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  • Test Drive a Used Car

    Whether you shop for a used car through a dealer or a private party, you will want to get behind the wheel and take the car for a spin. Individual owners may be reluctant to allow you to drive the car by yourself. If that is the case, agree to have them accompany you in the passenger seat but don't allow them to have a running conversation with you as you drive along. This is perhaps your only opportunity to really check the car out before you make a decision to buy or not.

    Dealers are accustomed to having people test drive their vehicles; they will have their own requirements for letting you behind the wheel. In either case, be sure to bring along your valid driver's license, another form of photo identification, and information on your insurance provider for good measure. Be sure to generally allow 20-30 minutes with you behind the wheel in order to get a full picture of the car's performance.

    You can print out a copy of a test drive worksheet so you won't forget what to check.

    Pre-Trip Inspection For Used Cars

    Before you even get into the vehicle, do a little preliminary check:

    • Are the tires in safe condition―no cracks, splits or excessive wear?

    As you slide into the driver's seat, there are a number of things to consider even before you turn on the ignition:

    • Is the car in overall good condition?
    • Are the seats, carpets, switches, mirrors and headliners all in acceptable shape?
    • Is the seat comfortable, evenly padded, in good repair, and adjustable?
    • Does the car provide the primary driver with an unobstructed 360-degree view?
    • Do the safety features work―horn, headlights, emergency brake, seat belts, and windshield wipers?

    During a Used Car Test Drive

    Once you have settled in, adjusted the seat and mirrors, and fastened your seatbelt, you can begin your actual road test:

    • Is the car easy to start?
    • Does it turn over on the first try?
    • Are the gears (manual transmission) easy to shift?
    • Is the clutch easy to engage with no abnormal sounds or hesitation?
    • In an automatic transmission, does the car move smoothly from gear to gear?
    • Is there any unusual noise or hesitation while changing gears?
    • Are the brakes strong?
    • Is there a pull to either side as you step on the brakes?
    • On the freeway, does the car have good acceleration?
    • Can it easily reach speeds in order to merge with the flow of traffic?
    • Do the turn signals work?
    • Is the car easy to maneuver during lane changes?
    • Are there any blind spots?
    • Does the cruise control work?
    • Around town, does the car handle well and idle steadily during stops?
    • Is the acceleration strong starting off on a green light?
    • Is the car easy to park in a number of types of parking spots?
    • Do the air conditioning and heating systems function properly?

    During a quiet moment, listen for any strange sounds:

    • Does the wind whistle through windows that can't quite close all the way?
    • If there is a moon or sunroof, is air coming through even when closed?

    Check the sound system, if that is an important feature to you:

    • Is the radio reception unclear?
    • Is the CD or DVD player functional? (You may want to bring one along just for a test.)

    Post-Trip Review Of Used Cars

    Back at the dealer lot or the seller's home, you should take a few minutes to walk around, crawl under, and pop the hood of the car. Check to see if there is any dripping fluid, smoke billowing from the exhaust system, or any build up of dirt and grime on and around the engine.

    If you are testing a car for sale by an individual, it is also good practice to ask to see their file of maintenance records and any receipts of auto parts and repairs. Most people keep many of these records, and if the seller claims not to have any at all, you may want to view the car with a degree of skepticism.

    Ask how long they have owned the vehicle―if they haven't owned it very long, request the previous owner's name and phone number and give them a call. There may be real reasons why the latest owner is disappointed with the car and wanting to sell it right away.

    Order A Vehicle History Report

    Regardless of whether you are shopping through an individual or a dealer, it is wise to jot down the Vehicle Registration Number (VIN) and run a vehicle history report through DMV.org. For a nominal fee these reports will provide you with a wealth of information on this unique vehicle.

    The report will show you if the car has a valid title, if the car has been involved in a serious accident (or flood or fire), how many times the vehicle has changed hands, and when and where the car was built. Knowing this information may not necessarily change your mind about buying the car, but at least you will have the facts from which to base your decision.

    Get A Mechanic's Inspection

    It is important to have any car you consider purchasing checked out by an independent mechanic. A reasonably priced diagnostic report can save you from buying a car that will cost you a lot of money down the road. Private owners won't usually balk at the idea of you taking the car to your local mechanic, but if they do, there are mobile units that will come to where the car is located.

    Sometimes car dealers will discourage you from taking the car to an independent mechanic; they may say that it is unnecessary because it has already been cleared by its own service department. If you trust the dealer, it may be enough to request a copy of the service department's findings, but now is the time to make a written list of any problems you have identified. Negotiating who will be responsible for the correction of these problems now becomes a bargaining chip when it comes to closing the deal.