5 Things Under the Hood Consumer Reports Recommends You Check Before Purchasing a Used Car

With many economists predicting that today’s high inflation rates will not be backing off any time soon, consumers may be best served with used cars rather than new ones. Used cars are generally less expensive upfront. But to avoid losing those cost savings to costly back-end repairs, it’s essential to have any used car inspected thoroughly before purchasing. Here are five things Consumer Reports notes you should pay extra attention to during a used car pre-purchase inspection.

Why pre-purchase inspections of used cars are essential

A person potentially looking for those things you should check before purchasing a used car under the hood.
Mechanic inspecting under the hood | Getty Images Photographed by Iya Forbes

If you get a used car, you can’t just rely on what the seller says. After all, their goal is to make money, and even if they don’t outright lie to you about a vehicle’s condition, they may stretch the truth a bit or leave out critical information. If a dealer or private seller senses you don’t know much about car mechanics, they could try to convince you that a pre-existing flaw is less severe than it is. It could be as soon as you drive it off the lot that you learn you’ve purchased a car with a serious and costly defect.

Sometimes, even honest sellers may not know a car has an issue. Used car dealers typically perform their own vehicle inspections and repairs, but their mechanics may miss something. Sometimes, when they spot a malfunctioning component or system, they may not repair it correctly. Alternatively, they may use the least expensive parts possible to maximize their profits or install only a temporary fix.

You may think these scenarios could be farfetched if you’ve never bought a used car. But they are so common that multiple states have passed so-called “Lemon Laws” that punish dealers and private sellers for knowingly selling consumers vehicles with serious defects.

Dealers and sellers who have violated these laws may be subject to fines and lawsuits from you and other affected consumers. But it takes a long time to recover your money from legal action. Instead, it’s best to be sure that you’re not buying a seriously defective vehicle in the first place.

What you need to know about before you buy a used car

Before you buy any used car, you’ll want to have a third-party mechanic inspect it for the following five areas. If defects exist in any of these areas, you risk expensive post-purchase repairs, mechanical breakdowns, and even accidents.

Consumer Reports urges prospective used car buyers to make sure a trained professional does a deep dive under the hood. However, if that’s not an option, Consumer Reports recommends you check these areas:

  1. Hoses: You’ll want to ensure the hoses are firm, not brittle, or they could crack or leak while operating your vehicle.
  2. Belts: Check your belts to make sure they have not begun to splinter. Otherwise, your car could break down immediately while driving.
  3. Fluids: Inspect your fluids to ensure they are the appropriate color and texture. If, for example, your engine oil is gritty, that could signal an engine problem.
  4. Radiator: Your coolant should look green or orange. If it looks rusty or milky, your radiator is faulty.
  5. Battery: You’ll want to ensure your battery is early in its working life, has no corrosion around the edges, and can take any appropriate charge.

Of course, if you’re getting an EV or PHEV, the battery is one of the first components you should examine. Don’t just examine the battery but also your dashboard metrics of its health to ensure it can be monitored accurately while operating.

Buying “As Is” vs. Certified Pre-Owned

Now, if you’re going to get a used vehicle, you need to know the difference between buying “As Is” and “Certified Pre-Owned” (CPO). When you buy a car As Is, you’re acquiring it with no implied assurance that it will function as well as one might reasonably expect. You buy As Is, and you’re taking on the vehicle and all its problems while relieving the seller from any expected duty to fix it if a problem occurs after purchase.

When buying As Is, you should know exactly what problems you’re taking on. Doing so makes pre-purchase inspections absolutely critical. If you get a car As Is, fail to have it inspected beforehand, and within a few weeks, the engine fails, it will be more difficult to get compensation. You’d have to prove the dealer or seller knew about the defect and did not address it.

By contrast, CPO vehicles have relatively low mileage and have been reconditioned to meet a certain standard by the manufacturer. A CPO vehicle has a warranty that covers certain repairs, though the terms vary depending on the vehicle, automaker, and sales terms. CPOs generally are a bit more than used cars sold As Is, though less than new cars.

Other key components you’ll want to have examined

It’s also a good idea to take a peak around at a few other components that can be easily spotted. For example, if the tailpipe is greasy or blackened, it could be the result of burnt oil. A rusty tailpipe could signal an exhaust system needing replacement.

Also, check under the car for any leaks, cracks, or splits. Any of these three means you could be in for expensive repairs. You’ll want to have the dealer or seller make repairs before purchasing the vehicle or move on to another prospective purchase.

Even if you’re a DIYer and feel you can do these inspections on your own, it’s always best to have a third-party mechanic take a look at each vehicle you’re considering. They will likely find some areas of concern you don’t, especially if you’re really excited about getting a particular car you’ve found for sale.

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