Smart Spending

21 Things To Look For When Buying a Car

Allison Martin
Written by Allison Martin

Congratulations! You’ve just been approved for an auto loan. Now, it’s time to start searching for the perfect ride. After test driving all the options on your list, you’re torn between several options.

Sounds familiar?

Well, there’s so much more to purchasing a car that spans beyond the test drive. Once you’ve secured financing, you’ll need to thoroughly analyze the car from top to bottom, inside out, to ensure it’ll be worth the investment.

New or Used?

In most instances, what you see is what you get when purchasing a used car. You’ll have the option of changing the paint color or purchasing more add-ons, but only once the deal is sealed.

On the other hand, a new car is another ball game. In most instances, you’ll have several options to choose from. Visit the manufacturer’s website to take an online tour of both the exterior and interior tour of the vehicle. You can also visit the local dealership to get an up close and personal look. But keep in mind that it’ll be chock full of all the bells and whistles, so it’s best to read the fine print to get an idea of what the base model includes. You may discover that the ride is not worth the asking price.

A 21-point Checklist

Since most new cars come with some sort of manufacturer’s warranty to give you a peace of mind, what you’ll be looking for will be cosmetic. By contrast, a bulk of used cars are sold as-is unless you are considering a Certified Pre-Owned vehicle from the dealership or the seller’s extended warranty is still valid and will transfer to you.

Here’s a checklist of things to look for when buying a car:

Exterior Features

      1. Body: Does the manufacturer offer the color or paint finish you’re looking for? If the car is used, is the body of the vehicle up to par or are there scratches and dents that could indicate major bodywork has been performed on the vehicle? The latter could indicate that the car was totaled in an accident and is not safe for the road.
      2. Hauling Capacity: Will you be transporting heavy objects? If so, you’ll need to inquire about the towing capacity. Also, examine the trunk space to ensure its adequate and confirm bicycle and/or luggage racks can be installed on the vehicle if they aren’t already present.
      3. Doors: Power doors are a huge plus for minivans since you’ll either be hauling tons of items or having children frequently enter and exit. Test them out to ensure they function properly.

      4. Windows and Glass: Do they roll up and down without a hitch or does the motor seem to be going out? Are there any cracks in the windshield?
      5. Lights: Are they fully-functional? In most vehicles, it’ll only cost you a few bucks to replace light bulbs. But select luxury cars are another story.
      6. Wheels and Tires: Is the vehicle equipped with premium alloy wheels or are you stuck with standard hubcaps? Most importantly, how’s the tire tread? Is the wear consistent on all four tires or do some appear to be a bit more worn than others? The latter could indicate infrequent rotation or excessive stress on the vehicle.

Interior Features

      7. Seats: Are the seats in stellar condition or do they reek of an unpleasant scent? Also, do they have heating and cooling capabilities. Temperature control is definitely a bonus, but it could come in handy when it’s freezing or extremely hot outside.
      8. Headliner: The headliner should be intact. If it’s sagging, this could be indicative of a leak when it rains.
      9. Cooling and Heating System: This may not seem like a big deal until the temperatures reach scorching highs or extreme lows, so test the cooling and heating system out before you seal the deal.
      10. Bells and Whistles: The list is practically endless with regards to interior features of both used and new vehicles. Some of the more popular interior features include:

      • Keyless entry, a feature that comes in handy if your hands are full of groceries or you simply wish to avoid having to whip out your set of keys each time you need to enter or exit the vehicle
      • Remote start, which enables you to crank up your car from afar
      • Entertainment, such as XM Satellite radio, navigation system or mobile wi-fi
      • Sunroof, but be sure there’s no wear around the edges of the glass or the rain will seep in and damage the interior of your vehicle.

While these are not essential for the vehicle to function at the optimal level, they may be worth considering if you have specific upgrades you are looking for in your next car. Click to the next page to read on.

Under the Hood

      11. Automatic or Manual: If you can’t drive a “stick shift”, it’s best to stick with automatic vehicles.
      12. Engine Type: Do you prefer a V4, V6, V8 or V12 engine?
      13. Drive Type: Is the vehicle a 4 Wheel Drive, All Wheel Drive or Rear Wheel Drive?
      14. Fluid Levels: Are the fluids at the proper level and free of debris?
      15. Belts: Do the belts appear worn or cracked?
      16. Leaks: Take a peek at the surface underneath the vehicle. Is there any evidence of an oil or fluid leak?
      17. Safety features: How did the car fare in the IIHS Safety test? Also, is it equipped with a backup camera, parking assist, brake assist, or any other premium safety features?

