is obligated to honor the warranty no matter what’s in the sales contract.

Tip #3: Choose the right test drive location or route

There’s a good chance you won’t meet the seller where the car spends most of its time parked. This means you won’t be able to check for easy tells like fluid stains under the engine. Put together our recommended kit to evaluate a used car, and either meet in a place that has bright light and enough shadow to cover the car, or take a test drive to such a location.

As for actually conducting the test drive, here’s a guide for how to do that.

Tip #4: Check fluids

You want the bright light to easily check for glass, paint, body, or rust issues, and under the hood. It’s easier to check the condition of belts and hoses – and the rubber on the pedals in the driver’s footwell – in good sunshine. Most important, you want to check every fluid and look for fluid leaks in the engine bay. The sunshine will ensure every fluid – oil, coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, all of it – is the color it should be.

Tip #5: Test all electronic features

You want the shadow to test all the vehicle’s electronic features like low- and high-beam headlights, adaptive headlights. Test every interior light, too, make sure all the illuminated buttons are illuminated. Test everything that starts with the word “power,” especially every seat function, and convenience features like cruise control, the backup camera, blind-spot monitoring, and steering-wheel heating.

If you’re looking at an EV or a plug-in hybrid with pure-electric driving range, ask the seller to make sure the battery pack is fully charged before you view the car. Ask the seller if he has a recent battery pack evaluation report from the dealer.


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