How to Test Drive a Used Car and Avoid Buying a Lemon

How do you know if that shiny used car you found online is a rolling chariot or a hopeless money pit? As an auto auctioneer for over 20 years, I've seen thousands of used cars worth more money dead than alive. Most are trade-ins and repossessions bought on the cheap, primped up, and retailed to unsuspecting consumers. Remember, scam artists and unethical sellers are as common on Craigslist these days as actual, decent sellers.

We already covered how to find a great used car; but now that you've found it, what next? The very worst thing you can do is be impulsive and buy with your eyes. Take a test drive, and I don't just mean one quick jaunt around the block. There's a specific method to getting the most out of a test drive, and you should start by taking things slow -- really slow.

Take things very slow on your test drive.

1. Slow down your movements and soak it all in

Think about inspecting a car like appreciating fine art. The more time you spend staying still and looking at a work of art, the more you notice. The same is true with a used car. Dents, dings, scuffs, and all the realities associated with abuse and neglect can easily be missed if you scan past them in an instant. I inspect over 10,000 vehicles a year, and every single time I inspect a used car, I consciously slow down my body movements. This helps my mind concentrate on what's in front of me.

Take a nice, slow walk around the car

2. Open every door and look for imperfections

Take your time, walk around the car, and slowly open each door, along with the trunk. Don't be afraid to open and close a door more than once if it just doesn't seem right. A door can have a loose hinge, but it can also have frame damage, a damaged locking mechanism, or even ripped mouldings that are designed to keep the water out. Look for things like water underneath the carpet. Examine the gaps and imperfections that are right in front of you. You may not be an expert, but that doesn't mean you can't get a good grasp of the vehicle’s qualities.

It's OK to ask important questions
Flickr/Michel Filion

3. Ask the owner questions, but don't be rude

Nobody likes to be given a Magical Mystery Tour of all the little things that are wrong on their older vehicle. Remember: this is a used car, after all. Find something wrong, or something that makes you suspicious about the car's history? It’s OK to ask a question, but not seventeen of them. When you meet the owner, be friendly, courteous, and polite. Do not try to "talk them down" on the price -- don't even mention money in the beginning. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no right to insult their car or their asking price. It's also bad for your business.

Playing with buttons only takes a minute or two
Flickr/Karlis Dambrans

4. Get in and start playing with the buttons. All of them.

The best time to test all the buttons and features is before you go on the open road. Go ahead and adjust the seat and mirrors, and begin testing each and every button (windows, radio, mirrors...). Take a minute or two and make sure they're all working properly.

Listen for weird noises under teh hood.

5. Start 'er up and pop the hood

When you start the vehicle, always check the air conditioning and the heat. If it takes more than 15 seconds for either one to work, make a note of it, since those repairs can be expensive and complicated.

Then walk out and open the hood. You're not a professional mechanic, but you can take note of what I call the big three: fluid levels, leaks, and sounds. When the vehicle is running, look at the coolant level, any oil build-up around the engine, and the transmission fluid dipstick which should measure "cold" on the lower divot on most vehicles. Listen for any ticking, rattling, or other abnormal noises. Not comfortable doing all that? An experienced mechanic who has looked at thousands of vehicles can lend you their eyes and ears later on.

Take a close look at the car's oil
Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker

6. Take a good, hard look -- and smell -- at the oil

Oil can tell you an awful lot -- unless the car has just been given an oil change. Remove the dipstick and admire those shades of brown: is it a pale, milky brown (blown head gasket, aka lots of money) or burnt, black, and tar-like (engine sludge)? You don't have to know it all. If it looks like the oil above, that's a good thing. Also check the oil level on the dipstick to make sure it's in the crosshairs between "ADD" and "FULL."

Check the power steering before you drive the car
Flickr/Rich Luhr

7. Check the steering before you drive

Before going on the road, lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the right and left. You shouldn't hear any strange noise or feel like you have to tug excessively on it. If the force is uneven, or there's a lot of resistance, the steering system may need anything from new hoses (less than $100) to a power-steering pump assembly ($200+) to a brand-new rack ($1,000+).

8. Test drive it with the windows up AND down

Make sure you drive the car with the windows open and closed, because both can help you identify unique issues. Listen for any unusual and repetitive sounds. And with the windows up, you can better hear any piping, pinging, and thumping sounds coming from the engine.

Do the tires seem to make noise? Is the transmission shifting hard? Are there groans or whistling noises as you go faster? You don’t have to figure them all out. But if the car doesn't sound right, more times than not it has a slight issue -- or something worse. Take about 20 minutes and make sure you drive it both in stop-and-go traffic and on the highway.

Brakes should feel linear and consistent
Flickr/Grant C (edited)

9. Pay special attention to the transmission and brakes

If the transmission feels like it’s jerking or shifting late, that's a GIANT red flag. Although some used cars can have their transmission mounts wear out, a lot of used cars, especially higher-mileage cars with continuously variable transmissions (known as CVTs), are notorious for their short life and high replacement cost.

What else? The brakes! Give the owner a heads-up, and then firmly (but not like an idiot!) test them out. The feel should be linear and consistent. If the brakes vibrate or have a squealing sound, either the brakes need to be replaced or have already been replaced with cheap components.

Always ask about getting a car inspected

10. Ask about an inspection

If the vehicle is not for you, thank the owner politely and let them know you need to look at a few more vehicles. If you still like it, there's one huge question you need to ask: "Can I have the vehicle inspected?" If the owner says no, you're done. Finished. Do not negotiate. Refusal of an inspection is the largest red flag there is. Do not fall in love with the car. Remember that there are over 230 million used cars in the United States -- plenty of other fish in the sea.

If, on the other hand, the seller agrees, you're on to the next step of the used-car-buying process: invest in the expertise of a true professional mechanic who can separate the keeper from the rolling money bomb that is a used-car lemon.

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Steven Lang is an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and former part-owner of an auto auction near Atlanta, Georgia. Feel free to reach him directly at his Facebook page which you can find here.