Additional Factors to Consider

      18. Reputation of the manufacturer: Is the track record of the manufacturer a positive one? This may be difficult to determine without conducting much research, but a quick online search of industry expert and consumer reviews will do the trick
      19. Gas mileage: If you’re on the road often, fuel efficiency is a factor you cannot afford to overlook.
      20. Service records: Can the previous owner provide the service records?
      21. Check the Carfax: This is a great way to get acquainted with the history of the vehicle.

A Final Thought

Pay close attention to how the vehicle rides during the test drive. And if possible, have a professional inspection conducted by the mechanic as he or she will be able to identify any major issues that could end up costing you a fortune.

Car owners, what did you wish you knew about your car before you bought it? Share below!

About the author

Allison Martin

Allison Martin

Allison Martin is a digital content strategist and personal finance junkie. Her work has appeared on on a number of reputable sites, including The Wall Street Journal, Investopedia, Daily Finance, MSN Money and Credit.com. She also travels around the nation facilitating financial literacy workshops for nonprofits, governmental organizations, colleges and universities.

15 Comments

  • This article reads like an advertisement – I kept waiting for the book pitch.

    Do your homework BEFORE you start talking to salesmen. To them, you are nothing but a dollar sign to be harvested.

    All you need:
    1) Arrange your financing BEFORE you go looking
    2) Car FAX
    3) Unless you are a competent mechanic, pay for one to check it out for you.

    Fail to do any one of the above three and you have no one to blame but yourself.

  • A good idea is to rent the car you’re thinking of buying. Go to your nearest Hertz and rent the car for the weekend. You’ll get a good idea of the workings, seat comfort, etc.

  • If your smart STAY AWAY FROM THE DEALERS ON RT22 IN NJ,you will be glad you did. They are the biggest bunch of thief and don’t give a hout about what they sell you,even if you can’t afford it. NEVER,NEVER,NEVER give any salesperson your Drivers Luc. Or Credit Card to go to the finance manager to check ,to check what,they now have control over you .you won’t leave without the item(s) they will get lost so you will sign any contract they put in front if you after a hour or so wIte.

  • I got taken for a ride by a used car company. I did my home work and googled the car then drove it home. I took it back next day. I found out first hand the car would get me KiLLED! I also found Others had complained to HONDA, and I LOVE HONDA, Who blew them off!! The sales man had hustled me. I stood my ground, and in the end, FORD
    Stood up and did the right think, they gave me every penny back! I now drive a used RAV 4 I bought from Another FORD dealer. I think
    my age may have helped, I would like to believe it was ETHICS!!
    One thing I found during my LONG
    TORTURE NOTHING has changed in the treatment and attitudes by car dealers when it comes to women, if any thing it is WORSE!!
    There is no amount of money that you could give me to get me back at a car dealership, new or used!! I pray this car can be good enough to be my LAST!! The BOTTOM LINE in car sales will ALWAYS BE, ” MAKE THE SALE AT ANY COST!!

  • I purchased a 2016 ford edge in Feb 2017 and the next month after the SUV needed to keep getting jump starts ,,,road side assistants was my new best friend it was not only embarrassing,but it was now an investment of something I really don’t want 4 attempts which is considered a lemon in the state of Illinois, I hired a lawyer and they want me to settle for 6,000 the car is 40k and 700.00 a month I was asking for a full refund and the lawyers seem to think this is a great deal I am an angry consumer who will never but or recommend this company to my worst enemy

  • Glad to see fitting a bicycle in the car was included. That’s the first thing I consider when choosing a car.
    2nd: is the steering wheel shape comfortable for hours-long driving (must NOT have a big fat spoke at the 6-o’clock position where my thumbs go!)
    3rd: it MUST HAVE a compass. This is one of my favorite features. I use the compass direction to help navigate, especially here in cloudy Seattle.

  • I wish I would have noticed that my new car doesn’t have exterior door locks. Nor a lock on the trunk. So if in the unfortunate event that my key fob takes a poop while I’m in the grocery store, I have no way to enter my car. The key wasn’t designed to get one inside the car.

    • Your vehicle should have a way to enter when your battery is dead. Check your key. Is there a button on it that you can push? A door key should be within the key which comes out of the remote to place in the driver’s door. Ask your local dealer for assistance if you can’t find this.

  • V4’s are so rare compared to transverse inline engines. Are we talking about some vintage, rare cars? Lost me there.
    Buy new and you won’t have these issues.

    • I bought a brand spanking new suv and two months into this expensive investment had to call road side asst. They could not find the problem, so I kept having to get a jump to get it going to drive it back to the dealership so dam embarrasing and it came off the,showroom floor.

  • I really wish my 19 year old granddaughter had seen this before she bought her car. First time buyer, got suckered into buying what looked good on the outside. She got a real Lemon and I understand Florida has no Lemon Law on used cars. She’s in a repair shop at least once a month from one week after the purchase.

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